What are we learning from students with language and/or attentional difficulties?

In this blog, PhD candidate Haley Tancredi shares early findings from her doctoral research, which is being conducted as part of the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project.


Difficulties using and understanding spoken or written language—or directing and sustaining attention—are subtle, but they can make school very hard work for the students that experience them. Unfortunately, because difficulties with language and attention are easily missed, these students might come to believe that they are not as “smart” as their peers, while the adults in their lives may think they’re just not listening or that they’re not trying.

In fact, listening and concentrating, synthesising and analysing, and planning and organising are exhausting for some students and they have to try much harder than most people realise. The burning question is: how many of these students are struggling at school, and what if we could address some of the unnecessary stones in their road?

How common are language and attention difficulties?

Around four students in every classroom have language and attention difficulties.

Language and attention difficulties are very common, but they are also under-identified and often poorly understood. Large-scale studies estimate that around four students in every classroom of 30 will have language or attention difficulties severe enough to result in a clinical diagnosis of Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and some students experience both. Students with other diagnoses, including those on the autism spectrum and students with dyslexia, may also experience language and/or attention difficulties.


While the idea that four in 30 students experience language and/or attention difficulties may come as a surprise, there are a few reasons why these students might not be easily identified even though they could be said to be “hiding in plain sight”.

How and why does this happen?

Teachers, parents, and peers often provide subtle support by “filling in the gaps” for students who have difficulty at school (or at home). Prompts like repeating what you have said or redirecting attention can have significant positive impact on students’ focus, memory, and comprehension. Adults and helpful peers often do these things without realising. However, when these supports are not available (for example, during a test or because there is an assumption that a student was “not listening”), these students can find it difficult to focus their attention or know what they need to do.

Students with language and attention difficulties also work hard to fly under the radar. As humans, we are socialised to “fit in” and teenagers especially do not want to stand out from their peers. Because they want to appear like everyone else, these students may be reluctant to ask their teachers for help. They may turn to their peers instead, which can lead to them getting into trouble for talking in class. They might also not know how to ask for the support they require.

If teachers, parents, or a student themselves suspect language and/or attention difficulties, a specialist assessment can identify the student’s profile of strengths and difficulties. Unfortunately, these assessments are expensive, can be difficult to access, and take time to administer. That said, the information within language and attention assessment reports can help teachers, families and students understand the barriers they experience. This information can then be used to design teaching and assessment strategies that minimise barriers to access and participation in learning.

What are we finding in our research?

The Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project is looking at how secondary school English assessment tasks and teaching practices can be made more accessible. The research team has invited all students in Grade 10 in 2022 at our Partner schools to take part in the research. So far, we have 221 students involved in the project. All 221 are depicted in the image below.

My PhD research focuses on the 61 students we identified with suspected language and/or attentional difficulties, based on questionnaires completed by their parent or carer. These students form our Language and/or Attention difficulties subgroup. This group is depicted in orange, and they comprise just over a quarter (28%) of total participants.


Our screening process picked up more students with language and/or attention difficulties than what is usually found in the population. However, this is probably because parents who suspect their child has difficulties were more likely to join the research project.

We have started looking more closely at the language and attention skills of the 61 students in this subgroup, and have generated some interesting preliminary findings. For example, just under one third (31%) had previously had investigations of their language and/or attention skills. These students are shown in green.

More concerning is that more than two-thirds (69%) have not previously had any investigations of their language and/or attention skills. That means that they have previously unidentified language and/or attention difficulties. This group is shown in the video image in red.

We anticipated that we would “find” these students in our project, because our previous research has shown that these students that are often hiding in plain sight. To confirm whether students in this group do indeed have language and/or attention difficulties and to what extent, we invited them to work with a team of speech pathologists. So far they have completed 56 individual student assessments.

Language and attention assessments: What did we look at and why?

Students in the Language and/or Attention subgroup have completed the Test of Integrated Language and Literacy Skills (TILLS) and the Brown Executive Function/Attention Scales Adolescent Self Report form (Brown EF/A scales). The TILLS helped us to assess students’ oral and written language skills. The Brown EF/A is a student-completed questionnaire assessing organisation, effort, emotions, focus, memory, and self-regulation skills.

Working with the students to complete these assessments has already given us a chance to learn a little about who these students are, how they learn, and what school is like for them. What struck us about these young people was their many talents in areas such the arts, information technology, and sport. Students were playwrights, were part of instrumental music groups and bands, were working hard to design futuristic computer games, and were involved in representative sporting teams (some at regional and State level). Many students also had other regular commitments outside of school, such as part-time jobs.

Many of the students also told us how hard they work at school, just to keep up. Some have tutors. Others spend the whole weekend doing homework, struggling with tasks that their teacher has said should only take 30 minutes.

It is interesting to note students’ reflections about the assessments themselves. During the TILLS tasks, many students were quick to report that they found reading and writing difficult. One student told us that he “isn’t good at writing” and “has a bad memory”. Even when they didn’t know how to articulate the challenges they face, their descriptions were emblematic of language and/or attentional difficulties, such as:

“I know what it means in my head, but I don’t know how to say it.”

Other students identified with so many of the items listed in the Brown EF/A questionnaire, they asked “Has this been written for me?”

What are the student assessments showing?

Our analysis of the 56 student assessments that we have completed so far indicate that there are four distinct groups:

  1. students who experience language difficulties only,
  2. students who experience attention difficulties only,
  3. students who experience both language and attention difficulties, and
  4. students who experience minor language or attention difficulties (but not at a clinically significant level).

The smallest group comprises students with attention difficulties only, while the largest is students with both language and attention difficulties. This latter group comprises over one third of students in the entire subgroup, while those with language difficulties comprise almost another third.

So, what can we do to support these students at school?

Addressing the unnecessary stones in the road

As our research is already showing, we do not always know which students in a classroom have language and/or attention difficulties. It is therefore critical that typical classroom teaching helps to support attention, memory, and comprehension. Using accessible teaching strategies for all will mean that every student has an equal opportunity to participate in class, whether we know that they are experiencing difficulties or not.

Throughout 2022, members of the research team will be working with Grade 10 English teachers from our three Partner schools in a program of professional learning. The focus of the professional learning is to support all students by helping expert teachers optimise the accessibility of their classroom instructions and learning materials so that these are easier for all students to understand.

As a PhD scholar, I am particularly interested in finding out what these changes to teaching practice mean for students who experience language and/or attention difficulties. If we can remove the stones from the road on which they currently trip, we anticipate these students will be more engaged, have more positive experiences at school, and will increase their achievement.

And we all want that.


Haley 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. This builds on her previous research, which investigated the impact of student-informed education adjustments for students with language difficulties. She tweets from @HaleyTanc.


  • Deb Adams

    Really interesting! I look forward to hearing more about this work!!

  • Sarah Andrews

    Thank you, such important work. So many children are excluded from their education, by design of flawed policy and practice denying inclusion.

  • Rosemary Simpson

    As a retired principal of a Language Development Centre in Perth, currently working as an oral language consultant, in many schools, it is very disappointing how little teachers know about how to explicitly teach oral language and help to close the gap. During their University training, there is no time dedicated to it and our Australian curriculum overlooks it by ensuring that our 5 year olds are pushed into written language when many are not ready for it. Teachers feel that their hands are tied because of the push down model often forced upon them by their school leadership (the earlier we start teaching them to read the better they will be) when most early childhood teachers realise that oral language is the foundation of literacy. They are desperate to learn how to teach it and support their students. Look forward to hearing more about your research / such an important topic!

  • Leah

    It’s great work – looking forward to seeing your results.

  • Jo

    I am following this research with interest.
    My Masters research was teaching a Year 8 English class using Drama pedagogy- very successful results in comprehension of the target text and writing.
    My current PhD research is: ‘How Arts pedagogy can promote Inclusive Education in Primary schools.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *