Difficulty with the Curriculum

When we think about academic difficulty for students, we often think of the curriculum or the subject matter (e.g. math, social studies, science, English, etc.), which can be remediated with tutoring. However, what most people don’t know, is that there is a lot more that impacts a child’s academic success than just the material being covered in the classroom. When we think of a classroom setting, children need to be able to master skills in a variety of domains. They must master:

  • The subject being covered
  • Acquiring and retaining the information provided in the classroom
  • Navigating any books or materials being used in the classroom (e.g. textbook, novels, computer programs, etc.)
  • Understanding the teacher’s expectations
  • The rules for interacting with peers and teachers

The above skills are needed to simply participate in the classroom learning environment; therefore, difficulty in any of those areas is going to reduce a child’s academic success before we can progress to the subjects being taught. Luckily if students have difficulty, the speech-language pathologist can help raise awareness of the classroom environment and its demands as well as hone those specific skills in order to promote academic success.

Language in School

Academic performance depends not only on a students’ ability to learn the material, but also on their ability to understand spoken and written language, their ability to convey their knowledge both verbally and written, as well as their literacy skills such as reading, writing, and spelling. Kids start developing the precursor skills needed to read, write, and spell as young as two years old. If those skills are later developing or do not develop, students’ performance will suffer. This is because reading and writing are both language-based academic skills (Gillam & Johnston, 1992).

Some of the necessary skills fall under the term phonological awareness (PA), which is the awareness of sounds, syllables, and words (Hedge & Pomaville, 2008). There are different levels of PA (Weinrich & Fay, 2007):

  • Rhyming
  • Sequencing sounds
  • Separating sounds
  • Manipulating sounds

Studies have shown that phonological awareness is a strong predictor of literacy development in school-age children. This means that if a child does not grasp these earlier concepts, they will have difficulty learning to read, spell, and write. This is because concepts like sequencing sounds or separating sounds are skills that we may learn at a young age; however, we continue to implement them as adults when we are reading and writing.

You might ask, how does rhyming and sequencing help with spelling and reading? Spoken forms of language like rhyming and alliteration (e.g. repetition of the same sound like Peter Piper) allow children to develop pre-literacy skills and awareness that they can later apply when learning to read and write. They are able to make connections between words that share common sounds (e.g. sun and soup both have “s” sound) and spelling patterns. Similarly, the ability to segment words into sounds (e.g. soup=s-ou-p) is a strong predictor of spelling ability as we continue to use such skills as adults when writing (Weinrich & Fay, 2007).

Demands Change, but It’s Never Too Late

We know early intervention is key to helping children be successful, but this doesn’t mean we can’t help beyond the preschool and elementary school age. Yes, classroom demands may change from preschool with circle time, show and tell, snack time, and clean-up, to primary grades with reading groups, homework, and workbooks, on to middle and upper grades where there are oral reports, written reports, test taking, following lectures, and note taking (Westby, 1997). Language is involved in all these learning environments, whether it’s understanding spoken or written language, using spoken or written language, or understanding and participating in social interactions.

A speech-language pathologist can help assess and remediate the underlying language skills that may be impacting a student’s academic performance at any grade level. There is always room for improvement; SLPs work on phonological awareness with a child in kindergarten, expanding vocabulary and concept knowledge with a third grader, or working with a high schooler on higher level thinking skills such as self-monitoring and goal setting or higher level language skills like metaphors and inferencing to help improve understanding. Similarly, SLPs are uniquely equipped with the knowledge and skills to teach students proper compensatory strategies for classroom use (e.g. organization, planning, and sequencing tools) that will help them be self-advocates and successful in school.

How Can We Help?

Speech-language pathologists (SLP) are highly trained in the areas of

  • Language development
  • Language comprehension
  • Expressive language (spoken and written)
  • Social Interactions

These areas underlie every topic in every class at every grade level; therefore, difficulty with language, can result in poor academic performance. Remediating underlying concepts such as understanding vocabulary or grammatical concepts like plurals verb tenses, will help a child’s performance in the classroom.

If you or someone you know is having difficulty in school, give us a call and we can discuss the evaluation process and if it’s right for you and your child. Following the evaluation, you and the speech-language pathologist will create an individualized treatment plan with specific goals to help improve your child’s language skills in order to increase academic success.


Gillam, R. B. & Johnston, J. R. (1992). Spoken and written language relationships in language/learning-impaired and normally achieving school-age children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 35, 1303 – 1315.

Hedge, M. & Pomaville, F. (2008). Assessment of communication disorders in children: Resources and protocols. San Diego, CA: Plural.

Weinrich, B. & Fay, E. (2007). Phonological awareness/literacy predictors of spelling abilities for first-grade children. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 34, 94 – 100.

Westby, C. (1997). There’s more to passing than knowing the answers. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 28, 274 – 287.