Specific Learning Disabilities and the Language of Learning

Posted on April 04, 2014

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Specific Learning Disabilities and the Language of Learning:

Explicit, Systematic Teaching of Academic Vocabulary

What is academic language?

Academic language is the language of textbooks, in classrooms, and on tests.  It is different in structure and vocabulary from the everyday spoken English of social interactions.  Many students who speak English well have trouble comprehending the academic language used in high school and college classrooms. The main barrier to student comprehension of texts and lectures is low academic vocabulary knowledge.  Academic lectures and texts tend to use longer, more complex sentences than are used in spoken English.

Is academic language important?

  • Primary tool of interacting and learning.
  • Skilled reading by third grade also depends upon the development of extensive word knowledge (vocabulary).
  • Vocabulary at age 3 is an accurate predictor of poor performance in listening, speaking, semantics, syntax, and reading comprehension skills by age 9 (Hart & Risley, 1995).
  • First-grade children from high social economic status have two times the vocabulary of lower SES children (Graves, Brunetti & Slater, 1982).
  • High knowledge third grade children have vocabularies equal to the lowest-performing twelfth graders (Smith, 1941).
  • On average, less than 4% of a typical students day is spent in explicit vocabulary instruction. (Dutro and Moran, 2003; Gersten & Baker, 2000; Scarcella, 1996).
  • On average, less than 2% of a typical student’s day is spent in practicing/using academic language (Dutro and Moran, 2003; Gersten & Baker, 2000; Scarcella, 1996).
  • Many students with language needs struggle with receptive language (information in), which limits understanding of teacher-taught concepts and instruction. Weak listening skills, coupled with inadequate expressive language practice (information out) do not provide a firm foundation for independent reading of text or math word problems and their solutions. In addition, vocabulary and background knowledge weaknesses contribute to low performance.
  • Language impairments interfere with academics, social, and vocational development.
  • Students don’t outgrow problems and do not catch up without targeted intervention
  • Early intervention is crucial.

Is there a correlation between specific learning disabilities (SLD) and academic language?

The short answer is an overwhelming YES! Consider the definition of SLD, unchanged since 1968:

“A disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations…” (Utah State Board of Education Special Education Rules, (2007), p. 10

Specific learning disabilities are language-based learning problems that inhibit a wide range of learning, both in and out of school, and have lifelong consequences if not identified early.

Is there a correlation between SLD, dyslexia and academic language?

Again, the answer is YES! The International Dyslexia Association (2003) defines dyslexia as:

[A] Specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities and the provision of effective classroom instruction. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge (Lyon et al. 2007).

Dyslexia is not one of the thirteen disabling conditions recognized by IDEA or the Utah State Board of Education Special Education Rules. It is clearly mentioned, however, as a specific learning disability. A quality, comprehensive diagnostic assessment for SLD will identify cognitive and achievement correlates typical of children diagnosed with dyslexia, which should inform educators, and lead to better learning outcomes for these children.

Can a comprehensive assessment for SLD (such as data provided by the Woodcock-Johnson III, tests of cognitive and achievement abilities (WJ III) also be helpful in identifying a reading disability?

YES! A quality, comprehensive assessment for SLD provides measures related to the five areas of reading achievement and the cognitive correlates:

Key Areas of Reading WJ III ACH WJ III COG
Phonemic Awareness Sound Awareness Auditory Processing(Phonetic Coding)Long-Term Retrieval(Associative Memory& Naming facility)Processing Speed(Perceptual Speed)Short-Term Memory(Working Memory &Memory Span)Comprehension-KnowledgeFluid Reasoning

Cognitive Fluency


Phonics(Decoding, Alphabetic Principle) Letter-Word IdentificationWord AttackSpelling of SoundsSpelling
Fluency Reading Fluency
Vocabulary Reading VocabularyPicture VocabularyAcademic Knowledge
Comprehension Passage ComprehensionReading VocabularyOral ComprehensionUnderstanding DirectionsStory Recall

 A comprehensive assessment helps explore and document strengths and weaknesses

  • What are the individual’s specific cognitive strengths and weaknesses?
  • What are the individual’s specific academic strengths and weaknesses?
  • Can the cognitive abilities help explain the academic problems?

Provides Intra-Ability Variation Procedures

  • Intra-cognitive
  • Intra-achievement
  • Intra-individual

Helps document if achievement is commensurate with ability.

Ability/Achievement Discrepancy Procedures

  • GIA/Achievement (Use full scale GIA-Std or GIA-Ext to predict achievement)
  • Predicted Achievement/Achievement  (Use the most relevant cognitive abilities to predict achievement-based on differential weighting of COG Tests 1-7)
  • GIA/Selected Cognitive Abilities
  • Oral Language Ability/Achievement (Use the Oral Language-Extended cluster to predict achievement)

An excellent discussion on Cognitive Processing and the WJ III data for Reading Disability (dyslexia) Identification can be found HERE> http://essentialeducator.org/wp-admin/post.php?post=14963&action=edit&message=1

The achievement gap is an academic vocabulary gap

There is justifiable concern regarding the gap between the academic performances of the most proficient learners vs. the least proficient. The good news is that schools that are actively addressing less proficient populations are making slow progress towards the goal of all students proficient in reading, writing, and mathematics. The not so good news is that despite targeted interventions within a response to intervention (RTI/MTSS) approach, some of the most resistant learners continue to fall behind. Many from this group resistant to more intensive instruction are represented by three categories of learners: 1) English Language Learners, 2) Students with specific learning disabilities, and 3) Students from impoverished backgrounds. The common characteristic of these three groups is the need for explicit academic vocabulary instruction.

“There is a clear consensus among literacy researchers that accelerating vocabulary growth is a critical and often neglected component of a comprehensive reading program” (Baumann & Kame’enui, 2004; NICHD Report of the National Reading Panel, 2000). Numerous studies have documented the strong and reciprocal relationship between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1987; Beck et al., 2002; Graves, 2002; Baker et al., 1995) as well as general reading ability (Stanovich et al., 1984). Research focused on school-age language learners similarly concludes that vocabulary knowledge is the single best predictor of their academic achievement across subject matter domains (Saville-Troike, 1984; Scholastic Professional Paper: Narrowing the Language Gap: The Case for Explicit Vocabulary Instruction, Feldman, K., & Kinsella, K., 2004)

Who requires systematic, explicit academic vocabulary instruction?







Language emerging Low vocabulary Direct vocabulary instruction


Language different Low vocabulary Direct vocabulary instruction


Language deprived Low vocabulary Direct vocabulary instruction



Language disability Low vocabulary Direct vocabulary instruction

Academic language that is not understood is just noise (Krashen & Terrell, 1983)

English Language Learners (ELLs) require academic language instruction, as they may be considered academically deprived in English-only classrooms. This would be expected when we consider when learning concepts are presented/taught in English, and that even in math, where word problems are rarely translated. A common misconception among educators is that “we only have a few of those kids in our school/district.”  As of 2012, the percentage of minority children in Utah account for 25% of the school population. Utah has the third fastest growing minority population of all states, represented primarily by individuals of Hispanic origin.

The majority of students qualified and served in special education, particularly those qualified as having specific learning disabilities (SLD) require explicit academic vocabulary instruction to make adequate progress in all content areas. Of the thirteen special education categories, specific learning disabilities alone represent the largest percent of the special education total. Essential to understanding SLD is this part of the federal definition, which states: Specific Learning Disabilities are:

“A disorder … involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations…”

Although some students with SLD are also English Language Learners, the majority are monolingual English speakers who struggle with either/and receptive and/or expressive academic language. These are true language-based disabilities that negatively affect learning across subjects.

Another significant population of school-age children and youth are those living in poverty. Again, there is some statistical overlap in this group with ELL and SLD. However, a major marker characteristic of low SES populations is low academic vocabulary and low background knowledge. Instead of accepting that one’s school only has a few of those and a few of these, consider the percentage of students who require explicit academic instruction as an aggregate group who require sheltering academic language and would universally benefit from direct academic vocabulary.

Fill in the blanks. What does your school/district look like? What percentage of your school population requires sheltered instruction/explicit academic vocabulary instruction to close the achievement gap between these aggregate groups and the Anglo population?

            %                                                %                                              %                                                           %

         Pre-K                          Low SES                         ELL                                    SLD (including Dyslexia)

Language                               Language                                 Language                                            Language

Emerging                               Deprived                                  Different                                            Disability

The importance of academic vocabulary knowledge on achievement

Consider normal language acquisition, which requires developmental mastery of four levels of language: 1) Listening, 2) Speaking, 3.) Reading, and 4) Writing.  Each level requires mastery and mastery requires explicit instruction and adequate practice. Academic vocabulary acquisition for these groups is not automatic and is not easily discovered. Developmentally, students cannot go directly from mastery in listening to mastery of writing without adequate practice and mastery of the important language steps of speaking and reading. Each step builds on the previous step; yet, students with the greatest need for language often receive the least instruction.

  • You cannot write what you cannot read
  • You cannot read what you cannot speak
  • You cannot speak what you cannot listen to and process

Academic language demands in the new Utah Core (SAGE)

Besides changes to the test format from the old Utah CRT, perhaps the biggest changes are the exponential increase in receptive and expressive vocabulary required. Test passages are longer, more complex and diverse in text structure, and higher levels of academic language are required. In math questions, students are expected to read, comprehend, solve, and defend their answers in written format (highest of all language levels). Consider the level of receptive vocabulary in this 3-4 grade math example:

Or, this sample 9th grade language arts question, asked after the student reads a long, stylistic passage with 14 paragraphs full of inferences and specialized vocabulary


Might we expect higher or lower proficiency rates with the new SAGE tests, due to higher academic language requirements? Each of the most at-risk groups has a similar need for academic language instruction and all should respond to the same set of validated instructional practices. What are the implications for districts, schools, teachers, children and adolescents? Is it possible that the achievement gap between students with high academic language will perform better than those with low vocabulary, and that the gaps between subgroups may grow? Might this be the Mathew Effect, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?

How to assess for academic vocabulary proficiency?

Speech language pathologists (SLPs) have many standardized tools at their disposal to assess vocabulary.  However, SLPs rely on accurate and relevant school-based data and norm-referenced measures of academic achievement in addition to specific speech-language probes and norm-referenced speech-language tests to conduct a comprehensive assessment of a student’s language skills (Taylor, 2014). Special educators who use the Woodcock-Johnson III (and WJ IV) suite of assessments do as well. The challenge is that students with reading and written expression difficulties are typically referred for testing in these (symptom) academic areas, without considering that the underlying foundational problem could be oral language weaknesses. If educational professionals do not consider and perhaps assess for oral language, diagnostic errors can occur and less than optimal intervention decisions made that produce less than ideal outcomes.

In the WJ III, academic language is measured by: 1) Comprehension-Knowledge cluster in the cognitive battery, and 2) In the oral language subtests in the achievement battery, 3) By the oral language/achievement discrepancy procedure, and 4) By CALPS scores. In the WJ IV available in the fall of 2014, there will be a separate and extended battery of tests to measure oral language. The WJ III measures of academic language include:

  • Receptive oral language subtests #4 Understanding Directions and # 15 Oral Comprehension.
  • Expressive oral language subtests #3 Story Recall, and # 14, Picture Vocabulary


When oral language subtests and clusters are administered, the Compuscore program automatically generates a cognitive academic language proficiency skills score (CALPS). CALPS indicates higher order academic language skills necessary for success in content areas. CALPS represents deeper levels of processing including analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. CALPS scores are only generated for those subtests and clusters requiring high levels of oral language, typical of reading, writing, and applied mathematics skills. Low CALPS scores represent a detrimental effect on a student’s achievement, and their oral language needs should be addressed as an essential part of their programming


 SLD is defined as “a disorder in one or more basic psychological processes, involving language, either written or spoken…” The WJ III basic psychological process that most closely measures language and culture is the Comprehension Knowledge cluster score. Comprehension knowledge develops as a result of learning in the context of a particular culture, and relies heavily on adequate academic language and environmental stimulation and prior educational experiences specific to the mainstream culture. This cognitive cluster has the highest correlation to academic vocabulary of all 7 basic psychological processes measured, and is the psychological process most challenging for individuals living in poverty, for English Language Learners, and for students with specific learning disabilities.

3. When the WJ III extended cognitive and oral language achievement batteries are administered, the Compuscore automatically generates several discrepancy comparisons. One important comparison is called the oral language/achievement discrepancy procedure. In this metric, the oral language cluster score becomes the predictor, and measured against achievement clusters requiring high levels of oral language. If the oral language score is significantly higher than the achievement score measured, intensified instruction in that academic area is indicated. However, if the oral language score is significantly lower than the achievement area measured, sheltered and supplemental instruction in oral language is indicated which will have a positive effect on reading, written expression, and applied math.


Oral language intervention: What does not work?

  1. Looking up words in the dictionary.

Consider the term numerical taxonomy. Consult your Webster’s Dictionary for the definition and try to make meaning of: “Taxonomy that applies the quantitative measurement of many characters to the determination of taxa and to the construction of diagrams indicating systematic relationships-numerical taxonomic-numerical taxonomist” This does not work, as the definition requires understanding of many more unfamiliar words and contexts that low-language learners do not have. Teachers utilizing this approach may expect an increase in frustration, behavior, and continued failure.

  1. Using written context to figure out word meanings.

Using written context to figure out word meanings is problematic, as many language challenged students are not proficient, fluent readers, and there is a direct connection between low reading fluency and poor reading comprehension. In other words, “Just read more that you do not understand either” does not help. Students with a history of failure and frustration in reading comprehension will never discover meaning without external supports and routines.

  1. Unplanned, associative vocabulary teaching.

Unplanned, non-direct teaching of vocabulary alone is not effective.  Vocabulary is seldom “caught”, and needs to be explicitly taught to be learned.  Multiple, diverse exposures to new vocabulary are needed if new words are to be truly known. If vocabulary is best learned from a students’ environment, there would be little need for schools or teachers.

What does work? Visible Learning, (Hattie, 2009), is a meta-analysis of what works best, and ranks strategies/interventions in order from most effective (strategy #1) too least effective and even harmful to learning #138). The higher the effect size, the greater “bang for the buck” most highly correlated to accelerated student learning.  An effect size of .40 or greater indicates that visible, meaningful learning will occur. Consider these research-evidenced strategies involving explicit receptive and expressive academic language instruction:

  • Systemic, explicit academic vocabulary instruction, .67 effect size (#15/138)
  • Piagetian Programs, 1.28 effect size (#2/138)
  • Providing formative evaluation, .90 effect size (#3/138)
  • Micro Teaching, 88 effect size (#4/138)
  • Teacher clarity, .75 effect size (#8/138)
  • Reciprocal teaching, .73 effect size (#9/138)
  • Feedback, .73 effect size (#10/138)

And these that do NOT work:

  • Student control over learning, .04 effect size (# 132/138)
  • Whole language, .06 effect size, (#129/132)
  • Class size, .21 effect size, (105/138)

Choosing vocabulary words to teach explicitly

Authors Feldman and Kinsella categorize important vocabulary as either “brick” words (specific to discipline such as mathematics), or “mortar” words (words that are important across disciplines). The great teacher Anita Archer calls essential vocabulary words “Goldilocks words; not too hard, not too easy, just right.“ In addition, “Core Vocabulary” comprises more than ¾ of what adults and children actually say, contains few picture producers, and must be taught to low language learners.  Examples of core vocabulary are words like on, some, more, is, it, etc.

Researcher Isabel Beck suggests that teachers identify vocabulary words in one of three “tiers.” Tier 1 words are basic words that only need occasional reminders of meaning in terms of school meaning. Tier three words are academic words associated with specific academic content, and whose frequency is quite low. The second tier contains high frequency words that are found across content. In addition, Tier 2 words are generally found in printed academic materials rather than used by average speakers.


Tier 1 words

Tier 2 words

Tier 3 words


Not too hard

Just right

Not too easy


Mortar words

Brick words

 Beck Clock, baby, walk, sleep, happy… Compare, contrast, coincidence, absurd, fortunate… Isotope, lathe, peninsula, refinery…

Brick words– high use words relating to the academic context-essential words, lesson, topic and discipline specific: Expanded form, decimals, hundredths, fractions, whole numbers, equivalent, simplify…

  • Circle all brick words in passage/lesson from math core
  • Pre-access, prioritize words to teach (maximum of 5)
  • Teach with 6-step vocabulary instruction (see below)
  • Teach with Archer direct instruction rubric (see below)

Mortar words-high use words that generalize across content. Likely to encounter in various texts across subject areas and grade levels and likely to appear in SAGE questions: Analyze, relationships, procedures, compare, order, symmetry, measuring, formula…

  • Box all mortar words in passage/lesson
  • Pre-access, prioritize words to teach
  • Choose 3-5 maximum
  • Teach with Archer direct instruction routine (see below)
  • Teach with first 2-3 steps of 6 step

When to teach new terms- before or after a reading? (Archer, personal communication, 2013)

  • If narrative text, teach AFTER reading, as words may not be essential for comprehension of text.
  • If informational text, teach BEFORE reading if terms are keys to grasping the big ideas of the reading.
  • With Ell’s, SLD’s, teach BEFORE, DURING and AFTER reading.

All students, especially those with language-based differences or disabilities benefit from a consistent and recognizable approach to vocabulary instruction. There are many good research-evidenced models from which to choose. Three from the above authors are presented here:

Explicitly Teach Vocabulary with direct instruction (Anita Archer routine)





Distorted, v. to distort Twist or change He lied and distorted the truth Someone tells a story about you that is only partly true


Everyone, say the word w/me…distorted is a verb, past tense Distorted means to twist or change something. A word that means change or twisted is ______________.

  • If I told a story but changed it to make me look better, you could say that I ______________ the truth.
  • Think of a time when someone distorted or changed something about you (or you did about someone) – thumbs up when you have one…partners share…call on a couple…
  • Repeat sequence, especially student to student examples
  • Assess for understanding. Correct and re-teach as necessary

Pre-and post-test vocabulary knowledge (Feldman)

This is a quick and easy formative assessment tool applicable to all disciplines. Give students a blank vocabulary-rating sheet (See the example below). Provide the important words, and instruct them to rate their understanding before vocabulary/lesson instruction, then during or after instruction. Have students assign a number (1-4) indicating their understanding opposite each of the vocabulary words in the before instruction column. Circulate to gain a formative assessment of which words to skim over and which to go deeper. Provide students multiple opportunities to share examples with other students. Have students re-visit during and after instruction, correct and re-teach as necessary.


1. I’ve never heard it                                                 

2. I’ve heard the word, but I’m unclear what it means

3. I have a pretty good idea of what it means

4. I know what it means and could teach it to others








Standard score


Percentile rank


Relative proficiency index



 A Six-Step Process For Teaching Vocabulary, Marzano et al., (2002)

Pre-access key vocabulary before instruction to access student’s knowledge.  If student knowledge is low, teach with 6 steps.  If medium to high, teach with first three steps and reinforce as needed with 4, 5 or 6th step.

Six-Step Process for Teaching Vocabulary

1. Description: (Teacher directed) Teacher writes the word on board and uses direct instruction and coral responses to have students pronounce the word. “Students, the word is Equivalent, say that word with me.  Please say it again, all voices.” Repeat as needed until all students respond. A teacher gives brief description of word (not definition) and uses it in context. Description should build on typical student’s background, and provide multiple, culturally appropriate examples to match diverse student populations. The intent is to have all students pronounce the word multiple times and write a simple teacher-generated description.

2. Restate: (Teacher facilitated and student directed) Teacher restates word, and then uses a pair-share or small grouping. Students are encouraged to build on what they already know and on their background experiences. Each student is encouraged to write his or her own definition/example on paper. After small group sharing, teacher encourages each student to read their sentence to class. The intent is to turn the “teaching” and practice over to students and provides practice in the four steps of language: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Multiple, varied exposures from student sources helps to build context and fluency with the new word.

3. Draw: (Teacher facilitated and student directed) if we really know a word deeply, we can see a picture or mental tag of that word.  For example, close your eyes and say the word “Zebra”.  If you know what this means, it will be impossible for you to not visualize it.  Each student is encouraged to draw his or her representation (graphic, picture) of the word.  Then students share in small groups, then with the larger group.  The intent of this step is to assist each student to create their own image or mental tag of the new word, which helps build understanding and fluency and provides much needed practice in listening, speaking, and writing.

4. Activities: (Teacher facilitated and student directed) Activities are opportunities for the teacher to break the class into smaller homogeneous groups in order to extend vocabulary instruction and provide context and deeper meaning.  The intent of this step is to create small group configurations, where even the highest or lowest performing students can work on a differentiated task at their level, while participating in listening, speaking, reading and writing.

5. Discussion: (Teacher facilitated and student directed). The intent of this step is to facilitate deeper level understanding of new words at the higher order thinking levels of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. This step could include written expression, research on the computer, or presentations to be made by small groups to the class.

6. Games: (Teacher facilitated and student directed) Often used as a cumulative review before a quiz or unit test, games are reinforcing to students of all ages and student engagement and motivation are typically high.  Examples often include: Jeopardy, Who wants to be a Millionaire, hangman, bingo… The intent here is to provide learning activities that students perceive as fun and are motivated to participate in, while learning vocabulary at deeper levels of understanding.

“It is clear that a large and rich vocabulary is the hallmark of an educated individual. Indeed, a large vocabulary repertoire facilitates becoming an educated person to the extent that vocabulary knowledge is strongly related to reading proficiency, in particular and school achievement in general.” (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, Bringing Words to Life, 2002)

All students, regardless of economic background, cultural and linguistic heritage, or disability status are entitled to learn a rich academic vocabulary, important to unlocking meaning of essential content. Vocabulary is taught, not caught. Students with the lowest academic vocabulary require systematic, explicit vocabulary instruction if they are to succeed in school. If students don’t learn the way we teach them, we must teach them the way they learn.


            Building Academic Vocabulary, Marzano, R., & Pickering, D., (2005). ASCD, Alexandria, VA.

Bringing Words to Life; Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Beck, I., McKEown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). The Guilford Press, NY. NY.

                Language Disorders from Infancy through adolescence, Paul, R. & Norbury, C. (2012). Elsevier Mosby, St. Luis, MO

               Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners, the SIOP Model. Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2004). Pearson Education, Boston, MA.

               Visible Learning, a Synthisis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses relating to Achievement, Hattie, J. (2009).  Routledge, NY. NY.

                Vocabulary Instruction; Research to Practice, Baumann, J., & Kame’enui, E. (eds), (2004).  The Guilford Press, NY. NY.

               What Works in Schools; Translating Research Into Action, Marzano, R., (2002). ASCD, Alexandria, VA.


Author: Michael Herbert, UPDC, michaelhupdc@gmail.com 801-231-3876