Language / Comprehension Difficulties

Characteristics of Language/Comprehension Difficulties Impacting on Learning and Teaching

Difficulties with language and comprehension can include a broad range of difficulties associated with processing the speed, detail or organisation of written or spoken information. Students with language and comprehension difficulties may include students with dyslexia, students with hearing impairments who use British Sign Language (BSL) as their first language, overseas students with English as their second language or students with autistic spectrum disorders who use language literally and have difficulties with abstraction and ambiguous instruction. As such there is likely to be a broad range of difficulties experienced and useful strategies to overcome them, but the following strategies offer examples of good practice for teaching that are can be of benefit to all students.

Receiving Information During Lectures

Students with a range of impairments, such as those who are dyslexic, may want to record information by taping. Some lecturers are happy to provide students with a disk or hard copy of lecture material, or copies of overheads. Provision of these can enable students with language and comprehension difficulties to devote more attention to listening.

Taping lectures is not always an unqualified success, unless the student develops a system for retrieving information from the tapes, perhaps carefully cataloguing or labelling them, and keeping a record of the main ideas of the lecture. Taking home tapes of lectures for transcribing at a later stage can be very time-consuming, and students who do this may benefit from advice from lecturers about whether this is likely to be a successful strategy for study.

Work Placements, Study Abroad and Field Trips

Departments organising placements, field trips or study abroad for students with impairments will need to consider, ideally alongside the students themselves, the differences between the new context and environment and the more usual, and often more structured, context of study. Sometimes, the use of equipment, arrangements or personal assistance could, with a little planning, transfer to a different context. For example software support for students with language and comprehension difficulties could be used in a workplace to enable a student to produce written work of a satisfactory standard. Similar equipment might be appropriate for trainee tutors in classrooms.

Some equipment or educational support may not be so easily transferable. Taping lectures may be acceptable in a way that taping interviews with clients in a setting requiring confidentiality may not be. Portability may also be a factor to be considered for field trips and study abroad. Some non-medical, personal help, such as communication support for lectures, could be regarded as obtrusive during one-to-one work involving clients. The fact that funding may need to be found to purchase additional equipment for placements, field trips or study abroad, underlines the necessity to play and prepare long before the placement start date.

Students with impairments are positive assets on courses, where a reminder of the diversity of human experience is important. It can be instructive to be reminded of substantial gains for all students from organising placements in such a way that students with impairments are safely included, and not to think exclusively about problems.


For students who have impairments of various kinds, the usual assessment format may need to be modified to achieve the assessment objectives. Clarity about the latter will be very helpful in determining acceptable modifications, which will be different for different types of assessment, or for different parts of the assessment, e.g. a student may be considerably disadvantaged by part of an exam paper with a heavy concentration of text, such as multiple choice questions, but have no additional difficulty in reading and understanding brief essay titles. Students with language and comprehension difficulties may also be affected by the colour and/or contrast of the examination paper itself.

Some students may rely on equipment for the demonstration of assessed achievements, whether in a formal examination environment, or the less formal setting in which assignments are prepared for continuous assessment. A tape recorder, computer, or amanuensis or assistant, may be needed to enable a student to complete an assignment. There is a need for clarity over the role and involvement of equipment or assistant, so that arrangements are identified which ensure that the student maintains control over producing what it is that is to be assessed.

An amanuensis can be regarded as an efficient writing machine, responsive to instructions and free from the mechanical complexities of keyboards or tape-recorders. It is usually necessary for the amanuensis to be literate in the subject s/he is scribing. This is particularly true of subjects with terminology and symbols unfamiliar to most people. Working with an amanuensis takes practice, for both parties, as decisions have to be taken about such matters as spelling, punctuation, and, especially in a timed examination setting, the speed of dictation.

Many departments mark anonymously. Where students produce assignments in an alternative way, departments may have to consider whether the goals of anonymous marking can be achieved in some other way. If departments regard anonymous marking as a protection against marker bias, then it may be possible to achieve this end by some other way of monitoring standards in marking.

Teaching Strategies

These strategies are suggestions for inclusive teaching. This list should not be considered exhaustive and it is important to remember that all students are individuals and good practice for one student may not necessarily be good practice for another. You may also like to contact the Disability Specialist in your institution for further information. 

  • Use literal language and very precise meanings.
  • Use carefully worded, unambiguous questions to elicit and test learning, and limit oral questions to a manageable number.
  • Provide extra time after group sessions to check content has been understood, and encourage students to ask for instructions to be repeated, simplified or written down if they misunderstand.
  • Don’t assume students have understood instructions simply because they can restate the information.
  • It is often helpful to provide a lecture/session summary in advance or at the start of the session so students can concentrate on listening and understanding rather than taking notes.
  • When preparing handouts, pay attention to how easy they are to read and consider using more accessible sans-serif fonts.
  • Be as visual as possible in presenting new concepts and abstract material – use graphic organisers such as semantic maps.
  • Offer a range of lined coloured paper for students to write on (this may have to be photocopied or specially ordered). If students have a colour preference, ensure all handouts are printed on it for them.
  • Recording lectures and tutorials can be very helpful for those who need to re-listen to what has been said in order to make accurate notes and to discuss the content with others at a later date.
  • If a teaching session introduces a large amount of new terminology, provision of a glossary of key terms can be very useful.
  • It may be useful to provide a general overview of a topic prior to going into more detail.
  • Use as many concrete examples as possible when explaining ideas.
  • Break up teaching sessions into chunks to allow time for information to be processed.

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