Language skills underpin a substantial part of academic learning, and determine how well children learn within the school environment.

A language disorder refers to impaired understanding and/or production of spoken or written language, and may involve disorders with the form of language (morphology, syntax, phonology), the content of language (semantics), and/or function of language in social communication (pragmatics) in any combination.

Difficulties communicating within the classroom will not only pose academic challenges, but may also impact upon a student’s self-esteem, self-confidence, and development and maintenance of social and interpersonal relationships.

Fundamental language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) lay the foundation for literacy acquisition and higher-level language abilities in school aged children. If a good foundation for these are skills are not established, the risks for literacy-related difficulties are elevated. Without appropriate assessment and intervention, these difficulties are likely to worsen with academic progression.

The following are the various ways in which language disorders may impact upon students in school: 

  • A student who presents with a language disorder may begin to show difficulties with regards to their academic performance. For instance, difficulties with understanding and following instructions, organising ideas, and word retrieval may be present. Difficulties with reading comprehension and the resulting difficulties (providing details, explaining what was read and identifying the main idea) may also be indicative of language difficulties.
  • Individuals with a language disorder may also present with difficulties with oral language, such as using language to express their thoughts, answer questions, expand upon their responses and provide details. These difficulties may also affect written language abilities, possibly in the form of difficulties with writing down thoughts, expanding answers and providing details when writing. This poses challenges with meeting the written language demands of the general curriculum. Language difficulties may also manifest in difficulties with higher-level language skills, for example, difficulties with figurative and interpretive language and understanding metaphors, jokes or similes.
  • Pragmatic difficulties associated with language impairments can result in social implications such as social interaction difficulties. A lack of knowledge regarding social rules and conversation may lead to exclusion or social isolation, reluctance to interact with peers, and difficulty maintaining conversations. In turn, this can lead to reduced motivation, self-confidence and self-esteem, and difficulty establishing and maintaining social relationships.
  • Language disorders may also give rise to behavioural problems. This may stem from frustration due to communication difficulties. This can lead to withdrawal from social interactions, frequent arguments, reluctance to contribute to class discussions, and inattentiveness in class. These students may also struggle with following classroom rules or have difficulties with understanding the need to follow rules. There is also a possibility that students may resort to inappropriate coping mechanisms, such as bullying, delinquency and truancy. This could be easily misinterpreted as purely bad behaviour, as these students may not be capable of using language to explain their frustrations or provide reasons for their behaviour.

Language skills are an important predictor of academic success. Every student has the ability to learn and should be able to demonstrate progress in their learning on an ongoing basis. Early identification, assessment and management can help pave a way in working towards achieving the best possible educational outcomes, and facilitating full participation in the educational and social experiences of school.