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Are Delayed Language Processing Skills Holding Your Child Back?

Written By Geoff Nixon . October 27, 2023

Delayed Language Processing Skills Can Undermine Learning Without Affecting Speech

Language processing skills are the ability to comprehend and interpret language. And since language is the basis of all learning, it’s a foundational skill. If the development of language processing is delayed, all learning is delayed.

While this can rise to the diagnosis of language processing disorder, most language processing skill delays are more modest, inhibiting learning and reading skill growth rather than blocking development completely.

Many children are able to process language well enough to hear words, attach meaning and the use them in speech.  However, the much more demanding language processing skill is the ability to think while listening.  This is the ability to take in language, to put it in context, to observe the language syntax and conventions of what is heard and to make inferences, detect humor, etc.

Every child is one or two ear infections away from a delayed language processing skill development.  Ear infections deprive the brain of listening practice, thereby delaying the development of language processing skills.

Recognizing language processing delays where there are no speech delays are therefore much more challenging to detect.

But not impossible.

The Processing Skills Your Child Needs For Learning Independence

If your child is not critically observing and learning from every sentence heard from the age of 3 or 4, s/he is losing ground and the path to learning independence will be extended.  This is work being done by your child’s brain that is not easy to detect.

First, lets circle back to language processing and the tasks involved, such as:

  • Syntax analysis: Identifying the grammatical structure of sentences, including the relationships between words (e.g., subject, verb, object).
  • Semantic analysis: Extracting meaning from words and sentences, including understanding word meanings and how they combine in context.
  • Pragmatics: Understanding the implied or intended meaning of language in specific contexts, considering factors like tone, sarcasm, and social norms.
  • Discourse analysis: Understanding how sentences and paragraphs relate to each other in larger texts and conversations.

Language Syntax Analysis

Syntax analysis is noticing grammar, language conventions and the subtleties of how sentences and arguments are structured and how changing the order of words changes meaning. For instance, “men and old women” is different from “old men and women.”  The order of words makes a difference.

A healthy brain that is learning language is constantly reviewing every sentence heard – building language syntax knowledge and then using each sentence to confirm and cement in that syntax understanding.  Does that sentence structure gel with my understanding of language structure? is there anything in the tone or word order that might alert me to a different meaning?

This kind of analysis is only possible if the brain is able to process effortlessly, meaning it can hear the words and extract meaning automatically, subconsciously, thereby freeing up the brain for this background observation and analysis.

It’s of course very difficult to figure out if your child’s language processing skills are functioning at this level.

Note, this is why difficulty with rhyming is such an important marker of reading problems ahead.  Rhyming requires language processing skills, the ability to hear the sounds and then observe that words have common sounds.  This ability to recognize and play with sounds, to rhyme, is a sign of healthy language processing skills.

Semantics Analysis

Our understanding of the world is first learned orally and so is organized in our word memory, from spoken language.

This organization of our understanding of the world requires efficient processing.   In building a vocabulary first literal meaning is attached to words – that’s the simple part.  Beyond that words are categorized and compared to similar words. For instance, adverbs –  “good” is better than “satisfactory” but not as strong as “spectacular.” And “hired hand” is similar to “employee.”

Beyond literal vocabulary, meaning  can depend on the rest of the sentence for context.  Language processing skills can help identify other possible meanings.

Again, this kind of mental gymnastics is not possible if the underlying language processing skills are not efficient, automatic, effortless.


This is higher level thinking that helps children connect text to prior knowledge, personal experience and to the text itself.  This is a skill that requires practice and is a stepping stone to higher level comprehension and metacognition, the ability to think about one’s own thinking.

Pragmatics requires mastery of the subtleties of language,  Nothing less than linguistics mastery is required.

This includes getting humor.  Quite often, humor relies on irony, a non-literal use of language. And most humor relies on recognizing incongruity.  We laugh when things surprise us because they seem out of place.

An article in The Conversation uses this example.  Consider this joke: “A horse walks into a bar and the barman says ‘why the long face’”? This is partly funny because horses don’t normally walk into bars. But the punchline “why the long face” is amusing because we first don’t get why the horse would be sad. We then suddenly realise that there are two meanings of the expression – horses also literally have long faces.

To get this joke you need the contextual knowledge about horses not going into bars, the vocabulary to know that a long face means sad, and then the language processing skills to review the sentence checking for other meanings.

This is beyond many children who are still stuck at square one, hearing the words and attaching literal meaning,.

Discourse Analysis

This is where language processing skills feed directly into comprehension, a foundation for learning independence.

Virtually all learning and thinking requires context, which requires being able to process and hold ideas in working memory and reference them against each other, making inferences and drawing conclusions.

Are your Child’s Language Processing Skills Lagging?

If your child is behind in reading, the answer here is almost always yes.

Reading is a language skill, it’s language in a visual format.  And so if reading is delayed, it’s almost always related to acquiring language mastery and language processing skills.

If this is your child, here is a list of auditory processing symptoms that might resonate for your child.

Here are a few of the most important clues of a language processing skill delay to look for:

  • Rhyming difficulty at 3 years of age – see above
  • Does not get some verbal jokes
  • Struggles with phonics – related to phonemic awareness
  • Is inattentive at school – listening is exhausting if language processing skills are not automatic

Language Processing Skills Can Be Practiced and Strengthened

Gemm Learning uses Fast ForWord software to exercise language processing and related skills.  Fast ForWord uses adaptive exercises that find your child’s processing level and then adds speed and complexity at the child’s pace. The brain can learn new skills, including getting language processing skills to natural language speed.

If you’d like to learn more, schedule a free consult to find out if your child is a candidate for our program.

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