The child with comprehension difficulties

The child with comprehension difficulties
Speech and Language Therapy Advice
Some kinds of speech and language problems - like those of children who don’t talk
clearly or in full sentences - are easy to spot in the classroom. In this leaflet we look
at another type of problem, just as important but often harder for the teacher to pin
down: the child who doesn’t seem to understand, or remember what is said to him.
Many children follow a normal course of language development but at a slightly
slower rate than their peers - perhaps because of the quality of the language they
have experienced in the past, or perhaps because of a family pattern of language
delay. These children will tend to have problems in both understanding language
and in expressing themselves.
Others may have fallen behind in their language because they have had a period of
hearing loss; even minor, fluctuating losses caused by repeated ear infections or
intermittent catarrh can affect the child’s developing vocabulary and listening skills.
Others again - a very small group - may have a very specific language disorder which
means that they are more than just a bit late in understanding complicated language;
they are actually developing differently and can have some quite big problems in
making sense of what they hear.
He may seem much worse at sitting still and concentrating in specifically
listening situations - like parties, or assembly - than other children.
He often seems to be one step behind the others when following your
instructions - for example, in P E he has to watch the others before he knows
what to do.
He forgets messages and can’t remember what you’ve asked him to do.
He can’t follow complicated sentences; try him on “Before you give me the
key, give me the spoon.” with a collection of four or five objects.
He may not understand concepts of place and time; sentences like “Before we
go out to play we’ll have a story.” or words like behind, between, above and
He may not be able to answer “wh” questions - where, when , why, who?
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Any child who seems to be having problems like these should have his hearing
checked - more than once if he has ‘on -off’ catarrh or ear trouble. The rare child,
who is really struggling to understand speech (try him on instructions with 2, 3 or 4
important parts -”Bring me your book.”, “Bring me your book and pencil.”, “Bring me
your book and your red pencil.” should always see a Speech and Language
Therapist - particularly if you have noticed that he sometimes says things at
inappropriate times, or that are slightly off the point. Others, with less severe
problems, are usually best helped by their teachers and families.
Your first job with a child who has problems in understanding is simple; to make sure
your messages are getting across. Try these tips:
GET HIS ATTENTION - Before you speak to him, call him by name. Make
sure he is standing still and looking, or give a signal like “Listen carefully.”
GO UP CLOSE - Go up to him to speak, rather than talk across the busy
SAY IT AGAIN - Give him time to respond, and if necessary, repeat what you
said in the same words - rephrasing may only confuse him. Use pictures,
pointing and gesture to help get across the point.
BREAK IT DOWN - Break down long and complicated questions or
instructions into shorter units, for example, “When you’ve coloured the stars,
cut them out and stick them on the black paper.” could be simplified to “Colour
the stars. Cut them out. Stick the stars on the black paper.” Whilst “Show me
the long red pencil.” Could be changed to “Show me the pencils. Show me
the long pencil. Now show me the long, red pencil.”
PUT THE MAIN MESSAGE LAST - Make sure the important parts of any
message are at the end. Say “After the television programme, you’re going
straight to the hall so fetch your P E bag now.” NOT “Fetch your P E bags;
you’ll need to take them with you to the hall straight after our television
DON’T ASSUME HE’S UNDERSTOOD - Make sure he can repeat any
instructions you’ve given him, and watch him start any new task.
WATCH YOUR WORDS - Always ask yourself if the child actually
understands words you use; for example, in number work does he know what
‘each side of’, ‘altogether’, ‘larger number’, ‘the number before....’ mean?
LET HIS FRIENDS HELP - When you are busy, appoint one of his friends to
repeat instructions and if necessary demonstrate what he has to do.
BE PREPARED FOR BAD BEHAVIOUR - if he has to spend a long time
listening to language he can’t understand. When you can, give him another
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task during long assemblies or stories. When you can’t, warn him he’ll need to
sit still and be ready with a small reward - like a gold star if he succeeds.
Involve his parents, or volunteer helpers in school, or older children in
reading aloud to him on a daily basis. Choose materials from both fact and
fiction, which increase slowly in complexity and decrease in the amount of
information given by pictures.
Use published language and listening materials for cassette player and
headphones, for the child to work on independently in class. Some of the
best materials around have been developed by a group of local teachers and
are available for just a few pounds from the Bath and District Teachers’
Centre, under the name ‘Listening Games’.
Make your own tape recordings relating either to duplicated pictures,
things to draw, or constructional materials - always with a model you have
previously drawn or made, so the child can check his success in following the
Examples: “On your picture you will see some houses. Colour the first door
red. Put a big number on it. Now find the largest window........ give it some
frilly curtains....”
“Make a wall two bricks high out of green Lego bricks. At one end add a
square tower of red bricks.....”
“Draw first a blue circle, then a red square. Put two dots inside the square....”
Play listening games as a class or in small groups.
Give each child a different coloured cube, which they must hold up when they
hear that colour mentioned in the story.
Get them to clap or tap when they hear a special word (or a word in a category
like ‘things to eat’) in a story. Try the eligibility game: “Clap your hands if
you’ve got red shoes on.”, “Stand up if you’re wearing grey socks.”
Play pop songs, Can they work out the words as a group?
Have them listen to and tell you about all the sounds in a 30 second period,
outside or in class.
Have the children spot wrong words in nursery rhymes and familiar stories.
Give the child extra time to learn new and important vocabulary.
He will need extra time to learn new words and be able to use them effectively.
Setting up a Topic Box in which he collects pictures of words that he is trying
to learn can be a way to help and monitor vocabulary development.
Encourage him to look at his words at least twice a day and revisit old words
to check that they have not been forgotten.
Work on understanding complex language.
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Play ‘I Spy’, riddles and treasure hunt. “I spy something small and sharp. We
use it for sewing.”, “I’m thinking of something we eat. It’s red and round.”,
“Find me something that’s small and shiny.”.
Put out sets of pictures, or a group of objects. Describe one without actually
referring to it by name, and have the children guess which one you are talking
Work on concepts of time and place; ask the group, for example, what they did
before coming to school, or hide a penny and give clues like “It’s underneath
something we read.”, or “It’s above your heads.”.
Work on the ‘wh’ questions; ask the group “Where do we ......, why do we....,
who does......, what would you do if ............, when do we..........?”
Work on understanding negatives. “Show me the one that’s not red.”, “Which
button is not done up?”
Play games to help the child remember.
The ‘Bring me’ game ......... “Bring me something red and something tiny, bring
me a book with a picture of an animal on the cover...” Use very simple
instructions for the child with language problems, longer and more
complicated ones for others in the group.
Put a collection of clothing on the table, say something like “I’ll wear gloves, a
hat and a red scarf.”, and have a child repeat the sentence putting on
appropriate clothing.
Put out a suitcase and a collection of things that could go in it, say “In my
suitcase I put ......” with a list of objects. Ask a child to repeat the list and pack
the case.
Older children can play similar games but without the props, as in “On my way
to school I saw .......” or “At the toy shop I bought ........” with each child in turn
repeating the list and adding one item.
Play the’ touch’ game - point to a child who will touch something in the room
then sit down. Point to another child who must touch what the previous child
touched plus one more thing ..... and so on until someone forgets the
Play the ‘gossip’ game - each child whispers a message to the next and the
last child says it out loud.
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