How do language difficulties affect learning?

How do language difficulties affect learning?

Language is the primary medium of learning. Everything we are expected to learn is either heard or read. Our skills are demonstrated through words or written language.

Language-based learning disabilities are problems with age-appropriate reading, spelling, and/or writing.

It is therefore not surprising, that language difficulties can interfere with academic performance. Language is not just another subject at school; it is the means by which all other subjects are learned.

The vast majority of children with learning disabilities have a language-based disorder which is amenable to treatment.

The following difficulties may suggest that a child has language difficulties:

  • Expressing ideas clearly, as if the words needed are on the tip of the tongue but won’t come out. What the child says can be vague and difficult to understand (e.g., using unspecific vocabulary, such as “thing” or “what-ya-ma-call-it” to replace words that cannot be remembered). Filler words like “um” may be used to take up time while the child tries to remember a word.


tip of the tongue


  • Learning new vocabulary that the child hears and/or sees (e.g., in books)
  • Understanding questions and following directions that are heard and/or read
  • Recalling numbers in sequence (e.g., telephone numbers and addresses)
  • Understanding and retaining the details of a story’s plot or a classroom lecture
  • Reading and comprehending material
  • Learning words to songs and rhymes
  • Telling left from right, making it hard to read and write since both skills require this directionality.
  • Learning the alphabet
  • Mixing up the order of letters in words while writing
  • Mixing up the order of numbers that are a part of maths calculations
  • Spelling
  • Memorizing the times tables
  • Maths difficulties particularly “word sums”
  • Telling time

Oral and written language impairments are easier to identify because they can be heard or seen. However children who have difficulty processing language present more of a challenge.

These are the children who “fly under the radar” because their language difficulties are more subtle.

The following table adapted from Elizabeth Walcot-Gayda, Ph. D., Montreal, QC shows how these difficulties may manifest.


Examples of some cognitive manifestations of underlying language difficulties

Impairments in processes related to:





Language Processing

Difficulties in processing sarcasm or understanding when someone is joking Difficulty taking another’s perspective Difficulties in understanding: long or complex sentence structure; and with figures of speech Difficulties with: retrieving vocabulary words; orally presented task demands Difficulties with new vocabulary and responses to teacher-directed questions

Phonological processing

Sounds in words (e.g. bat/bag) are confused; poor sound sequencing in words; limited automaticity in decoding Difficulty with comprehension of content caused by lack of fluency in decoding Difficulty retaining sound/symbol correspondence Difficulty extracting essential concepts due to focus on decoding

Processing speed

Poor social interactions; does not keep up with fast-paced lessons Few connections between isolated bits of information in texts Slow linking of new with previously learned information Less material covered or takes extra time and much effort to cover material


Few strategies when trying to remember content or concepts Difficulty writing since spelling may not be automatic Difficulty retrieving previously learned information Forgets spelling words after test; difficulty recalling significant events in history; any new learning is difficult


Difficulty knowing when to pay attention Poor reading of social situations; impulsive Poor concentration when putting ideas together Little effort expended for remembering Work may be disorganized; goes off on tangents,

Executive functions (planning or decision making)

Poor recognition of value of planning; impulsive Difficulty problem solving and understanding consequences of decisions Difficulty in linking new with previously integrated knowledge; Few strategies Difficulties in higher levels of learning, but has isolated pieces of knowledge


Most (but not all) children with underlying language disabilities DO NOT simply outgrow their problems.

It is not worth the “wait and see” approach only to find out that a small problem has become a bigger one that affects learning, literacy, social-emotional development and eventual vocational adjustment.

Listen Hear!

Listen Hear!

One of the biggest complaints that I hear from teachers as children enter a more formal learning environment, is that the children do not know how to listen.

I am not talking about the children with Auditory Perception Difficulties or the children with any form of hearing loss. Neither am I referring to the “selective listening” behavior displayed by most children at one point or another.  I am referring to children who enter the formal schooling system without any delays or difficulties and develop difficulties because of poor listening skills.

The passive nature of hearing is very different from the active nature of listening.  Take, for example, many of the adverts on TV. Unless they have a very catchy jingle, or something visual that draws in your attention, you are often able to “tune out” and not even know what the advert was for.

We need to ask the question WHY children are not learning to listen.



When a child does not respond to a parent’s first request (and how many kids do?), parents often subscribe to what appears to be the obvious solution – they repeat their request, sometimes several times, until they get the desired response from their child. On occasion, this is a useful tactic for parents. Perhaps their child did not actually hear the request, or maybe he was distracted and needs another reminder.

However, when repeating requests, directions or questions becomes the typical way you interact with your child, it may very well be that bad habits have developed. And I say bad habits (plural!) because both the parents and the child have developed a bad habit here. The adults have become accustomed to talking and talking and talking while their child has learned to ignore, ignore and ignore. Why should he stop and pay attention the first time when he knows that there will be many opportunities to hear the request. And the child may even have developed a “deaf ear” to all the chatter, which means that he has stopped paying attention to what is being said.

Enter the grade one classroom, and the poor teacher is faced with a whole group of children with poor listening habits.


The ability to concentrate and pay attention are key factors in being a good listener. Research has shown that too much television watching at an early age might contribute to poor listening skills later in life.

When you think about it, does your child talk much when watching television or playing computer games?

Unless they provide commentary and annoy everyone else around them, you probably answered “not much at all”.

They will sit in front of a gaming console, computer, or television and become ‘mind slaves’ to the device as they ‘switch off’ their mind into the rapid, hypnotic pace these devices deliver. Of course, we do listen while watching yet the devices deliver sound at a greater speed that is considerably more entertaining to children then the sound of nagging parents talking to them.

I have often had the retort from parents that “my child can sit for hours playing a video-game. How come you are telling me he can’t focus?”  They are correct, but the type of focus required for a video game and active listening, is totally different. Activities such as video/computer games, require a high level of concentration and reasonable skills to play. When these two are combined, time becomes distorted. Children receive instant gratification from television and video games whereas the pace of normal conversation is slow in comparison.

Some research has suggested that extensive exposure to television and video games may promote development of brain systems that scan and shift attention at the expense of those that focus attention.

This being said, TV, video games and the like are not evil. In fact there is more and more research into how technology can be incorporated into learning and the plethora of educational  ‘’apps” is testament to this. The old adage of everything in moderation and everything with MEDIATION is paramount.


One of the many reasons that anxiety in children is on the increase, is because of pressure to succeed in the school environment. Whilst this issue is the realm of the psychologist/psychiatrist, the impact of anxiety on listening behavior cannot be discounted.

Anxious children are often preoccupied with worries about their success in activities and their ability to obtain the approval of others. They tend to “tune-out” when others are talking because they are often so worried about what they are going to say when it is his or her turn to speak.

Listening skills are something that requires practice. Good listening skills are an integral part of good communication and are one of the foundation skills for later learning success.