search Menu

Understanding language

Understanding and processing language is the ability to understand the words, sentences and meaning of what is heard or read.  It also includes understanding language concepts and grammatical structures e.g. past tenses and passive sentences.

Some young people’s difficulties with understanding language may be masked as they have learnt to pick up on key words and look for clues in the environment (e.g. pictures or gestures, or waiting for others to start a task before copying).

At secondary school, it is vital for young people to be able to understand the language in the classroom so they are able to access the curriculum and learn.  At secondary school, young people also have to understand longer and more complex instructions, non-literal or figurative language and sarcasm and jokes.

The ability to understand language involves:

  • Listening
  • Remembering information (auditory memory)
  • Understanding vocabulary and concepts
  • Understanding the importance of word order in a sentence (grammar)

If your child is struggling to understand language, you’ll notice that they:

  • Often have a blank expression when they’re spoken to and have poor listening skills
  • Don’t respond to the speaker or simply repeat what they’ve heard
  • Give inappropriate responses to questions, instructions and in conversations
  • Act by observing other children around them rather than by what they’ve been told to do
  • Hesitate before they start a task if they’ve been given spoken or written instructions
  • Look for reassurance
  • Have difficulty making friends and often seem isolated or withdrawn
  • Act aggressively towards other children
  • Struggle to understand what they’re reading

There are a number of techniques you can use to help your child understand language, including:

  • Gain their attention by establishing eye contact and saying their name before giving them information or an instruction
  • Use short and simple language
  • Use real life experiences to reinforce the information the young person has to listen to (for example, when you’re in a lift moving down, the gravity pulls you down but when the lift is standing still, the forces are equal so you don’t feel the pull)
  • Simplify instructions and information and break down into chunks or stepsEmphasise key words
  • Check they understand new words
  • Teach them new words using symbols and signs
  • Give them extra time to process your words and be patient while they answer
  • Don’t assume that they understand
  • Ask them to explain what you have asked them to do to make sure that they have understood
  • Agree with them about how they’ll let you know if they don’t understand (for example, raising their hand, an agreed signal, using an icon on their desk)
  • Give them time to write down information or provide them with a ready-written sheet
  • Give instructions in a logical or time ordered sequence; use words that make the sequence clear (for example: first, next, finally)
  • If they’re finding it difficult to interpret spoken, written or visual information (such as situations involving groups of people or finding out what is happening in a text), highlight and talk through the clues that will help them to make links
  • Whole class learning may be difficult for them; provide opportunities within the lesson to re-inforce information given to the whole class
  • Get them to read books that are below their expected reading ageTeach good listening skills and active listening skills. Find out more on our Auditory processing page
  • Repeat back or write down what you have been asked to do or the key information
  • Silently rehearse the instructions or key points in your head
  • Identify the important words in the instruction or information. You could note them down, highlight or underline them
  • Use all the information you can see around the classroom to help support your understanding
  • Ask for help when you need it. Let teachers or support staff know if you don’t understand. If this feels a bit embarrassing, you may want to talk to your teacher after the lesson and agree a way of letting them know you need help
  • Taking notes can help when teachers give you lots of information. If you don’t like writing, draw a picture or make a picture in your head
  • Tell people what makes things easier for you, e.g. written reminders of key steps, pictures or diagrams to look at. Your teachers will want to know how to help you

If you’ve tried all of these techniques and you’re still not seeing any improvement after four months, please speak to a teacher or GP

Online early language development workshops

Our team run online workshops on early language development. They are designed for parents and carers and those working within early years settings. We have three training sessions available on different topics to equip you with everyday strategies to support your child, aged up to five. Find out more information and how to register here.

Language Resources and Activities


Further information

IDP Online: Inclusion development programmes