ADHD and Language

Boy speaking in front of class 

Children with ADHD often have trouble communicating. These problems may be caused by difficulty with:

  • pragmatic language skills
  • basic language skills
  • higher-level language skills

Pragmatic language weaknesses

"Pragmatic language" refers to how we use language in everyday conversation. This includes the ability to:

  • plan what to say
  • plan when to say it
  • plan how to get the message across
  • respect the rules of taking turns

Children with ADHD may have difficulty with these skills. This is because communication requires executive function skills: the ability to create a plan, carry out the plan, and evaluate how well the plan worked.  Executive function skills are often weak in children with ADHD. As a result, they may:

  • blurt things out
  • interrupt others
  • talk too much at the wrong time
  • speak for a long time, but with pauses that are too short for the child to organize his thoughts or to let others take a turn
  • speak too loudly
  • miscommunicate what they mean or misunderstand what others are saying

Parents and teachers may think of these as behaviour problems. However, these communication breakdowns can affect children's social interactions.  Children with ADHD might have difficulties communicating with friends, teachers, and parents.


 Academic Enablers – Social Skills


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Basic language weaknesses

Many children with ADHD also have problems with basic language skills, including:

  • age-appropriate vocabulary
  • grammar and syntax

In turn, these children will struggle with oral language and reading. This may also create difficulties for written expression.

Higher-level language weaknesses

We use "higher-level" language functions to understand and produce long, complex passages of spoken or written language. These functions rely heavily on working memory skills. As a result, children with ADHD often have trouble with them. They may have difficulty communicating their ideas to others.

Research has found that children with ADHD perform badly on many higher-level language tasks, including:

  • finding mistakes in instructions
  • making judgments about how easily they understand something
  • understanding information in science textbooks
  • understanding cause-and-effect relationships in stories
  • understanding why characters in stories are doing something
  • re-telling a story in their own words so that it makes sense
  • talking about their ideas in more detail
  • making clear explanations on request
  • answering questions concisely using specific vocabulary

As children enter higher grades and start doing more complex work, these weaknesses cause more problems.

Helping children with ADHD and language problems

Children may need support systems to help them:

  • understand complex written information
  • write coherent book reports or other texts

In the classroom, the following strategies may help children with ADHD and language problems:

  • Give one direction at a time.
  • Make directions clear, brief, and specific.
  • Chunk (use short sentences) and repeat the important parts of long explanations and instructions.
  • Demonstrate what is to be done and walk through the steps.
  • Provide visual supports for instructions, such as a checklist.
  • Always check to make sure the student understands instructions.
  • Give frequent and specific feedback.

These strategies are discussed in detail on the TeachADHD web site.

More information

Tara McAuley, PhD, CPsych

Peter Chaban, MA, MEd

Rosemary Tannock, PhD