Why can’t my child understand what others are saying?

Some children have problems understanding what their parents, teachers, friends and others say to them.  For example, they might listen attentively to a teacher telling the class a short story but not be able to tell you what happened, who was in the story, where it happened or why.

So what are the main factors and sub-skills that go into being a good listener?

1. Vocabulary: You’ll struggle to understand others if you don’t know the words they’ve said. Obvious, right?  Kids with poor vocabularies struggle to understand less frequent words.  But they also struggle to understand common words used in unusual ways – especially figuratively (e.g. “I’m filled with happiness” or “the light streamed through the window”).

2. Inferencing: When people speak, they (thankfully!) often leave out parts of the story, creating small gaps for listeners to fill in for themselves.  For example, I might say, “The supermarket floor was wet. She broke her arm. They’re going to have to pay up big time”.  I’d expect anyone listening to me to join the dots: to know that a lady I know (the “she” in my story) slipped on the wet floor causing her to break her arm.  I’d also expect a more advanced listener to know that the lady was now planning to sue the supermarket owners (the “they”) for substantial damages, hence my comment about “paying up”.  But to do that, a child needs to build a mental model or picture in their head of what I’m talking about – and some kids have problems doing that.

3. Background knowledge: To understand what someone is saying to us, we regularly draw on our prior knowledge of the world.  If you don’t know the background to what is going on, it’s hard to understand what the person is talking about, even if you understand all the words used.  For example, if I were to tell a story about how I saw an amazing near-ace straight down the T that was miraculously half-volleyed off the shoestrings cross-court for a clean winner to set up match point from love-40 down, you’d know exactly what I was talking about – unless you’d never encountered the game of tennis.  Many kids – especially from lower socio-economic backgrounds – struggle listening to academic language for exactly the same reason – they may never in their lives have encountered concepts like Paris or algae.  Without prior knowledge of the world and the background to what’s been spoken about, it can be hard to make sense of new information and to understand what someone is getting at.

4. Other factors: working memory and attention deficits can also contribute to poor comprehension, especially if in combination with deficits in the other areas described above.

The first step in helping children who struggle with listening comprehension is to figure out where the breakdown is (or breakdowns are) happening.  Your child’s speech pathologist, in conjunction with your child’s teachers, can help with this.

Key source: Hogan, T.P., Adlof, S.M., Alonzo, C.N. (2014). On the importance of listening comprehension. International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 16(3): 199-207.

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Image: http://tinyurl.com/prot7ag


Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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