Expressive Language Disorders
A person with an expressive language disorder (as opposed to a mixed receptive/expressive language disorder) understands language better than he/she is able to communicate. In speech-language therapy terms, the person’s receptive language (understanding of language) is better than his/her expressive language (use of language). This type of language disorder is often a component in developmental language delay (see section on this disorder). Expressive language disorders can also be acquired (occurring as a result of brain damage/injury), as in aphasia (see section on aphasia). The developmental type is more common in children, whereas the acquired type is more common in the elderly. An expressive language disorder could occur in a child of normal intelligence, or it could be a component of a condition affecting mental functioning more broadly (i.e. mental retardation, autism).
Expressive Language Disorder is a learning disability affecting communication of thoughts using spoken and sometimes basic written language and expressive written language. This disorder involves difficulty with language processing centers of the brain. Expressive language disorders can result from inherited conditions or may be caused by brain injuries or stroke.
Children with expressive language delays often do not talk much or often, although they generally understand language addressed to them. For example, a 2 year old may be able to follow 2-step commands, but he/she cannot name body parts. A 4 year old may understand stories read to him/her, but he/she may not be able to describe the story even in a simple narrative. Imaginative play and social uses of language (i.e. manners, conversation) may also be impaired by expressive language limitations, causing difficulty in playing with peers. These are children who may have a lot to say, but are unable to retrieve the words they need. Some children may have no problem in simple expression, but have difficulties retrieving and organizing words and sentences when expressing more complicated thoughts and ideas. This may occur when they are trying to describe, define, or explain information or retell an event or activity.
In school-aged children, expressive language difficulties may be evident in writing as well. These children may have difficulties with spelling, using words correctly, composing sentences, performing written composition, etc. They may express frustration because they recognize that they cannot express the idea they wish to communicate. These children may become withdrawn socially because they cannot use language to relate to peers.
People with expressive language disorders may understand what is said to them or written in passages, but they have substantial difficulty communicating. They have difficulty with language processing and the connection between words and ideas they represent. Some people may also have problems with pronunciation of words.
Some students with expressive language disorders may also have difficulty with receptive language.
In a more severely affected child, delays may be evident in early milestones. For example, in typically developing children, a vocabulary of first words is emerging between the ages of 10-18 months, two-word phrases are produced around the ages of 18-24 months, with 2-3 word phrases emerging in their second year of life, and around the age of 3 years, children speak in 3-4 word sentences, engage in simple conversation, and begin asking questions in more adult-like ways (i.e. “Can we go?” instead of “Me go?”).
In more mildly impaired children, delays may not be evident until school begins. Issues may be seen in academics or in oral expression for more complicated language tasks. He may begin to have difficulties as schoolwork becomes more difficult (i.e. writing sentences or short stories, summarizing information, answering questions in class). Older children (i.e. middle, high school) face difficulties with the challenges of their more advanced school work (i.e. taking notes, written or oral reports/essays, etc.).
As mentioned in the section on developmental language disorders, these children may act out in school, or in later school years and reject learning completely without help. Also, as mentioned in the section on developmental language disorders, expressive language disorders do not disappear with time. A speech-language pathologist can best diagnose an expressive language disorder. Parents and classroom teachers are in key positions to help in the evaluation as well as in the planning and implementation of treatment. Other professionals involved in assessment and treatment, especially as related to academics, include educational therapists, resource specialists, and tutors.
Evaluation can provide information to help educators develop effective strategies. Typical strategies focus on language therapy to develop the important concepts necessary to communicate. Vocabulary development, rehearsal, and practice of using language in social situations are often helpful therapeutic methods.
Students with substantial communication disorders may require extensive specially designed instruction on their IEPs. Language processing disorders may play a role in dyslexia and autism.
People with Expressive Language Disorder may appear less capable than they really are because they cannot effectively express themselves. Except in rare cases, their understanding of language and subjects in school is often as well-developed as that of other learners their age.
Diagnostic writing and speech/language tests can be used to determine what specific types of language difficulty are affecting the learner’s communication skills. Through observations, analyzing student work, cognitive assessment, and occupational therapy evaluations, speech pathologists and teachers can develop individualized therapy and education programs that will help the student learn.
What To Do Next:
Expressive Language Disorders – If you believe you or your child has an Expressive Language Disorder and may have a learning disability that requires special education, contact your school principal or counselor for information on how to request an assessment. For students in college and vocational programs, their school’s advising office can assist with finding resources to help ensure their success. Students with expressive language deficits and other learning disabilities will need to develop self-advocacy skills.
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