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Understanding — Verbal Comprehension

Verbal Comprehension in Childhood

Young girl, overwhelmed by homework.

Marcy Willard


Last modified 19 Oct 2023

Published 02 Mar 2022

What is Verbal Comprehension in Childhood?

Verbal comprehension in childhood is the ability to understand and communicate with written and spoken words.

The skills of verbal comprehension fall into a few major areas. 

  • Categorical reasoning – is knowing how words are alike by assigning them to common categories (e.g., an apple is like a banana because it’s a fruit).  
  • Vocabulary –  is being able to define common words. We expect children with a good vocabulary to know the word and be able to describe the meaning. 
  • Verbal Intelligence – is the type of verbal skills measured on an IQ test that includes verbal reasoning skills like recalling stories, defining words, and answering factual questions. The verbal part of an intelligence test is called Verbal IQ (VIQ) or Verbal Comprehension Index (VCI)

Top 10 Signs of Verbal Comprehension Problems in Children

1. Low reading skills: your child is struggling with basic reading skills

2. Reads well but not comprehending what they read: your child can read the words on the page but is unable to understand the meaning of the words

3. Struggles with writing: your child has a hard time getting what they are thinking into words on the paper

4. Unsure of the right words to express ideas: your child has something to say but ‘can’t find the words’ to get the idea out there. This word finding challenge may cause frustration. When a child has this type of trouble with communication, it may be helpful to speak with a speech and language pathologist

5. Not understanding what others are saying: your child struggles to keep up in conversations with peers and adults because of misunderstanding the words or phrases people are using. Listening comprehension includes listening to others and understanding them. This issue is also something a speech therapist can address

6. Forgetting new vocabulary or spelling words: your child is not able to remember vocabulary or spelling words for tests in language arts or other subjects

7. Feels lost when introduced to new materials in class: your child struggles to comprehend new content in school. When the teacher introduces new ideas, your child may take a long time to catch up with the new material

8. Not following directions: your child is not following directions, even when they are really making an effort. You may notice your child finishes the first part of your instructions but then doesn’t complete the rest

9. Needing to ‘see it’ rather than hear it explained aloud: your child can understand what is being asked of them when they “see it” in a graph, picture, or other visual. Your child does not have the same success when only hearing directions out loud

10. Struggles in many subjects: your child may have trouble in several subjects that require a lot of verbal skills. For example, language arts, world history, foreign languages, and social studies may be difficult

Causes of Verbal Comprehension Problems

Lack of exposure: children may struggle with vocabulary words because of never having been exposed to the words in the first place. This lack of exposure can happen when the child cannot attend school for long periods of time. If a child misses a lot of school due to illness, neglect, or environmental conditions, we expect some challenges with vocabulary and word knowledge. 

Children with this issue of ‘lack of exposure’ can often catch up with peers with intensive intervention and support from adults and school professionals.

English Language Learner (ELL): children for whom English is not their first language may have some challenges with verbal comprehension in English for prolonged periods. If the family speaks another language at home, the child may simply have less exposure to the English version of certain words or phrases. 

A delay in language development for English Language Learners is generally not a cause for concern. It is still appropriate for the child to continue speaking their native language while learning English. Given enough time and support, most ELL’s will learn the vocabulary and factual knowledge they need for their native language and English. 

Crystalized intelligence issue: children may have difficulties with the cognitive skills required to learn and remember verbal information. Psychologists refer to  this recall and use of factual information as ‘verbal intelligence.’ Children who have difficulties here might not remember common information like who the president is, what country they are from, or the days of the week. 

Challenges in ‘crystalized intelligence’ generally indicate a concern. Most schools can provide some testing and intervention to support children with these challenges.

Communication disorder: some children struggle to express themselves or to understand language. A communication disorder may cause this struggle. This disorder is generally diagnosed by a speech and language pathologist or by a testing psychologist. If expressive or receptive language is not developing at your child’s age level, these professionals can help. Often children with communication disorders are great at other things like puzzles or nonverbal communication. Getting support at a young age via speech therapy can make a difference for these kiddos. 

Intellectual Disability: there are individual differences in intelligence. Some children are great non-verbally or in working memory but have weaknesses in verbal ability. Some children have better verbal skills and struggle in other areas. An overall IQ score indicates a level of intelligence taking all these indices into account. If a child scores at or below 70 on a test like this as well as a test of daily living skills, there is support out there both from the state program or Community Center Board and from the local school district. Children with an intellectual disability will generally qualify for an IEP and special education support at school. Parents can request that their child’s cognitive ability be assessed at school if these concerns are present. 

Autism Spectrum Disorder: children with autism have a huge range of verbal abilities. Some children may have very advanced verbal comprehension, while others have very low ability in terms of verbal intelligence. A classic intelligence profile in autism may have a lower verbal score and a high nonverbal score. The good news is that many children with autism make huge gains in their verbal comprehension with treatment. Children with autism all have some trouble with social communication, as this is part of the diagnostic criteria for the disorder. If you have concerns for your child, talk to your doctor or a psychologist. 

What to Do About Verbal Comprehension in Childhood 

The great news about deficits in verbal comprehension is that these skills are highly impacted by exposure. If your child struggles with vocabulary and word knowledge, it may be that they just need more explicit practice.

Activate background knowledge

Teachers can introduce new topics by relating them to information the child already knows. For example, they might show pictures or maps of a place the child already knows about or has visited. These cues will trigger the brain to relate something unknown to something known. These connections to background information give context to new learning. They can help children develop their comprehension.

Help visual learners

Children who are more visual tend to appreciate pictures, images, and models. In class, non-verbal prompts are best [1]. The teacher can point out what to do next or physically model how to do a task. Providing checklists, graphic organizers, and visual schedules can help their comprehension.

Help kinesthetic learners

Kids who learn better by physically experiencing the information are kinesthetic learners. They have to ‘feel it’ to get it. Teachers can give manipulatives, objects, and experiential opportunities to help them learn best. For example, when teaching a math problem, giving the child three blocks in one hand and three in the other, and then asking, ‘how many all together?’ In this way, a child who isn’t naturally inclined verbally can learn new skills through physical activity. 

Strategies for kinesthetic learners

  • Physical prompts – The teacher might use strategies like tapping on a child’s paper, handing them materials, or patting them on the back. These physical, non-verbal prompts can be much more effective and less distracting than verbal directions.
  • Walk and talk – Kinesthetic learners tend to learn better when they can integrate motor movements with their learning. Doing a ‘walk and talk,’  jumping jacks, or a dance may help. Some children learn to spell words by doing a jumping jack for each letter or posing in letter shapes. Kinesthetic learners may also enjoy learning new spelling words by writing them in the sand.
  • Get outside – Some kinesthetic kids learn best while hiking around outdoors. For some children, the fresh air and sunshine essentially ‘wake up’ their brains and help them learn new information. 

“Knowing that your child is a visual or kinesthetic learner, rather than a verbal learner, can go a long way to help make learning fun and to avoid frustration.”

When to Seek Help for Verbal Comprehension Difficulties 

Verbal comprehension is an important skill for kids to have in place. At very young ages, such as kindergarten and first grade, there can be many reasons a child is struggling that are not cause for concern.

  • Mild attention issues kids who have attention challenges in early elementary school may fall behind in reading, writing, or oral comprehension. In this case, your child could be cognitively fine but may need support to stay on task
  • Boredom or lack of motivation kids who are disinterested in school may struggle with verbal comprehension. Your child may have all of the verbal skills they need but simply fall behind because of poor participation in the classroom
  • English Language Learners –  when children are learning English, they may be behind in verbal communication skills. Again, this challenge is generally not a cause for concern as your child will catch up with the right supports in place.

The time to be concerned about a verbal comprehension issue is when your child is not communicating or is really struggling in school. These struggles might be concentrated in subjects that require a lot of reading, writing, or speaking. 

  • Significantly delayed language- If your child is delayed in talking or is not speaking as well as peers, this challenge is an important area to have assessed by your school, a speech pathologist, or a psychologist
  • Strong preference for non-verbal subjects If your child does just fine in math and science but despises reading and writing, they might need extra support for their verbal comprehension
  • Trouble in progressing to upper grades If your child did just fine in early elementary school but is now starting to show difficulties in certain school subjects that require a lot of language like social studies, world language studies, and literature
  • Learning disabilities or significant learning problems If your child continues to struggle in subjects requiring a lot of language and needs intervention to do well in school. This area is particularly important for children with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia or dysgraphia. Anxiety, low self-esteem, or depression can result from continual challenges in academics

Professional Resources for Verbal Comprehension Issues in Childhood 

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of their learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help. They may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.

  • Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider symptoms in a developmental context. A testing psychologist can give you a profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses. They can help determine why this comprehension challenge is happening. Challenges in verbal comprehension may also cause significant self-esteem issues, anxiety, or depression in some children. Psychologists can help with that too
  • School psychologist: to potentially test verbal IQ or to consider academic issues challenges related to verbal comprehension, such as problems in reading, writing, speaking, or language arts. They often can work directly with children in special education or identified with special needs
  • Physical therapist or occupational therapist (OT): to look at fine motor skills or visual tracking in order to determine if challenges here could be getting in the way of reading or writing
  • Speech-language pathologist (SLP): to assess issues with receptive or expressive language that are interfering with verbal comprehension

Similar Conditions to Verbal Comprehension in Childhood

If your child is struggling with a similar problem not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for other related symptom areas.

  • Auditory processing: problems with accurately hearing sounds within words can lead to verbal comprehension issues
  • Intelligence: lower general cognitive ability is likely to impact verbal comprehension
  • Expressive language: poor expressive language skills may indicate problems in verbal comprehension
  • Receptive language: poor receptive language skills are generally related to low verbal comprehension scores on an IQ test

References on Verbal Comprehension in Childhood

[1] Eide & Eide (2006). The mislabeled child: Looking beyond behavior to find the true sources—and solutions—for children’s learning challenges. Hyperion, NY.

Book Resources on Verbal Comprehension

Flanagan, Dawn, Ph.D. (Nov 5, 2014). Cross-Battery Assessment: A Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses Approach to SLD Identification. St. John’s University, New York Yale Child Study Center, School of Medicine.

Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.

Sattler (2014). Foundations of behavioral, social, and clinical assessment of children. Jerome M. Sattler, Publisher, Inc, La Mesa, CA.