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Language processing disorders (LDP) in school-age children and pre-school precursors: What are the characteristics?

Processing refers to our ability to take meaning from what we hear and then formulate a response. Language processing is connecting meaning to what we hear based on something linguistic like our vocabulary knowledge. Having difficulty with language processing can affect a child’s ability to receive important information and use it in a functional way. This can negatively affect their speech and language development.

A language processing disorder can affect a child’s ability to learn. It can also make it appear like a child is misbehaving. A child with LPD may hear a direction but not follow through because they do not understand it, then be reprimanded for not following the direction. This is a common example of what can happen when language processing disorders go undiagnosed and untreated.

The Source for Processing Disorders is a book written by Gail J. Richard that outlines processing disorders and gives detailed information about what it looks like and how to treat it. In her book, she shares characteristics that appear in someone who has these types of difficulties. She also shares the precursors that can be seen as early as preschool age. It is important to recognize these characteristics so that you know when it might be time to seek help.

The following are characteristics of language processing disorders:

  1. Difficulty coming up with the right word
    One of the most common symptoms of a language processing disorder is difficulty coming up with the right word to say. A child may use general language such as “the thing” or “a squishy thing” to try to identify an object. They may use descriptive verbiage or words that are associated with the item they are trying to identify, but have difficulty naming it.
  2. Using less specific language
    A child may use generic language instead of specific, more appropriate language. For example, instead of saying, “I want to go to the park and go down the slide,” when asked what they want to do at the park, they may say something less specific such as, “I want to play outside.”
  3. Incorrect use of words with similar meanings
    Children may use words that are close in meaning to the target but not correct like, “I need socks in my feet” instead of saying, “I need socks on my feet.”
  4. Using creative or original language
    When a child is not able to express his desired thought, he may make up new words to try and get his message across, or he may “talk around” and go on and on about a subject instead of being succinct.
  5. Using fillers
    A child with a language processing disorder may use words like “um” or “you know” excessively to fill in space while they try and come up with the words they want to say.
  6. Using verbiage such as “I forgot” or “I don’t know” often
    It takes 2-4 seconds for a child to answer normal questions. This is called response latency time: the amount of time it takes to hear it, process it, and respond. However, 2-4 seconds isn’t enough for someone with language processing difficulties, and using fillers can be a way to stall or buy time while they come up with a response.
  7. Talking to self, rehearsing
    This is an example of a compensatory strategy that children with processing difficulties may develop. They repeat information received over and over (sometimes audibly) to help compensate for poor short-term memory.
  8. Inconsistencies in learning
    Learning new things for children with processing difficulties can be very exhausting. A child might need several different kinds of input in order to receive information and understand it. They may learn something one week, and the next week, they have forgotten. A lot of repetition is almost always necessary to learn something new.
  9. Can identify errors but is not able to fix them
    If corrected, a child with processing difficulties may easily understand that they have made an error, but fixing that error is a whole different skill, and this may be difficult for the child.
  10. Does not finish sentences or thoughts
    Conversational behavior may seem disjointed and incomplete, making it difficult to understand their message if the context isn’t established.
  11. Social skills difficulties and problematic behavior
    Characteristics mentioned above can make communication frustrating, for both the child and the person they are speaking to. Unintentional social skill problems can arise when others don’t understand that they are having a hard time understanding and expressing themselves.
  12. Age-appropriate IQ with academic difficulties (Learning Disorder, Specific Learning Disorder labels)
    Typically, children with language processing disorders have average IQs but may still present with learning difficulties. Many school-age students with language processing deficits receive the label Learning Disorder or Specific Learning Disorder because as academic demands increase, the lack of language processing can affect how much they learn and at what pace.

Preschool precursors that may indicate a processing disorder:

  1. Poor sequencing in receptive and expressive language
    Children may have a hard time retelling events or stories in a cohesive manner. It might sound disorganized, or it may be missing important information.
  2. Slow vocabulary development
    Acquiring new words/concepts and building vocabulary is often delayed.
  3. Poor short-term memory
    Does your child forget a direction immediately after you have given it to them? Maybe they can’t remember multi-step directions, or they can only remember small pieces but not the whole direction. This is common in children with processing problems.
  4. Slow acquisition with answering WH questions (and asking them)
    Children may struggle to understand the difference between who, what, when, and where questions, therefore, they have a hard time answering them correctly (or asking questions appropriately).
  5. Delayed speech (articulation and phonology)
    Their speech may not be developing as it should. It could be very difficult to understand what they are saying, or maybe they can’t say certain sounds.
  6. Severe difficulty coming up with the right word
    Word retrieval problems are a red flag for language processing deficits. Children may use very general language to describe something instead of using specific words that give more meaning to a message.
  7. Delayed sentence and grammatical structures
    Their sentences may sound mixed up and jumbled, or their word order is odd. Maybe they speak in just 2 or 3-word phrases instead of longer sentences.
  8. Delayed social skills
    As mentioned in the school-age characteristics, all of these symptoms can make it very hard to communicate effectively, in turn making it difficult to make friends and develop social relationships.

Speech-language pathologists (SLPs) are skilled in treating language processing disorders. If you are concerned about your child’s ability to process language, don’t wait. Early intervention is important, and we can help! An SLP will complete an evaluation to determine if a language processing deficit is present. If that is diagnosed, a treatment plan will be created to help the client overcome and compensate for their processing difficulties, allowing them to do better in school, be effective communicators, and increase their quality of life.


Natalie Erling, M.A., CCC-SLP

Richard, G. J. (2017). The source processing disorders (2nd ed.). Austin, TX: PRO-ED, an international publisher.