The challenges with language learning for children with specific learning difficulties (SpLD)

This topic was presented at the 55th International RELC Conference 2021, 15 – 17 March.

Comorbidities exist with dyslexia – it is a known fact. Increasingly, I have observed students whom I feel are more challenged at learning the English language than those who are ‘purely dyslexic’. While students with dyslexia display difficulties in reading, spelling and writing, they have no difficulty understanding what is read to them, are verbal, and can be very vocal. On the other hand, there is a group of students who may receive a diagnosis of literacy delay associated with dyslexia, on top of a diagnosis of speech and language delay. This is the group of students whose primary difficulty is not only in reading and spelling but in understanding and learning the English language.

Understanding and learning a language starts at an early age with the spoken (oral) language. Each child learns a language through understanding the oral language first, then the written language. The components of the language system which are: phonology, morphology, vocabulary, syntax and pragmatics – are learnt gradually and internalised as the child grows. Acquiring these aspects may be impeded for students with language or oral language weakness despite literacy intervention to remediate them.

In this presentation, I shared how using educational technology has helped students with oral language weakness gain language learning and reading skills. Educational technology (EduTech) is a term used to describe a wide array of teaching-and-learning–related software and hardware that is increasingly being used in classrooms with the aim of enabling an improved learning environment, to increase student engagement and participation in class, as well as boost student outcomes. Employing EduTech has been encouraged at DAS for a few years now. An EduTech Team was created to introduce and facilitate tech activities – Appy Hour and Techy Month – which are incorporated into lessons. Educational Therapists like myself have attempted to use apps such as Nessy, Nearpod, Epic, Kahoot, Quizziz, Padlet, and many others to introduce and review concepts so as to make learning more interesting for students.

Providing visuals is necessary in learning language and vocabulary. I have found that my students with oral language weakness are able to learn new words and expressions more easily with the help of visuals (pictures, videos) and quizzes. For example, visuals are included in my lessons when Grammar concepts and new words are taught. Picture conversation is a useful exercise to encourage students to express opinions and guide them to correct pronunciation and sentence structure. In order to consolidate learning, quizzes can be used to make review more interesting and engaging. In this way, what is learnt is better stored in the working memory.



Picture Conversations

Kahoot Quiz

What is most challenging for students with oral language difficulties is comprehending what is read. To facilitate this, I have found using audio books and videos to be helpful and stimulating my learners. The British Council Short Stories website provides comprehension exercises and transcripts for each video. Students will watch the video and be guided when reading the transcripts and completing the exercises.

Nevertheless, students with dyslexia and oral language difficulties possess similar traits: phonological difficulties and poor working memory. What sets them apart is their language ability. Students with dyslexia are unlikely to have reading comprehension difficulties. However, students with oral language difficulties will display reading comprehension and structural language difficulties in speech and written work. It might be confusing to determine which category a student may fall under. Hence, it is wise to seek professional help to ascertain the right kind of help the student needs. In conclusion, here are some recommendations for parents and adults working with students with oral language difficulties:

  • Encourage children to read aloud and share their opinions in a safe environment –
    These children may have difficulty expressing themselves and take more time to think of what to say and how to say it. Make them feel comfortable so that confidence is built over time.

  • Read books of interest or watch meaningful programme
    > discuss a useful words/phrases from the book
    > share viewpoints about the programme

  • Teacher modelling and verbalising statements –
    e.g. “May I go to the toilet, please?” instead of “I want go toilet”. These children often find expressing themselves verbally very challenging. Hence, allow them to make mistakes and then show them the right way.

  • Acknowledge student’s efforts – it takes a lot of effort from these children to produce what adults require of them. Thus, recognise every little effort to help boost their self-esteem.


Hani Zohra Muhamad
Lead Educational Therapist / Educational Advisor
Main Literacy Programme, DAS

Learn more about Hani!