Oral Language Problems of Adults with Learning Disabilities

“I have a hard time understanding lectures and taking notes. My vocabulary is really weak.”

“I never seem to follow directions correctly and I simply can’t take a phone message.”

“Why is it so hard for me to get ideas out? Sometimes I can’t remember words and the ideas get all jumbled.”

The above quotes are typical of many adults with language based learning disabilities. Some adults have a long history of oral language difficulties that were identified during the early childhood years. With intervention they made good progress, but because the demands for new vocabulary and other oral communication skills increase, residual effects of their early problems persist into adulthood.

Other adults have minor oral language problems that have not been always detected. Often it is assumed that their only difficulties are in reading and writing. If this is the case, some are encouraged to use tape recorders or take oral examinations, which, in reality, may be more difficult. Because oral language problems may not be identified, all evaluations should include comprehensive assessment of both listening comprehension and oral expression.

Although many LD adults have relatively good language for general communication, they may have problems with highly specific tasks that require linguistic flexibility and more precise verbal organization. Some are concerned about their difficulty in social situations and are reluctant to participate in discussions, but others are unaware of their faulty pragmatics, poor listening skills and expressive problems.

It should be noted that not all adults with language based learning disabilities have difficulty with oral communication. In fact, oral language is often a strength, an avenue for learning, a means of conveying knowledge, and a skill for successful occupational pursuits. Even dyslexics with relatively low reading levels may develop high level vocabularies, complex sentence structure, and the ability to present well organized speech.

The following is an overview of symptoms, diagnostic procedures and interventions for those adults who do have oral language problems.



Failure to perceive words accurately may result in misunderstanding and mispronunciation. Therefore, whenever a person mispronounces a word, we try to determine whether they perceived it accurately. For example, if a person says, “I just returned from Alaksa,” we want to know whether they can detect the difference between Alaska and Alaksa.

When perceptual problems are detected, we help the student become aware of the need for more careful listening and suggest visual supports such as watching the speakers mouth. Sometimes reading helps oral language. Even though the students may have difficulty reading, we show them the differences between the two patterns (Alaska; Alaksa), say them, and elicit the correct production. In school, they should select seats in classes, where, if necessary, they can watch the speakers’s face.

People with perceptual problems should be careful in choosing a vocation. Some have gone into secretarial service, unaware that their auditory misperceptions might interfere with taking phone messages accurately.


Some adults have difficulty understanding vocabulary, complex sentences, and/or the significant points in a story or lecture. Since we need to differentiate problems of reception from expression, tasks are chosen that require only recognition responses (e.g.,Show me “_______”. Do these sentences mean the same thing?., or “Listen to this passage and indicate which is the best summary statement.”). Questions regarding main ideas, significant details, and/or prediction are used.

Many adults have only vague, personal word meanings. For example, when asked to define “domestic,” they may say “I’ve heard of domestic violence but I don’t know what it means.” We try, through guided inquiry, to help them use their background knowledge and work from the known to the unknown (e.g., Do you know the difference between wild and domestic animals?”), but often it is necessary to give clear explanations with several examples.

Work on derivations of words is also beneficial. This includes prefixes, suffixes, and morphemes that appear frequently in their course work (e.g., graph, gram, photo). By analyzing words such as “electrocardiogram”, they become conscious of words with the same morphemes.

Strategies can be taught for listening, note taking, and abstraction of key points. Reciprocal listening comprehension strategies may be helpful. Students listen to one or two sentences, and then take turns asking and answering questions.


Some adults have no difficulty comprehending, but they cannot express their ideas. They may be unable to retrieve (access) words, to pronounce multisyllabic words, use complex sentences, and formulate their ideas coherently.

Word Retrieval

Word retrieval problems can be detected with rapid naming tasks. Those who have difficulty often struggle in academic, professional and personal situations. Strategies for word retrieval such as first sound, associations, and/or visualization can be taught. In social situations, the adults are encouraged to relax, and, if necessary, simply say they cannot think of the word. In school, they may need extended time to elicit answers or to complete examinations.


Many dyslexics have difficulty pronouncing multisyllabic words. This problem is sometimes manifested in their oral reading and nearly always in spelling. Reading can be used to show how to dissect words, saying each syllable, and then putting them back together (e.g., en em y).


The ability to give definitions is a high level metalinguistic skill that requires an understanding of words, as well as the correct form to use. During the intervention we try to help students identify the class of word (i.e., part of speech) and become aware of the appropriate definitional form (“it is a place where…; it is a tool that,..; it means to …”). Again intervention may be combined with reading so students can see the correct definitions for nouns, adjectives, verbs, and other parts of speech.


Many adults have adequate syntax for general conversation but they do not use many complex sentences. During intervention we again combine work with oral and written language, first to highlight possible errors and then to show placement for modifiers, ways to combine short sentences into one, etc.

Formulation of Discourse

Some adults with learning disabilities have very labored, halting verbal expression. This may result from minor problems with word retrieval, syntax, or verbal organization. Others, however, need plans and guidelines for various types of discourse. For example, students may need to plan for summarizing a novel or science experiment. They also may need help with a sense of audience and ways to organize information for the uninformed listener. Practice giving oral reports to others, listening to themselves on tape recorders, and monitoring their own work is beneficial.


Adults who have difficulties in social situations should be made aware of certain nonverbal and verbal behaviors that might interfere with communications. Some need to be taught to maintain eye contact, to maintain the appropriate distance from the speaker, to adjust vocal intensity, and to wait or take turns. Others need to learn how to extend a conversation, to listen, and make appropriate comments that will keep the ‘ball rolling.” Sometimes, reading one act plays helps with turn taking and social skills.


In conclusion, not all adults with learning disabilities have oral communication problems, but for those who do, we recommend intervention that incorporates all forms of language. Reading can be used to aid oral language, but most of intervention should be done with listening and oral expressive tasks.

Adapted from an article by Doris Johnson that originally appeared in the 45th Annual Orton Dyslexia Society Conference Commemorative Booklet

Used with permission from the International Dyslexia Association, Buffalo Branch