Is it language or learning?

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Q: My older child is having difficulties in school, especially with reading and writing and it’s not clear why. Is it is because of language, or something else?

A. This is a question that is hard to answer generally, and usually requires input on a case-by-case basis. Once children are past their initial phases of language acquisition we still sometimes see language-related difficulties in learning. The following questions can give guidance about how to understand your child’s challenges:

  1. Have they had continued language development in one language since birth?
  2. Do they have one language that is considered “age-appropriate’?
  3. Do they have the same issues in both/all of their languages?

One pattern that can be present when children have issues with literacy is fragmented language development. This often happens when families move frequently and change the language of schooling, or of the home. In these cases, sometimes the children do not develop one language to an age-appropriate level, and are left with several languages all functioning below the level needed for learning. Children in this situation will face similar issues in reading and writing in all of their languages, not only in one language.

Unfortunately, this is also the case in children with specific language delays or learning challenges, so it can be impossible to try and figure out what the root of the issue is. We can never go back and change our child’s language acquisition trajectory, so we can not determine if the learning challenges were present initially or are an outcome of fragmented language acquisition.

For families with young children, you can do your best to avoid this issue by ensuring continuous development in at least one of the home languages. Frequent changes of school language are also not recommended if it can be avoided, as each change of school language puts children back in language-learner mode and they can get behind on content learning.

For families who are already facing challenges with their children and are wondering what the cause is, the bottom line is that it actually doesn’t matter. The avenues to improvement are similar no matter what the cause, and include:

  1. Additional support for text analysis and comprehension at school
  2. Introduction of scaffolding strategies for reading, processing and writing, such as the use of graphic organisers (Venn diagrams, timelines, mind maps)
  3. Continuing support for home language development through parental engagement, specifically reading

If you are concerned about your child’s literacy development in upper primary and secondary, there is a good chance the teachers are concerned too. Developing a collaborative relationship with teachers and with school specialists (EAL, SEN) will provide a common approach to helping your child and the best opportunity for progress to be made.

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