Learning Challenges

How to Sharpen Verbal Skills

Here, strategies that parents and teachers can use to improve verbal speaking skills in children with ADHD.

Teacher discussing classroom behavior management with a student
School children in a classroom with a female teacher

If someone told you that children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) have trouble expressing themselves, you’d probably laugh and say, “Are you kidding? My daughter talks all the time.”

But when students with ADHD are asked a question that requires a concise, organized answer, they often struggle to provide one. A child with ADHD might describe Columbus’ discovery of America like this: “Well, there was a man and he had a ship. He sailed to America a long, long time ago….”

Answering a teacher’s question in class causes anxiety for a student who can’t find the words. Public speaking, another kind of challenge, frightens almost everyone, but especially students with ADHD. Some children avoid giving class reports because they can’t organize their thoughts and retrieve the words to express them. These strategies will get the words flowing.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have a Working Memory Deficit?]

Solutions: in the Classroom

  • Give the student time to think. Chat privately ahead of time with students who struggle with reading and processing. Tell them you will give them a little more time in class to formulate their answers.

After asking, “John, can you name one of the five countries that was part of the Allied powers during World War II?” the teacher could say, “I’m going to give you a minute to think about the answer, and then I’ll come back to you.” Knowing that the teacher is aware of his difficulty — and isn’t expecting an answer immediately — will help John think more clearly.

  • Ask questions from a worksheet. Assign a test review sheet as homework, on occasion, and go through the questions the next day in class. Since the ADHD student has already answered the questions, she can respond quickly. Reviewing the material and re-stating answers in the student’s own words are helpful for remembering important information.
  • If a student raises his hand, call on him as quickly as possible. With his limited memory capacity, he may lose his train of thought and respond with the classic, “Oh, I forgot what I was going to say.”

[Free Resource: Overcoming Common Learning Challenges]

  • Teach students basic outlining skills to identify key concepts. Review each student’s outline for his report or presentation and give your feedback. Outlining teaches students to organize their thoughts in a logical sequence.
  • Use outlining software. After a student understands the concept of outlining, speed the process with special software. The Inspiration and Kidspiration programs (inspiration.com) create a “mind map” or an outline from information the student enters.
  • Outline the oral presentation on note cards. Pair students and have them practice giving their reports to each other.
  • Highlight key words. Have students use a highlighter to draw attention to key words. Color is effective for helping students find and remember important information.

Solutions: at Home

  • Be patient. When you ask your child a question, wait for the answer and don’t get upset if she answers you in only a few words. It takes a lot of effort to retrieve memories about their day, organize their thoughts, and tell you about them.
  • Provide speaking opportunities. Having a child participate in religious programs, Boy or Girl Scouts, or community theater gives her an opportunity to practice her communication skills. Also, surround your child with friends, extended family, and other people with whom she talks freely, without the pressure of having to come up with a “right” answer.
  • Use cutouts from newspapers or comic books. Cut out the panels from newspaper comics or from a comic book, mix them up, and ask your child to place them in consecutive order — which comes first, second, third. Sequencing pictures and a dialogue is excellent practice for organizing thoughts.
  • Be your child’s audience. If your daughter has been assigned to present a report in class, suggest that she practice it at home, in front of a mirror, and present it to you or a friend. Remember to encourage her — and applaud when she finishes.

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