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Many students who struggle in school do not fall into traditional diagnostic categories. Some of these students are good at decoding but have difficulty with understanding the overall meaning of what they read. Some have typical language abilities but struggle with spatial organization. Others seem attentive and motivated but are unable to develop or revise their plans for completing homework and tests. These students often have weaknesses in the conceptual building blocks. This chapter reviews the abilities related to thinking with language and images and using strategies.

Thinking with language: Oral language and academic performance

Like the sea, talk is the environment that first incubates and then nurtures our development.

Students with weaknesses in oral language have difficulty both with understanding what is said to them and with formulating responses. They often fail to understand what teachers say, miss important points in lectures, and misinterpret assignments and test questions. These difficulties can inhibit a student’s ability to comprehend what is read, solve problems, and monitor his or her environment. When John was in eighth grade, he had an assignment to write an essay about a short story read in class. John had difficulty with understanding the story, so the special education teacher paraphrased and summarized the main events. She then attempted to explain the essay questions so that John could select the one he would attempt. After 40 minutes, John asked, “By the way, what is an essay?” His special education teacher then reviewed a standard process and structure for an essay: Begin with an introductory paragraph, add several supporting paragraphs to develop the topic introduced in the first paragraph, and summarize or draw conclusions in an ending paragraph. John then replied, “Oh, I thought she meant the letters SA.” No wonder John was not concerned that the assignment was due the following day.

Components of oral language

The following abilities are subsumed under oral language: phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Phonology refers to the sound system of a language. Difficulties with phonology are described in detail in Chapter 7. Morphology refers to the meaning units of language. Just as a phoneme refers to the smallest unit of sound, a morpheme refers to the smallest unit of meaning. For example, the word boys is composed of two morphemes, the meaning unit boy and the plural markers. Syntax refers to the underlying structure of language and the rules that guide word order. Semantics refers to knowledge of word meanings. John did not understand the meaning of the word essay and, consequently, constructed his own interpretation based on the phonological features of SA. Pragmatics refers to the social aspects of language and the varied use of language in different social contexts. A child with a pragmatic language disorder may fail to alter his or her delivery on the basis of the situation and the listener. As a result, he or she may speak to the school principal in the same tone and manner as to a peer on the playground (e.g., “Hey, man, what’s happening?”’).

The first components of oral language are acquired in infancy. By the age of 9 months, many children understand that certain sounds represent words and that words represent objects, experiences, and feelings (Myklebust, 1965). Gradually, oral language develops as children learn to apply words to describe objects, experiences, and feelings. Children also begin to learn the rules of syntax by conversing with others. For example, a child might say, “Give blocks,” and the caregiver would respond, “Would you like me to give you the blocks?”’ The caregiver in this example has provided the child with a model of how language is used. In order to develop their abilities, children need to have practice using language for various tasks. Oral language provides the structure through which children interpret, organize, and store information about the world. Children with weaknesses in oral language tend to struggle with language-based academic tasks, such as reading comprehension, written expression, and math problem solving.

Receptive and expressive language

Oral language abilities provide the foundation for success in tasks involving comprehension, problem solving, and self-monitoring. These tasks are based on an individual’s receptive and expressive oral language abilities. Receptive oral language refers to an individual’s ability to understand what is being said to him or her. The major skill needed for success in this area is listening. Listening requires that we receive and interpret correctly the message that is being conveyed. Expressive oral language relates to an individual’s ability to retrieve ideas and vocabulary and express these thoughts in an appropriate manner. The major ability needed for success in the area of expressive oral language is speaking. Speaking requires us to develop intent to speak, formulate what we are going to say, and finally move our muscles to produce the appropriate words and sentences. Deficiencies in the use of expressive language in preschool children have been found to predict subsequent academic difficulties (Bishop & Adams, 1990; Tallal, Curtiss, & Kaplan 1989). Some students have adequate receptive language but poor expressive language. They understand what is said to them but have trouble responding orally Other students, like Katy, have poor receptive language and expressive language.

When children are in school, teachers expect them to be able to follow verbal instructions, lectures, and guidelines. For students with difficulties in listening, the ability to follow through on a given verbal task is a challenge. Poor receptive language can result in lower grades, gaps in a knowledge base, and the inability to work effectively with others. Social interactions can also be affected by difficulties with listening to and understanding language. As children grow older and become employed, poor receptive oral language abilities can hinder job performance.

John has a part-time job after school at McBurgers. One afternoon, his supervisor stated, “Pull out the french fries after the timer goes off.” Not understanding what menu item, he was supposed to remove, John began wrapping hamburgers. When the timer went off, he did not remove the french fries. Smoke started to flow from the deep fryer. John’s supervisor quickly pulled the french fries out of the oil and promptly informed John, “ ‘You’ve got to follow directions if you want to keep your job here.”

Expressive language skills are needed consistently throughout school and in the work environment. Students are expected to give oral reports, engage in oral reading, and interact with their classmates on a daily basis. If a child’s ability to tell stories or describe events is limited, performance in the areas of reading comprehension and written expression is affected. When children have difficulties with acquiring and using language, academic performance is hindered.

Instruction for language development

Vygotsky explained that one important way in which language develops is through social interactions with more knowledgeable language users. As teachers and students work together to attain educational goals, they must model the process of learning by talking about these processes as they perform tasks. Englert provided an analogy to explain the mutual and reciprocal contributions of the teacher and students. Think of a team practicing volleyball. The team works together to keep the ball in play. As they practice, the teacher, like any good volleyball coach, stands by, ready to assist and provide instruction when needed.


Oral language forms the basis for understanding what we read, expressing our ideas in writing, and solving mathematical story problems. Through discussions with students, teachers can model the kind of thinking that people do while reading and problem solving, thus building the thinking block of language. What this means, quite simply, is that you describe your actions orally as you perform an activity. You use visual cues, and you talk aloud while students watch and listen. Through your modeling, students become more strategic in their approaches and assume increasing responsibility for task completion.

Another way to help students increase their understanding is to describe the actions that the student is performing. Two simple techniques are expansion and elaboration. For expansion, the teacher extends the student’s remark to a more complete and correct form. So if the child said, “I keeped the book,” the teacher may remark, “Oh, you kept the book?” For elaboration, the teacher takes the student’s response, expands it to a correct form, and adds some additional information. The teacher may say, “I am glad you kept that book. I knew you would think it was an interesting story.” These types of simple activities help students increase language abilities, as well as word knowledge.


When students have trouble remembering what they hear, make sure that they understand oral directions. Ask them to paraphrase, repeat, or explain instructions. Allow students to repeat the questions they are being asked, having them rephrase the question in their own words, before answering. Encourage students to ask questions and to use multiple modalities for reinforcement (i.e., encourage them to read the information, say it aloud, and to try and develop a visual image). Several techniques, outlined in the section on visual imagery, can help students learn how to form mental pictures.

Background knowledge

One critical factor that influences oral expression, reading comprehension, and written expression is background knowledge or what one already knows about a topic. When a student does not understand what he or she hears or reads or does not have much to write or say, it is usually because the student has limited background knowledge about the topic. In other Words, people understand most easily and write most fluently when the topics relate to or build on background and experiences. Both Katy and John have trouble understanding classroom instruction because many of the concepts are new and the vocabulary that is used is too technical. The main reason that they have trouble with understanding is that they do not have the necessary background information to grasp the concepts presented.

John’s high school biology teacher noted that John was highly motivated but did not retain the concepts that were presented in class and in the textbook. John had consequently failed the first three weekly biology examinations and was also failing examinations in history. His history teacher, Dr. Mantell, commented that although John was attentive and participated actively in class, his oral answers to questions were often incorrect and, at times, not even related to the topic.

When asked to define words as part of a reading evaluation, John appeared to have tangential knowledge of some words, but he seemed confused about the exact meanings of words. For example, John said that equator was an antonym for latitude. When asked for a synonym for zero, he responded, “One million because it has lots of zeros.” Responses to other questions further revealed his confusion and lack of information about basic concepts. When asked “What is paper made from?” he replied, “ ‘sodium.” When asked “Which country borders the United States on the north, and which country borders the United States on the south?” he answered, “ ‘Hawaii and England.” For students like John and Katy, it is important to begin instruction by finding out what they already know about a topic and then relating the new information to the established concepts.

K-W-L strategy

A simple strategy for helping students increase their knowledge is called the K-W-L strategy. To begin, write three columns across the top of a piece of paper, as illustrated in Figure 9.1. Then help students complete the worksheet. First, have them brainstorm what they already know about the topic. In the second column, list questions that arise concerning ideas that are not fully supported by other class members. Students can then work in small groups to answer questions and record results in the third column. For students with more limited abilities, a peer may help with note taking.

After completing the worksheet, students may write a paragraph that summarizes what they have learned about the topic. K-W-L also provides the opportunity for the student to review and rehearse what has been learned. Katy completed a K-W-L sheet, presented in Figure 9.2, with a cooperative learning group in her fifth-grade classroom. The group was studying spiders.

Figure 9.1 - K-W-L Set Up
What I Know
What I Want to Learn
What I Learned
Have students brainstorm and list any information that they already know about the topic. Have students develop questions about what they want to learn about the topic. Have students record what they have learned from reading and library research.


The breadth and depth of an individual’s vocabulary can affect school success. Vocabulary knowledge is needed for most academic tasks. Students with well-established vocabularies tend to speak, read, and write more effectively. The following procedures can help students increase vocabulary.

  • Check first to see if students can define the new word by reading it in context (i.e., by reading the rest of the sentence or paragraph). This strategy can reduce the amount of time they spend looking up words. If they cannot define the word, looking it up in the dictionary or asking someone else are better strategies than skipping the word.
  • Ask them to select a word, relate it to other information, check the definition, write the definition, and use the word in a written sentence. Grouping words by similar meaning for practice can enhance recall.
  • Encourage students to write down and define unfamiliar words in a small notebook or inside the covers of their notebooks or on the reverse side of the page when they first encounter them.
  • Encourage students to practice using new words in conversation and assignments, to listen for new words when watching television, and to play with words by doing crosswords and other word puzzles. Practice with using words increases the likelihood that students will retain word meanings. Katy’s fifth-grade teacher, Ms. McGrew, would log onto This website enables teachers to create word puzzles for students using any words they select.
Figure 9.2 - K-W-L on spiders
What we Know
What we want to find out
What we learned
  • Spiders have 8 legs; spiders have sharp teeth
  • They climb in webs
  • Some spiders bite people
  • Some can live under water
  • Some male spiders get killed
  1. Why do spiders bite people?
  2. Do all spiders bite?
  3. Why do spider have 8 eyes?
  4. How many eggs do spiders lay?
  5. Are spiders helpful to people? How?
  6. Why do female spiders kill the male spiders?
  1. To protect themselves
  2. No
  3. Not all have 8 eyes
  4. More than 100 eggs in a sack for certain spices
  5. They eat insects; the plant we grow
  6. When they’re hungry

As students progress through school, the vocabulary in classes becomes increasingly specialized. Some students benefit from direct instruction on the use of common prefixes and suffixes and the study of word origins. Students can also study the various derivations of words to increase their understanding of how common morphemes, prefixes, and suffixes alter word meaning. This type of instruction can be enhanced with a graphic organizer. Ms. McGrew, Katy’s teacher, would place a word in the center of the map, such as the word friend, and then have the students brainstorm all of the words they could think of that are formed using this root. Figure 9.3 illustrates the completed class graphic.

Many texts have glossaries; when they do not, encourage students to make a list of words with easy-to-understand definitions. John found that dictionaries sometimes offered definitions that were more confusing than helpful. He found that a glossary in an ability-appropriate text with a good index was far more useful. Many teachers post words on signs in their rooms to help reinforce new or important vocabulary words or phrases. Building a word wall around a specific content area is also useful for helping students increase their vocabulary

Students can also use technology to expand vocabulary. You may encourage students to use the Franklin Word Master (see Additional Resources) or a software program that provides pronunciations and definitions orally. The Quicktionary Reading Pen, described in Chapter 8, provides definitions of scanned words (see Additional Resources).

Higher-level questioning skills

Some students need help developing the use of higher-level questioning skills. As students progress in school, a greater emphasis is placed on assignments that require analytical and critical thinking. Asking questions presents an opportunity for active engagement with the material. As a result, more effective learning occurs. John found that it helped him to ask questions in a variety of situations, such as taking notes from a text, writing a research paper, or studying a chapter in his math textbook.

Teachers can model how to ask questions during class discussions. Dr. Mantell, John’s history teacher, encouraged students to recall related facts from several sources, express an opinion and give reasons, summarize what they had learned so far, predict the consequences of certain actions, and organize information in new ways. During class discussions, she asked the following types of questions:

  • How are the ideas related to one another?
  • How do they relate to what you already know?
  • What is the main idea of _____________?
  • What if _____________?
  • How does _____________ affect _____________?
  • What is the meaning of _____________?
  • Why is _____________ important?
  • Explain why _____________
  • Explain how _____________
  • How does this relate to what you’ve learned before?
  • What conclusions can you draw?
  • What is the difference between _____________ and _____________?
  • How are _____________and _____________ similar?
  • How would you use _____________?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of _____________?
  • What is the best _____________ and why?

Using these types of questions helps create an interactive classroom in which students are encouraged to discuss, clarify, and review ideas.

Click to see map for derivations of the word FRIEND

Learning Disabilities and Challenging Behaviors: A Guide to Intervention and Classroom Management (pp. 271-277). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.; Available at the LD OnLine Store;
Copyright 2001 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.; posted by permission. All rights reserved.
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