Let’s talk about talking… Understanding and managing conversational skills of children with language disorders.

Language is a powerful tool of communication and increasingly a vital social tool for a child as he grows up. When a child has difficulties or deficiencies in his language development i.e. the ability to speak and listen, he will certainly have some difficulties with his social adjustment and acceptance. For most children, language develops quite naturally and in a predictable sequence at age-appropriate stages. However, children with verbal communication problems; either receptive (auditory processing of information received) or expressive (dysnomia, the inability to recall words and name objects) or both, may experience significant difficulties fitting in socially.

Children with language disorders do not come from just a specific diagnosis but a range of co-existing learning difficulties; attention deficit- hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, obsessive- compulsive disorder (OCD), nonverbal learning disorder (NLD), dyspraxia and Asperger syndrome as well.

Language is a complex system that requires the coordinated action of four interacting subsystems. Phonology is the system that maps speech sounds on to meanings, and meanings are part of the semantic systemGrammar is concerned with syntax and morphology (the way in which words and word parts are combined to convey different meanings), and pragmatics is concerned with language use. Pragmatics is an important area of language development that has a significant and lasting impact upon social competencies. These are the crucial social skills of language that requires the child to take turns in conversations, maintain appropriate eye contact, adjusting speech patterns and asking relevant questions to the audience. Children having difficulties with these pragmatic skills are unable to use language as a social tool. These children with difficulties in the areas of expressive and receptive language will have significant difficultly participating in day-to-day conversations and discussions. The ability to engage in the daily language-based exchanges is fundamental to a child’s acceptance and participation in social settings at home, in school, and in the community. A child who is unable to do so will decide to withdraw and be drawn further into social isolation.

Conversational skills are often taken for granted as it appears uncomplicated and seems so basic to our daily functioning that they seem quite natural and simple. After all, even babies have conversations among themselves with their ‘baby talk’.

However, for children with language disorders, a conversation is a complex, challenging activity that requires a myriad of skills and competencies. A good conversation requires one to display good skills in both speaking and listening; when to speak and when to pause and listen, when to pick up the line and move ahead with the conversation. In fact, one must use a wide variety of language skills.

Imagine a child must first screen out all of the irrelevant stimuli competing with the message (e.g. background noise, other conversations). He needs to pay attention to the content and mood of the conversation in which he is participating. It gets even harder as now in order to determine the mood and intent of the person he is speaking to, he must be able to “read” his body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. These tasks require complex perceptual and memory skills.

Conversational speech is so natural for most adults that parents and teachers very often fail to realise how truly complex this skill is, especially so for children with language disorders. An effective and enjoyable conversation requires a degree of flexibility and responsiveness that many children with learning problems generally lack.

Failure to accurately and appropriately tailor one’s conversation using these skills will result in a difficult, inappropriate, and ineffective conversation. For children with language problems, group conversations such as classroom discussion or dinner table conversation are particularly difficult because these settings require them to evaluate and respond to several conversation partners simultaneously. Teachers and parents should be mindful of this in group settings. A child who may be quite conversant in a one-to-one discussion may have significant difficulty when involved in a group conversation.


Some children with dyslexia are reasonably eloquent and able to engage in a conversation but may still demonstrate deficits in the social skills or the pragmatics mentioned earlier. These children tend to inappropriately interrupt conversations.

Although this behaviour is not desirable, the reasons for the behaviour are quite understandable when one considers the variety of challenges and difficulties that these children face in the areas of language, memory, and emotional needs. The child may interrupt an ongoing conversation, for example, because he feels that he has an important message to deliver and he knows through past experience that he is likely to forget the message if he does not deliver it immediately. Many children with social deficiencies also have great difficulty delaying gratification because of their impulsivity related to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and this may result in a tendency to interrupt conversations.

Other reasons for this behaviour may be due to the child with learning issues such as dyslexia and low self-esteem feeling threatened and left out when a parent or teacher is attentive to another person for a considerable part of the conversation at his expense.

Whatever reason for these interruptions, the parent or teacher should not be too quick to pick on the child. It should be dealt with by introducing a strategy. For instance, the mum can firmly warn the child beforehand that she will be involved in an activity or conversation that is not to be interrupted: “Joshua, I am going to be talking to your grandma on the phone about something important, and I do not want you to interrupt me during the call. If you need help with your homework, I will help you as soon as I get off the phone.”

If the child is able to behave as told and not interrupt the call, be certain to reinforce the behaviour by thanking and praising him. From my observation, adults often fail to compliment the child for complying with instructions but are pretty quick to chide him for failing to do so. Remember, it is important to note, that behaviour that is reinforced positively is more likely to be replicated. You may also want to give him something to do to prevent interruption: “Our neighbour is going to come over to our house in ten minutes to talk with me about some recipes. We can’t be interrupted. Here is some glue and paper. Why don’t you make a birthday card for grandma?”

Parents can also work on a gesture that the child understands as a signal that a conversation should not be interrupted (e.g. open hand with palm facing out, crossed fingers). If you are engaged in a conversation and the child interrupts, give him the prearranged signal and continue your conversation. I remember very well as a young boy the ‘look’ that I got from my mum when I interrupted her conversation, especially in the presence of her guest. If the child waits patiently, respond to him when the opportunity presents for instance when a lull occurs in your discussion.

I remember very well as a young boy the ‘look’ that I got from my mum when I interrupted her conversation especially in the presence of her guest. If the child waits patiently, respond to him when opportunity presents for instance when a lull occurs in your discussion.

If the child’s interrupting behaviour is caused by faulty memory and his anxiety that he will forget his message, modify this technique by allowing him and encouraging him to provide you with a keyword that you can use later to trigger his memory of his message. For example, if he remembers that he needs you to sign his permission slip for the school’s field trip, he would approach you during your conversations with another and merely say “Field trip”. A simple acknowledging nod from you is all that he needs and he walks away assured. At the end of your conversation, you can give him the keyword: “Well Josh, what about a field trip?”, and he will most certainly deliver his message.

If the child has the habit of interrupting too often, an effective strategy to reduce his behaviour is to reinforce and recognise the child when he does not interrupt: “Joshua, thank you for not interrupting my conversation with your aunt a while ago. You were so sweet and I really appreciate it.” This strategy builds on the positive reinforcement [for not interrupting] instead of the numerous reminders for the negative things that he does.

Failure to follow conversations

Memory deficits can have a significantly negative impact upon a child’s ability to participate in routine conversations. The child may lose her place in the discussion or forget the topic at hand, unable to find the right word, or not knowingly repeat same comments or asking same questions during the conversation.

The child also may fear that she will forget a comment that she wishes to make and so interjects the comment inappropriately. Encourage the child to jot down key words related to comments she wishes to add to the discussion. This can be easily and unobtrusively done during informal conversations. Also encourage the child to carefully concentrate during conversations.

A role-play on attending a press conference with a small group of friends, siblings will be fun. Get her to observe the convention of a press conference without turning it into a regimented task.

Monopolising the Conversation

For the child who has a tendency to monopolise conversations, he can be taught to slow down a little. Teach the child to ask questions often during informal discussions. By asking questions – and listening attentively to the responses – the child will become a more attractive conversation partner. The child will realise that one does not need to monopolize or dominate the conversation in order to participate actively in it. Asking questions, listening and giving appropriate responses and observing are appropriate ways to participate in a conversation. Again, reinforce the child when he does not interrupt or monopolise.

First Impressions

It is true that most people form a lasting impression of someone within minutes of their first meeting. These initial interactions cause each person to evaluate whether their new acquaintance is interesting, fun, and sincere. At the same time, it will also take several subsequent positive interactions in order to offset an initial negative impression.

Encourage your child to be entertaining, attentive, and interested when she meets someone for the first time. Urge her to use the person’s name during conversation and to disclose something memorable and somewhat personal during the initial meeting: “I shook hands with our Prime Minister once,” or “We live in the oldest house in town”. This disclosure can help to move the relationship along and also serve to make the first exchange a noteworthy one: “Oh, I remember you! You shook hands with our Prime Minister once, right?”

I am sure that there are two things that you want to achieve in any initial meeting. First is to make the new acquaintance feel good about themselves. Next is to demonstrate that you are an interesting person to have a conversation with. However, if a child becomes unduly concerned if a first impression does not go well, remind the child that it can be attributed to simple incompatibility. There is no need to make the child feel that he has presented himself poorly.

Adjusting Your Own Language

Parents of children with learning difficulties often report that they have difficulty conversing with their children. Be mindful of the fact that oral language is difficult for the youngster, and his lack of language fluency can hinder his comprehension and production of the spoken word. Adults should adjust their own language to accommodate the child’s language deficits.

If you ask a typical adult a broad, global question, you generally receive a broad, general response, quite naturally. For example, the question “What did you think of last week’s election?” results in a fairly lengthy response. “Well, I feel that the ruling party…and the oppositions …and the young voters thought … and the results demonstrated … Conversely if you ask a specific, focused question – “Who did you vote for in last week’s election?” – you will receive a brief, specific response (“John Tan”) and that is about it.

Interestingly, this dynamic works in just the opposite way when conversing with children with limited language skills. When asked with a general, broad question, the response likely to receive from the child is likely to be specific. For example; “So, how was school for you today, Joshua?” The response probably will be: “OK. It was good”. But if asked with a specific question: “How was your Science class today, Joshua?” He might unleash a detailed and lengthy response: “Oh, it was neat! We hooked up a magnet to an electric motor and it made all the iron filings go into a straight line, and the teacher said that magnets have two poles …” So by asking more specific questions, you are enabling the child to focus his language skills on a narrow topic, which enables him to generate a more detailed and factual response.


It is a given fact that to hold a good conversation, one will require some skills and awareness of the conventions and rules that must be adhered to and followed. Appropriate and appealing conversational skills are significant factors in a child’s ability to make and maintain friendships. However, parents and teachers can certainly play their part in getting the best out of a child when engaging them in a conversation. This is more so when we know that our young conversation partner has some language disorders. I strongly feel that it is our duty to make children feel more confident in talking to us. We need to guide them with strategies, lead them with assurances, accommodate their deficiencies, and most importantly give them the simple pleasure of just talking.

Generally, children will send discernible nonverbal signals when they are ready to end a conversation with an adult. They often begin to stare off into space or become silly. Let’s not prolong their agony. Compliment them and it is time to end the exchange. Gracefully take the lead and end it. This is the art of conversation.

This article is adapted from and inspired by the following readings
Lavoie, R. (2005). It’s So Much Work To Be Your Friend. Helping the child with learning disabilities find social success. Simon & Schuster. New York.
US Snowling, M.J, Stackhouse, J (Ed)(2006). Dyslexia. Speech and Language. Whurr Publishers Ltd. London. UK.
Whitney, R.V. (2008). Nonverbal Learning Disorder. Understanding and Coping with NLD and Asperger’s – What Parents and Teachers Need to Know. Penguin Group (USA) Inc. New York


About the Author:
Roslan Saad
Lead Educational Therapist
Jurong Point Learning Centre
Learn more about Roslan