Many kids end up getting labelled as dyslexia.  This is going out of fashion – it is more common to see a student diagnosed with a learning disability or a reading disability, or a specific learning impairment.

The reason it’s termed a “learning disability” is that the student has shown adequate intelligence or cognitive skills and ability to learn other subject areas. However, there is difficulty learning a specific skill such as reading, writing or spelling. Hence the term “Specific Learning Impairment” or “Specific Learning Disability in reading and writing”.

Consider that the diagnosis is reflective of the chosen assessment process and underlying theory of what reading is and how the brain learns to read.

In my practice, I like to do a comprehensive language assessment regardless of whether a student has a previous diagnosis or previous assessment. One of the first things that I do is assess a student’s language skills.

Many people are unaware that the brain processes language across two separate and distinct levels.  And we can (and must!) assess BOTH of these levels to truly know how a student will function with language.

One level is the Sentence/Discourse level of processing. This is “Big Picture” processing – getting the big ideas/main ideas – processing the content and context, processing vocabulary, and processing the meaning of words that are situated in sentences, paragraphs, discourse, stories, etc. 

Most students are doing pretty well at processing this level of language. If they aren’t, they are often identified quite early on because students who don’t process this level of language very well may not communicate in full sentences or they don’t comprehend what is being said to them. This is usually noticeable to parents and teachers. So, these students are identified fairly early and given intervention early.   Students with intact sentence/Discourse level processing can follow directions, they can communicate in full sentences, and demonstrate adequate vocabulary growth.

However, there is another level of language processing that is much more insidious.  It is less-frequently assessed and even more less frequently intervened on. This is the level of word structure – Sound/Word level of language processing.  This level of processing operates on words in isolation and the sub-word level.  It requires word structure analysis – looking at the “units” or “features” of words such as sounds, syllables, and affixes.

These skills are important when children are first learning to speak.  They are necessary for developing speech and first building vocabulary.  In preschoolers, delays in this area are more evident.  However, quite often it seems like children “grow out of it” when in fact they just learn to compensate by using stronger skills at the higher level of language processing.  As they learn more words and can understand and use words in context, they spend less time processing at the sound/word level.  Often this level of processing contributes to speech delays.  While the speech may be corrected with therapy, there is still often an underlying problem in processing language – processing the sounds of words.

The Sound/Word level of processing is not very important for children to operate in conversation; however, it becomes very important as children begin literacy development.  When learning to read and spell, children must process letter-by-letter, syllable by syllable, suffix-by-suffix, sound-by-sound, and chunk-by-chunk.

This is where difficulty with that Sound/Word level of language processing becomes very apparent. So, when a child walks into my office and parents are reporting difficulty with reading or writing or spelling, one of the first things I want to look at it how well they are processing the Sound/Word level of language.

Some of the first activities we do in our language assessment are sub-tests examining how well children can break words into syllables and accurately perceive and identify sounds within words.  The effective analysis of word structure is CRUCIAL for reading development.

Note that these children often have a diagnosis of a “reading disability” and they’re having difficulty with letter-based tasks such as reading, spelling, and writing. 

Yet, the first thing that I’m doing is assessing their ability to do analysis of words – independently of letters.  I’m saying things words aloud and getting them to respond about what they hear – there are no LETTERS involved in this first part of the assessment. What we are assessing here are the prerequisite or precursor foundational skills needed for Reading Writing and spelling to develop.

I’m assessing their ability to hear and analyze the spoken segments of words.  Without the ability to do a fast and accurate analysis of the sound structure inside of words, the brain simply cannot make any sense of how the letters on the kids are supposed to represent the sound of words.

If you are not accurately processing everything you hear – the sounds and syllables in words – then you are not accurately processing SPOKEN LANGUAGE.

This is a language disorder.  And this is the root of the difficulty or “disability”.  And it really has very little to do with READING – There are LANGUAGE PROCESSING skills that are lacking!

These language skills are foundational or necessary for reading, writing, and spelling to develop.  The underlying language disorder describes and accounts for the difficulty in reading, writing, and spelling.

These language skills have likely never been assessed and they’ve likely never been practiced. 

So, I ask you – is there a reading disability? Or is there a teaching disability?

Is this a Specific Learning Impairment – or did you just assess the wrong things or not assess enough things to discover the true root or source of the reading, spelling, and writing difficulty?

As an analogy, would you take a child who has never been swimming lessons and throw her off into the dock, and then describe her as having a “swimming disability”?

The underlying theory and the chosen assessment leads to a diagnosis of “learning disability”; however, if there is a problem processing all elements of spoken language, then a language disorder is a better term to describe what is happening.  

The good news? Rather than a label that seems like a life sentence such as “Learning Disability”, difficulties with language processing can be addressed by language therapy.

Reading, writing, and spelling are skill-based tasks.  The skills that are needed are language skills.  When we teach the needed language skills, children become able to process oral language and then able to process visual language.

What do I mean by that? When people talk to us, we process language and access what we know about words and language in the language processing part of the brain. Information comes to the language processing part of the brain through our ears.

Children learn to read, write, and spell by learning to access the language processing centre of the brain through the eyes. In other words, information comes to the language processing part of the brain through the eyes.

We don’t want to teach children to memorize words and to try to store words in our visual memory system; it is inadequate, and inefficient. 

We can store thousands upon thousands of words in our vocabulary centre in our brain.  This is where we need to store our vocabulary words.   The process of teaching reading, writing, and spelling is the development of a “visual vocabulary” – a set of words that are instantly recognized and processed through the eyes.  However, be clear – the words are still processed in the language processing part of the brain. 

When we listen, language information enters the brain through our ears and is processed in the language centre.  When we read, language information enters the brain through the eyes and is processed in our language centre. 

The research is very clear on how this our visual vocabulary forms. The brain does a fast and accurate analysis of the sounds of words – the sequence of sounds that represent the pronunciation or spoken form of the word.  From that analysis of the sounds, the letters on the page can “map” or – a get “hooked onto” those sounds. 

Without a rapid and accurate analysis of the spoken sequence – the auditory segments that make up the word – there are no “hooks” for the letters to hang on.  So-called “sight words” or visual vocabulary words will form when there are hooks to hang those letters on. This is when visual representations of words begin to get stored. 

When there is difficulty in the speed of processing OR the accuracy of processing the spoken segments of words then a visual vocabulary does not form.  Printed words not get stored permanently in the brain.

Does your child or student struggle with word identification, reading speed, reading accuracy, spelling, or writing?  I strongly urge you to get a comprehensive language assessment that examines both the Sound/Word level and the Sentence/Discourse level of language processing. 

It is a sure-bet that you will discover some challenges in processing spoken language that explain the difficulties in reading, spelling, and writing.  And, these are SKILLS that we are assessing – skills that can be trained and practised!  Once language processing improves, the next steps in language development can emerge.  Once there is a strong oral language foundation, visual or written language skills can develop. 

Not sure where to start?  Speak to a Speech – Language Pathologist at Speak2Read to get started!