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Content: Challenges


Challenges with Language and Literacy Development

You can see that many things influence how children develop oral and written language. Some things help it develop rapidly, and some things slow it down. Sometimes these things cause children to have less interest in or success with reading or writing. This isn’t their fault, but it’s our responsibility to help them cope with these challenges.

Stepping in to help as quickly as possible is critically important. When language development is significantly delayed, the lost ground in acquiring language can be serious. Delays are especially serious when they extend beyond the critical period of language development. This critical period begins at birth and ends somewhere between age five and puberty.

The table below summarizes several potential challenges and possible interventions. Sensory disabilities, learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia), and teaching English as a second language are explored in more detail after.

Potential Challenges and Examples of Interventions

Potential ChallengeEvidence of the ChallengeInterventions
Hearing impairmentInability to receive input from oral languageProviding early instruction in sign language; fingerspelling; visual phonics
Autism spectrum disorderInability to make eye contact and learn from social cues; delayed languageUsing an augmentative communication method such as the Picture-Exchange Communication System
Cerebral palsyDifficulty in forming speech soundsAsking for responses in written rather than oral language; communication boards (including electronic ones) and speech-generating devices
Visual impairmentInability to see printTeaching braille; allowing the student to use recorded books
Significant cognitive impairmentDifficulty understanding abstract conceptsBreaking down conceptual learning into small steps; combining language-based learning with visual, tactile, and kinesthetic experiences
English as a second languageDifficulty understanding and speaking EnglishProviding bilingual instruction; providing English immersion; teaching English while teaching other academic content
Learning disabilities (e.g., dyslexia)Difficulty connecting letters with sounds (decoding)Using an explicit, systematic, and diagnostic structured literacy approach that teaches strategies for word recognition with activities that support phonemic awareness


Given that learning to read involves drawing the connection between what a child hears and what he or she sees, sensory disabilities that interfere with a student’s ability to listen or see will often interfere with that student’s ability to learn to read.

Deafness, for example, keeps children from hearing the words that adults speak. Without the ability to hear or reproduce speech, learning to read by decoding—sounding out words—may be challenging. But there are ways to help! When children are able to see sign language from a very early age, even profoundly deaf children can avoid lags in language development. And for some children, an electronic device called a Cochlear Implant [COKE-lee-er] can be installed to help them hear better.

Blind and visually impaired children might not struggle in the same way to develop oral language, but reading still may present difficulties. These children can learn to read and write using braille and specialized computer software, however; and they can hear books read aloud. Remember that braille is not a language itself (like sign language), it’s a system for conveying language (like print).

A learning disability interferes with the brain’s ability to process information. Examples of learning disabilities include dyslexia, dysgraphia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Dyslexia, in particular, impedes learning to read. For people with dyslexia, the typical pathways in the brain that connect sounds with symbols are slow to develop. As a result, decoding is difficult. Between five and 10% of Americans experience dyslexia. It’s milder for some people, and more challenging for others. But there are good ways to help!

The Simple View of Reading, discussed in the previous unit, doesn’t just show us how reading works. It can also show us how to respond when students struggle. When a particular challenge interrupts the process, the reading “equation” helps us pinpoint where to intervene.

Children whose first language is not English can experience challenges when they attempt to learn English as a second language. Most English learners (ELs), even ones born in the United States, were spoken to when they were young in a language other than English. For some English learners, their first language is well established; for others, language learning is incomplete both in their native language and in English. English learners also arrive in an English-speaking country at different ages. Younger children tend to learn multiple languages much more quickly than older ones.

Parapros can play a big role in helping English learners learn English. But ELs face unique challenges. Different alphabets (e.g., Cyrillic) or even entirely different ways of writing language (e.g., character-based languages like Chinese) make getting up to speed hard. Even ELs whose first language uses a similar alphabet (e.g., Spanish or French speakers) must contend with differences in pronunciation that make understanding English phonemes very challenging.

Why do these pronunciation differences matter? They make decoding harder. Fortunately, there are ways to help. See the figure on the next page for some suggestions.

Module: Helping Students Read (Clone)

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