Learning Challenges

Getting the Words Out

Expert advice for bolstering language skills — reading, writing, and speaking — in children with ADHD and learning disabilities like dyslexia.

Girl with ADHD writing in notebook with apple beside her trying to prepare for class
Girl with ADHD writing in notebook with apple beside her trying to prepare for class

If your child sometimes seems at a loss for words, there’s good reason. The language skills of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a learning disability frequently lag behind those of their peers. Children with ADHD tend to be slow to make sense of what they hear, and need extra time to organize their thoughts and put together a sentence. That makes it hard for them to respond quickly to a teacher’s questions – even when they know the answer.

Written expression is an even greater challenge. Generating ideas, retrieving memories, applying spelling and grammar rules — these and other tasks may keep students with ADHD from completing classwork and tests on time. Problems with fine motor skills may also slow the act of writing, interrupting the focus needed to put thoughts to paper.

Early intervention is critical for children with language difficulties. If you suspect a problem, make sure the school evaluates your child and refers him for language therapy, if appropriate. In addition, the following strategies can help.

[Self Test: Could My Child Have a Learning Disability?]


In the Classroom

  • Speak slowly and provide information in small units. Given too much information at once, a child with language-processing problems quickly loses track. She may still be working through the first few minutes of the lesson after you have moved on.
  • Encourage students with ADD to participate in class by making verbal expression less daunting. Assure a student with ADHD that you’ll never put him on the spot by asking a question he can’t answer. When he does raise his hand, give him all the time he needs. If necessary, prompt him with questions.

Another approach is to build in time between your questions to students and their responses. For example, you might tell the class that you’re looking for three causes of the American Revolution. Pause for a minute, then ask the child with ADHD for one cause. That allows him time to think and gives him first crack at contributing an answer.

[How to Sharpen Verbal Skills]

  • Allow students with oral expression problems to answer questions in writing. This technique also provides extra time for them to formulate a response.
  • Arrange for a child who writes slowly to share a friend’s classroom notes, or provide her with a list of the lesson’s main points. A child with ADHD may be unable to listen and write at the same time.
  • Reduce time pressure by shortening written assignments and exams. If a test has six essay questions, for example, you might require the children with ADHD to answer only three. Provide extra time if all questions must be answered, as in standardized tests. Give ADD students a head start on long-term projects.
  • Don’t deduct points for poor handwriting or bad grammar — unless the assignment specifically measures these skills. If a child is working hard to remember and communicate, it’s best to let some things slide.
  • Suggest an evaluation for a learning disability if a student’s handwriting is particularly bad. A child with dysgraphia produces letters of irregular size and shape, leaves words or letters unfinished, and holds his pencil awkwardly. Refer him to your school’s special-education department or urge the child’s parents to consult an occupational therapist, neuropsychologist, or pediatric neurologist.
  • Let students with writing difficulties dictate their ideas into a cassette or digital recorder. Later, they can transcribe their ideas. For computer software that turns spoken words into type, see “High-Tech Writing Helpers,” below.
  • Show students how to organize their thoughts graphically before they begin to write. In a “mind map,” a picture or word representing the main idea goes inside a circle in the center of the page. Related ideas are placed on lines radiating from the main idea. Software designed to help students organize ideas visually include Kidspiration and Inspiration, available for $69 each at Inspiration.com.
  • Teach the strategy of “self-questioning” while writing , to keep the student focused on whom she’s writing for, what she’s trying to say, and whether her thoughts are clearly expressed.
  • Permit students to draw on strengths to display knowledge. A child who has difficulty with oral expression may excel at writing or constructing a display. A student who has trouble writing may prefer to make a poster or to give an oral report or a dramatic presentation.

[Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic Help for Scattered Students]

At Home

  • Make your home a place in which your child feels safe to express herself. If she speaks slowly, be patient; if she gets stuck, provide words to help her move on. Don’t let siblings make fun of her if she misinterprets information or misuses words.
  • Provide books, movies, games, and computer software to introduce new vocabulary words and to stimulate ideas. Explore these with your child and solicit her views.
  • Create opportunities for your child to engage in discussion. Introduce topics for dinner-time conversation, hold family meetings, and reminisce about past events.
  • Surround your child with friends, extended family, and other people with whom she can practice communication skills.
  • Offer to help with homework by writing or typing as your child responds to questions orally.

He Talks, I Type

“A student who struggles to get his ideas on paper may need nothing more than a typist. When I have such a student, I have him list the story’s characters, setting, problem, solution, and four main events. Using this ‘story map,’ he composes his story orally as I type it into the computer. Along the way, I ask questions and refer to his notes to keep us on track.

“When the main part of the story is complete, I give one instruction at a time — write an exciting opening sentence, for example, or describe the setting in greater detail — and have him fill in the rest. The result is always something to be proud of.”