Students with learning disabilities often have difficulties with the mechanical and social uses of language (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2003). Specific mechanical deficits difficulties are often present in the three different areas (Gargiulo, 2004).

Syntax. Rule systems that determine how words are organized into sentences

Semantics. Word meanings

Phonology. The study of how individual sounds make up words

Language deficits are found in the areas of oral expression and listening comprehension. These two areas control our ability to communicate with others, and therefore a deficit in either or both can have a major impact on the quality of life of a child with a learning disability, as well as his or her life in education (Smith et al., 2004). Studies have found that more than 60% of students with LD have some type of language disorder (Bryan, Bay, Lopez-Reyna, & Donahue, 1991).

Oral Language Problems

Students with LD frequently experience difficulties with oral expression—a problem that can affect both academic and social interactions. Common problems associated with oral language include the following.

  • Choosing the appropriate word. Children with LD will often use a less appropriate word because the right word will not come to them.
  • Understanding complex sentence structures
  • Responding to questions
  • Difficulties in retrieving words. The response rate of children with learning disabilities may be slower than that of their nondisabled peers, and they may speak more slowly.

Listening Comprehension Problems

Listening problems can also be misinterpreted. A child with a disability in listening demonstrates that disability in a negative way, for example, by failing to follow directions or by appearing oppositional or unmotivated. A teacher's careful observation and assessment of a student's language ability is important for ensuring the student's success (Smith et al., 2004).

Problems with Pragmatics

One aspect of oral expression that is receiving increased attention is pragmatics, the functional use of language in social situations. Researchers note that children with learning disabilities sometimes experience communication problems in social settings (Bryan, 1998). Research in the field of children with language–learning disabilities has begun to focus more and more on the area of pragmatics. Simply stated, pragmatics is the use of language in social situations. Children with learning disabilities often have problems with social conversations. These students may exhibit the following characteristics.

  • Need extra time to process incoming information
  • Not understand the meaning of the words or sequences
  • Miss nonverbal language cues
  • Not understand jokes
  • Laugh inappropriately or at the wrong times
  • Have difficulty doing group work
  • Have difficulties giving or following directions
  • Have conversations marked by long silences
  • Not be skilled in responding to statements
  • Not be skilled at responding to questions
  • Have a tendency to answer their questions
  • Make those with whom they talk feel uncomfortable (Hallahan & Kauffman, 2003)

Participating in conversations with friends can be especially troublesome for someone with a learning disability. The ebb and flow that is characteristic of conversations may elude them, and nonverbal language clues may also be overlooked. In short, many individuals with learning disabilities are not good conversationalists (Gargiulo, 2004). They have great difficulties trying to engage in the mutual give and take that conversation between two people requires.