If your child has trouble with spoken language, it can be hard to figure out why. That’s because there are different kinds of language issues that impact different skills. Three of them directly affect how kids use language to express themselves. They are expressive language disorder, mixed receptive-expressive language disorder and social (pragmatic) communication disorder.
But other conditions can also make it hard for kids to communicate. Learn more about what causes trouble with spoken language, and how you can help.
What You Might Be Seeing
Trouble with spoken language isn’t the same as speech issues. Kids with language disorders may have no problem pronouncing words, but can struggle to put together logical sentences. Here are common signs of trouble with spoken language:
Has a limited vocabulary compared to children the same age
- Substitutes general words like “stuff” and “things” for more precise words
- Has trouble learning new vocabulary words
- Leaves out key words when talking.
- Uses certain phrases over and over again when talking
- Doesn’t talk much, although he understands what other people say
- Uses short, simple sentences or speaks in phrases
- Uses a limited variety of sentence structures when speaking
- Has little interest in social interactions
- Goes off-topic or monopolizes conversations
- Doesn’t change his language for different listeners or situations
- Has trouble understanding things that are implied and not stated directly
- Doesn’t understand how to properly greet people or gain attention
- Doesn’t understand riddles and sarcasm
What Causes Trouble With Spoken Language
While there are two main conditions that make it hard for kids to express themselves verbally, other issues can create problems with conversation. And kids can have more than one. Here are the most common causes of trouble with spoken language:
- Expressive language disorder: This condition, also known as developmental expressive aphasia, makes it hard to put thoughts and feelings into words. Kids who have it are often late to talk and don’t “catch up” on their own. Kids with expressive language disorder often have a limited vocabulary. They may leave out key words from sentences and mix up tenses. They’re also at risk for other learning and attention issues, including dyslexia, ADHD and auditory processing disorder. It can be difficult to figure out which conditions cause which symptoms, since symptoms might overlap; ADHD and auditory processing disorder, for instance, may cause expressive language difficulties.
- Mixed receptive-expressive language disorder: Children with mixed receptive-expressive language disorder may show some of the symptoms of expressive language disorder, as well as difficulty with understanding what others say (receptive language). They may have trouble putting their thoughts into words. They often have difficulty understanding verbal directions or longer sentences. They may have trouble understanding basic vocabulary and may not understand stories that are read to them. They’re at risk for reading comprehension difficulties, too.
- Social communication disorder (SCD): This is a newly defined condition that has gone by other names in the past. They include pragmatic language impairment and semantic pragmatic disorder. SCD makes it hard for kids to make appropriate conversation. They may interrupt often and speak too much or too little. They may also say things that seem rude because they have trouble understanding the rules of social interaction. And they are at risk for ADHD and reading comprehension issues.
- Auditory processing disorder (APD): This condition mainly affects how kids take in spoken language rather than how they use it. But it still impacts conversation. Kids with APD have trouble recognizing the different sounds in words. They may frequently ask speakers to repeat themselves. They also may not speak clearly, dropping word endings and certain syllables. Kids with this disorder are at risk for reading issues, including dyslexia.
How You Can Get Answers
Knowing why your child has trouble with spoken language is the key to finding the best help. It may take time, but the following steps can help you get to the bottom of what’s causing your child’s challenges.
- Talk to your child’s teacher. You know what you see at home. But the teacher can tell you how your child’s issues with spoken language are affecting his learning and socializing. That information will be helpful if you talk to doctors or specialists about your concerns. The teacher may also be willing to try informal strategies to help your child in the classroom.
- Look into an educational evaluation. You or your child’s teacher can request that the school evaluate your child for learning and attention issues. If the school agrees to test your child, you won’t have to pay for it. Depending on the results, your child may be eligible for services and supports. The school will commit to providing that help in writing, through a 504 plan or IEP.
- Talk to your child’s doctor.This is a great place to start figuring out what’s behind your child’s issues. The doctor may be able to rule out a medical reason, such as a hearing problem. You may also be referred to a specialist for further evaluation.
- Consult with specialists. The person who can evaluate your child for trouble with language is a speech-language pathologist (also called a speech therapist). If you see the specialist outside of school, you will have to pay for it. But you may be able to get a free or low-cost evaluation at a local university that trains pathologists. If your child is under age 3, you also can contact your state’s early intervention system and request an evaluation free of charge. No referral is needed.
What You Can Do Now
You don’t need a diagnosis to start helping your child and find sources of support for both of you. Here are things you can do right away:
- Learn as much as you can. Understanding your child’s trouble with spoken language can help you find the best ways to help, both at home and at school. It can also help you be more patient and supportive when your child is having a hard time communicating.
- Observe and take notes. By observing your child, you may see patterns in his behavior and his trouble with language. Once you know the triggers, it’s easier to find strategies that will help.
- See it through your child’s eyes. Unless you also have trouble with spoken language, it’s hard to imagine what your child is going through. Take a moment to see what it looks and feels like from your child’s point of view. Share this with other family members as well.
- Talk and listen. Keep talking even if it’s hard for your child to make conversation. The topic doesn’t matter. Describe what you’re seeing out the car window or tell about something that happened at work. Give your child plenty of opportunity to respond, and pay attention to what he says.
- Team up at home. Try to involve your child in everyday tasks, and talk him through the instructions. If you’re going to bake cookies together, for instance, have your child help. Tell him what ingredients are needed and discuss what he needs to do, step by step. Then have your child instruct another family member on how he did it.
- Try different strategies. There are things you can do at home to help your child build language skills. You may also want check out Parenting Coach. Get suggestions for helping your child with things like poor self-esteem and anxiety problems.
- Connect with other parents. One source of support is other parents who know what you’re going through and can share tips and information. Understood.org can help you find parents whose kids also struggle with spoken language.
- The issues that cause trouble with spoken language don’t go away over time. But you can help your child improve his language skills and work on key social skills. Just knowing you understand and support him can be a big confidence-booster.