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.
- Mixing up the order of letters in words while writing
- Mixing up the order of numbers that are a part of maths calculations
- Memorizing the times tables
- Maths difficulties particularly “word sums”
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 www.ldhope.com shows how these difficulties may manifest.
Examples of some cognitive manifestations of underlying language difficulties
Impairments in processes related to:
|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
|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
|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.
The frustration of talking to children where information goes “in one ear and out the other” is common to both teachers and parents. But for children with a poor auditory memory, this statement is pretty close to the truth.
Auditory Working Memory is a system for temporarily storing and managing
the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension
Can you add together 23 and 69 in your head?
When you ask for directions somewhere, can you get there without writing the instructions down?
Such tasks engage working memory, the memory we use to keep information immediately “in mind” so we can complete a task.
Some children find this relatively easy. Others try to carry out the instructions, but lose track of the details along the way.
Auditory Working Memory involves:
- Taking in information that is presented orally and Listening actively in order to rehearse what we have because this information rapidly decays after one or two seconds.
- Attending Selectively in order to repeat the information to ourselves. Research has shown that if short term memory is low, we have a hard time selecting what we wish to hear. In other words, selective attention doesn’t work so well when auditory memory is poor.
- Processing that information for meaning
- Storing it in your mind
- Recalling what you have heard.
A “breakdown” in auditory memory can occur at any point in the pathway
Auditory Memory Pathway
In the classroom, teachers may describe these children as
- Easily distracted
- Forgetting what they have learned,
- Forgetting instructions
- Makes place-keeping errors (skipping or repeating steps)
- Not completing tasks,
- Making careless mistakes,
- Difficulty in solving problems
If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you are right!
A great deal of research in the last few years has shown that low auditory working memory is indeed associated with ADD/ADHD. Some research has shown that stimulant medications can enhance one’s auditory-verbal and visual-spatial working memory. However, there is no long term benefit. In other words, the working memory is improved only as long as the medication is in the system.
However some auditory memory weaknesses of students can easily go undetected by a teacher especially when there are no signs of ADD or ADHD.
Often children with auditory memory problems appear to be trying very hard to listen.
Their eyes are focused on the teacher and they appear to be attentive.
The teacher assumes that the child has heard all that is being taught. However, in reality, they often absorb and make sense out of very little of what is being stated by the teacher.
As a result, these students recall only a small amount or none of what is being said. They might remember a word here or there, or parts of a thought, but often do not truly understand much of the information presented orally to them.
The ability to learn from oral instructions and explanations is a fundamental skill required throughout life.
The following difficulties may arise because of poor auditory memory.
Poor Comprehension of Orally Presented Directions:
- Often the child thinks that he has understood directions for completing an assignment, when actually he has understood very little. As a result, assignments are often completed incorrectly.
- The child may only be able to take-in and think about only three or four words at a time so they only hear three or four words.
- Subconsciously he stops listening in order to process the information.
- Then he listens again.
- As a result, the child loses a word or two from every phrase. The information no longer makes sense and becomes confusing, boring, and hard to pay attention to.
While some children can recall a lengthy sentence well, they may not be able to process and recall a short passage that is presented orally. These students may be able to answer a specific question about the information that has been presented to them orally or that they have read, but are not able to grasp the whole paragraph.
The child thinks that he knows what he has heard or read orally, when actually, he has processed and recalled very little of the material.
Sometimes parents and educators assume that children have understood an entire passage when they answer a specific question about the passage, yet, that specific information might be all that they have gleaned from the passage!
It is therefore important that when reading stories to children, they are encouraged to retell the story with the main idea and supporting details, in order to demonstrate that they have total comprehension.
Difficulty Copying from the Board:
As mentioned in the first example, a child with auditory memory difficulties can often only remember one or two words at a time. He therefore needs to constantly look up at the board, down at his paper, up at the board, down at his paper. Copying from the board is a tedious task for him whereas other children can remember a sentence at a time.
Difficulty Taking Notes:
In order to take notes you need to:
- Listen to the teacher.
- Hold what you have heard in memory while writing it down.
- Continue listening as the teacher continues with the next sentence.
- If you are not writing verbatim what the teacher says, you must also use logic and reasoning to form your own thoughts about what’s being said, while writing, while listening.
If your auditory memory is poor, auditory processing, processing speed, or logic and reasoning, note taking could be practically impossible.
Phonics (sounds) is an auditory learning system and it is imperative to have a sufficient auditory short term memory in order to learn, utilize and understand reading using phonics. The ability to hold speech sounds in memory is needed for tasks such as comparing phonemes, relating phonemes to letters, and sounding out words.
Many poor-spellers depend on memory for spelling and so they don’t do very well. Even someone with a superior memory can only “remember” the spelling of a few hundred words. Spelling is actually an auditory and a visual skill.
You must be able to hear the sounds within the words and to visualize. How often have you spelled a word and recognized, “No, that doesn’t look right?”
Children who memorize spelling words often forget the words soon after the spelling test. The brain says, “I don’t need that anymore,” and dumps the words to make room for next week’s spelling list.
Children may experience difficulty developing a good understanding of words, remembering terms and information that has been presented orally, for example, in history and science classes. These students will also experience difficulty processing and recalling information that they have read to themselves.
When we read we must listen and process information we say to ourselves, even when we read silently. If we do not attend and listen to our silent input of words, we cannot process the information or recall what we have read. Therefore, even silent reading involves a form of listening.
The good news is that auditory memory is trainable and like any muscle the more you exercise it, the more it will improve.
The not so good news is that the capacity for auditory memory appears to have a genetic basis and if you have a poor auditory memory the chances are that you won’t be able to rely on someone in your family for help.
Children are miraculous! They are born with an innate knowledge of language. BUT children are not born with an innate knowledge of reading.
They need to be taught that text is read from left to right and that words are separate from images.
Although learning to talk and read are two distinct domains, they are also intricately related.
Early language skills are linked to later successful reading.
Young children need a variety of skills to become successful readers. Research indicates that children who enter school with more of these skills are better able to benefit from the reading instruction they receive when they arrive at school.
The following core skills have been identified as being crucial to the development of later reading.
Knowing the names of things is an extremely important skill for children to have when they are learning to read.
Help develop your child’s vocabulary by reading a variety of books (both fiction and nonfiction), and by naming all the objects in your child’s world.
2. PRINT MOTIVATION
Print motivation is a child’s interest in and enjoyment of books.
A child with print motivation enjoys being read to, plays with books, pretends to write and asks to be read to.
Encourage print motivation in your child by
• Shared book reading a special time, keeping books accessible, and letting your child see that you enjoy reading.
• Explain how reading and writing are used in everyday life, for example shopping lists, newspapers, TV guides, and computer screens.
A fun activity is to read through the TV guide with your child and bookmark a favourite programme to watch or record.
3. PRINT AWARENESS
Print Awareness includes learning that writing in English follows basic rules such as flowing from top-to- bottom and left-to-right, and that the print on the page is what is being read by someone who knows how to read.
An example of print awareness is a child’s ability to point to the words on the page of a book.
Your child’s print awareness can be encouraged by
- Pointing out and reading words everywhere you see them – on signs, labels and the supermarket.
- Going shopping with young children. This can be challenging, especially with all the sweet temptations within the child’s direct line of sight. I know that it is easier to leave your child at home when you go shopping, but try to make a point of taking your child with you at least once a week.
Something to keep your child occupied in the supermarket is to send him ahead of you in the aisle to try to find a certain brand of crisps/cereal/tomato sauce.
Use items that your child is motivated to buy 🙂
Drawing your child’s attention to prices also creates print awareness.
4. NARRATIVE SKILLS
The ability to understand and tell stories and describe things is important for children in order to understand what they are learning to read.
An example of a narrative skill is a child’s ability to tell what has happened at a birthday party, or a class outing.
Help your child strengthen his narrative skills by
- Asking him to retell a well-known story. Encourage your child to predict what might happen next in the story. Facial expression can create excitement about what might happen.
- Encourage your child to tell you about things he has done that have a regular sequence to them. For example, having a bath.
5. LETTER KNOWLEDGE
Letter Knowledge includes learning that letters have names and are different from each other, and that specific sounds go with specific letters.
An example of letter knowledge is a child’s ability to know that the letter B makes a /b/ sound.
- Playing games like “I spy” will develop phonemic (sound) awareness.
- Focus your child’s attention on the letters in the words and highlight the letters that are in your child’s name.
- Encourage your child to pay attention to the shape of letters and trace them with his finger.
6. PHONOLOGICAL AWARENESS
Phonological Awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate the smaller sounds in words.
Phonological awareness includes the ability to hear and create rhymes, to say words with sounds or chunks left out, e.g. monkey without /mon/, and the ability to put sounds together to make a word.
Strengthen phonological awareness by
- Exposing your child to songs and rhymes.
- Encourage them to “make up” silly rhyming words
- Say words and sounds with a pause between the syllables and have your child guess what word you are saying. E.g. um—bre—lla
The environment and daily routines in your home can be one of the best teaching tools to help children develop pre-reading skills. A print-rich environment helps foster skills needed for reading. By surrounding your children with print in your home and talking to them about what it means, they will learn more every day. As your child points, labels, makes nonsense words, and tells you outrageous stories, they are practicing to be literate. The next time you hear the word “again p-l-e-a-s-e!” remind yourself that you are laying the foundation for life-long literacy. So with the same enthusiasm you’ve demonstrated one hundred times before, “READ IT AGAIN” as if it were the very first time!