Is it a reading problem, or an oral language problem?


Note:  The ideas underlying this blog post originally came from word-finding expert Dr. Diane German, who was first author on the study discussed here and deserves all credit.  For more information on word-finding, please see Dr. German’s website,

Many children with reading problems also have difficulty with oral language.  But one concern has to do with whether these are actually co-occurring problems, or whether, for some children, an apparent co-occurrence could actually be the result of the way we assess these skills.

Often times, children’s reading is assessed with an oral reading task – that is, children are asked to read aloud for at least part of their reading assessment.  But if a child has difficulty with language production, could that affect their apparent reading skill using these types of tasks?

Ten years ago, Diane German and I examined the oral reading skills of children with known word-finding difficulties.  We tested these children both on an oral reading task and a silent reading task – and we found large discrepancies between these children’s apparent reading skills using these two measures.  The children with word-finding difficulties showed comparable performance to much younger children when tested with an oral reading task, while showing far superior performance to these younger children when tested in a silent reading comprehension task.

…even though the text is in front of them, the difficulty is really coming from having to produce the word aloud.

Why might this be the case?  One possibility is that after a written word is decoded and comprehended, oral reading uses the same processes for the language production component as does speaking aloud – if so, children who have difficulty naming words aloud will also frequently have problems reading words aloud – even though the text is in front of them, the difficulty is really coming from having to produce the word aloud.

If so, some of the apparent oral reading errors might actually be word-finding based, rather than decoding-based as typically assumed.

In fact, Dr. German and I presented an anecdote to support this idea:  one learner, when attempting to orally read the word cocoon, manifested a very typical word-finding error; he said “You know, it is that brown thing hanging in the tree.” That is, while he failed to read the word aloud, he had clearly successfully decoded the word and identified its meaning – he just couldn’t demonstrate that in his oral production.

One concern is that children with language difficulties could be misidentified as (also) having reading difficulties.

What does this mean clinically?  One concern is that children with language difficulties could be misidentified as (also) having reading difficulties.  Imagine what it must be like to be such a child, being placed in a remedial reading group because you have poor reading skills when you actually can decode just fine: it must be highly discouraging, and I imagine such a situation would make many children dislike reading altogether.


What can we do about it? Most importantly, we need to be cautious when assessing the skill strength of learners with oral language difficulties through tests of oral reading – basing decisions about reading instruction level on oral performance skills could result in placing children in the wrong setting (see German, D. J. , 2005, Word Finding Intervention Program, Second Edition (WFIP-2). Austin, TX: Pro Ed).

For more on this study, see:

German, D. J. & Newman, R. S. (2007). Oral reading skills of children with oral language (word finding) difficulties. Reading Psychology, 28(5), 397-442.

Rochelle_Newman-8 narrowRochelle Newman is Chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, as well as Associate Director of the Maryland Language Science Center.  She helped found the UMD Infant & Child Studies Consortium  and the University of Maryland Autism Research Consortium.   She is interested in how the brain recognizes words from fluent speech, especially in the context of noise, and how this ability changes with development.


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