Supporting Students with Language and Attentional Difficulties

Blurred image of school children walking through a school quadrangle with their backpacks on

Language and attention difficulties are very common, impacting up to 30% of students (around 8 in every class of 30). Although many students experience language and attention difficulties, they are often under-identified and not well understood.

In this post Haley Tancredi and Professor Linda Graham explain what language and attentional difficulties are and how students can be supported in inclusive classrooms.

Many of the fundamentals of school learning – concentrating, getting organised, understanding instructions and communicating information – can be difficult for students with language and attentional difficulties.

Sometimes, parents and teachers are aware that their child experiences these types of difficulties. Due to their “hidden” nature, however, this can sometimes come as a surprise. For this reason, it has been said that language and attentional difficulties are “hiding in plain sight”.

What are language and attentional difficulties?

Language difficulties affect the ability to use an understand vocabulary, word and sentence structures and using language for a specific purpose (for example, retelling a story or writing an essay). They impact all language modes: speaking, listening, reading and writing, as well as social skills.

Language difficulties can happen whether you speak only one language or are multi-lingual.

Attention difficulties are really an issue with executive functioning, which is a name for the activity that occurs at the ‘control centre’ of the brain. Difficulties with executive function can make it difficult to concentrate, control impulses and persevere with tasks.

Many students with language difficulties also experience attention difficulties (and vice versa). Children in both groups can also share key characteristics, including:

  • Difficulty following instructions or directions, especially if they are not part of the everyday routine
  • A relatively limited vocabulary for their age
  • Difficulty using and understanding new or technical words
  • Word finding difficulties that happen more often than for their peers
  • Difficulty retelling something that has happened, in a way that makes sense to the listener
  • Creating and structuring a written story, report or essay can be time consuming and difficult
  • Difficulty getting organising or organising belongings
  • Trouble with learning to prioritise, plan ahead and problem solve
  • Difficulty focusing on important information and be easily distracted

Even mild language and attentional difficulties can result in a significant impact on learning. For this reason, it is important that parents and teachers identify language or attentional difficulties. Teachers can then adopt strategies to address the barriers faced by these students.

Indicators for language and attentional difficulties in the classroom

Students with language and attentional difficulties often do not want to stand out in class. This may mean that they do not ask for help.

Sometimes students “misbehave” to mask the difficulties that they are experiencing. This may mean that surface level behaviours, such as disengagement or challenging behaviour are attended to, but the underlying cause of the behaviour may be overlooked.

Possible indicators of language and attentional difficulties include difficulty initiating tasks, literacy difficulties, behaviour concerns, school work avoidance, written texts that do not make sense (despite teacher feedback) and unexplained academic underachievement.

Supporting students with language and attentional difficulties in inclusive classrooms

High school classroom with teacher sitting at the front with a model of the human body and students watching a demonstration by the teacher

Many of the pedagogical practices that teachers can adopt to reduce or remove barriers in the school environment for students with language and attentional are simple, cost effective and of benefit to all students. Although some teachers use some of these strategies, some of the time, it is critical that they use most of these strategies, all of the time.

Research has demonstrated that when teachers modify their instructional language by — for example, speaking more clearly and using pauses to allow processing time — there are positive outcomes for students and teachers alike.

Teachers can support students with language and attentional difficulties by adjusting the way they present information to students. For example, they can use accessible instructional language, provide written materials, use strategies to support working memory, use simple visual aids to support instructional talk, and provide breaks and thinking time.

Other strategies include:

  • Use of short, simple sentences, particularly during instruction related to new or complex information
  • Providing short units of explanation interspersed with time for students to think and interpret what the teacher has said
  • Allowing students to work in pairs to put information into their own words or summarise into one key idea
  • Avoidance of non-literal language where appropriate. Sarcasm and metaphorical language can be confusing
  • Using visual aids, demonstrations or artefacts/real objects to support the ideas or concepts being discussed
  • Careful planning to ensure that visual aids support understanding and do not split attention or confuse the message further
  • A moderate rate of speaking, with pauses to ensure students can comprehend that is said. Teachers can get feedback from their teaching peers, students or a speech pathologist if they find this challenging.
  • Saying things in the same order that they need to be completed
  • Repeating instructions/information, using the same words where possible
  • Using gesture or action to enhance meaning and to help students regain attention
  • Providing frequent verbal summaries to review what has been said

Importantly, these strategies will help all students, no matter their language, socioeconomic or cultural background, ability, age or gender. We all have lapses in concentration and most students only hear a portion of what is said. Expert teachers use many of these strategies already but it is the art of implementing them often and well that will make the difference for students with language and attentional difficulties.

Want to read more?

Here are some links to additional information:

Supports at school for students with speech language communication difficulties by the Queensland Government, Department of Education

Understanding executive functioning issues by

10 strategies to enhance memory by Reading Rockets

Headshot of a woman with a dark brown bob haircut wearing black framed glassesHaley Tancredi is an educational speech pathologist with over 15 years experience in schools in NSW and Queensland. Haley is also a PhD candidate on the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project at QUT, where she is investigating the impact of teachers’ use of accessible pedagogies on the classroom experiences, engagement and learning outcomes of students with language and attentional difficulties. Her previous research investigated the impact of education adjustments for students with language difficulties, where students were consulted and had a voice in the adjustments that were designed and implemented. She tweets from @HaleyTanc.


Headshot of a woman with red hair and glasses who is smiling

Linda J. Graham is Professor and Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on the role of education policy and schooling practices in the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to children who some teachers find difficult to teach. Linda is the Lead Chief Investigator on the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project. Linda has appeared in numerous print, radio and television media and is a strong advocate that inclusive education is a foundational platform for broader social inclusion and the development of an inclusive democracy.

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