Language impairments related to reading and behavior problems

iStock_000011758998XSmallResearchers studying children with impaired language development find that they are at risk for reading and behavior problems. A group of 581 second-grade children that included 164 with language impairments were examined for reading and behavior disorders. Reading and spoken language were found to be strongly related, and behavior problems, in turn, were strongly related to reading problems in this age group. This study indicates that once children with language disorders develop reading problems, they are much more likely to exhibit behavior difficulties as well.

J. Bruce Tomblin, Xuyang Zhang and Paula Buckwalter, University of Iowa, and Hugh Catts, University of Kansas, report that there is much research demonstrating that children with language impairment are at risk for poor academic performance, particularly reading problems. However, previous studies report wide variations (25 to 90 percent) in the number of language- impaired students with reading problems. Some studies also report evidence of greater attention problems and anxiety in this population compared to peers with normal language development. The research is mixed concerning other behavior problems in language-impaired students. Tomblin et al. sought to determine the degree to which deficits in spoken language are associated with deficits in reading and behavior. They also examined whether reading disability and behavior disorder represent separate associated conditions with language impairment or whether they are linked.

Study Population

The children in this study were drawn from a much larger sample of 7218 children in midwestern schools who were screened when they entered kindergarten. The kindergarten screening identified children with spoken-language skills significantly below average for their age. About one-third of the final group of 581 studied was initially diagnosed as language-impaired. None of the students included in the study was identified as mentally retarded, autistic, or as having any neuromotor or sensory impairments. A large proportion of language-impaired children was included to increase the information available about these children.

Two years after kindergarten screening, the children received in-depth testing of their language, reading and behavioral development. Testing was done in two sessions, for a total of three hours with each child. Trained examiners administered all language and reading tests. Information on children’s behavior was obtained from both teachers and parents.

For the purposes of this study, children who fell below the 10th percentile on two of the five language subtests were identified as language-impaired. Students whose combined score on word recognition and reading comprehension tests fell below the 16th percentile were identified as reading-disabled.


The total score on language tests was significantly correlated with all the reading and behavioral measures. However, there was considerable variation in the size of the correlations between spoken language and reading versus behavior problems. Spoken language showed especially high correlation to reading comprehension. Fifty-two percent of the children with language impairment also were reading-disabled, compared with 9 percent of students with normal language development. Thus, children with language impairment were nearly six times as likely to be reading disabled as children without language impairment.

Rates of behavior problems were also higher for children with language impairment than for children without. In particular, significantly more acting-out and attention problems were found in the language-impaired population. But there was no greater incidence of depression, anxiety or withdrawal. Sixty-one percent of the language-disordered children had either reading or behavior problems, while only 25 percent of the students with normal language development had one or both of those problems. The pattern of association suggests that behavior problems among language-disordered children is influenced by their reading ability. Behavior problems appear to be a possible outcome when language-impaired children also develop reading problems. In other words, reading disability seems to be a mediating variable for behavior problems in children with language problems. In this study, behavior problems were seen in 29 percent of the language-impaired group compared to 19 percent of students with normal language.


Children with language impairment are at significantly greater risk for both reading and behavior problems than children with normal language development. However, their risk of reading problems is significantly greater than their risk of behavior problems. If language-impaired children develop significant problems with reading by second grade, then they are more likely to develop behavior problems as well. These results suggest that school failure and learning disabilities play a role in the development of psychological disorders among some children. Tomblin says it is possible to conclude
from these results that children with language impairment are probably no more prone to behavior problems than are children with normal language development – until they confront learning to read.

The most likely causal relationship among these conditions is that language deficit is the precursor to the other conditions. This clearly emphasizes the need for aggressive interventions directed at improving the language skills of children entering school. It underscores the need to carefully monitor the reading progress of children with language impairment. If reading disability serves as a mediating variable between language impairment and behavior disorders, as this study suggests, effective reading intervention should reduce the rates of behavior problems among these children.

“The Association of Reading Disability, Behavior Disorders, and Language Impairment among Second-Grade Children” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry Volume 41, Number 4, May 2000 Pp. 473-482.

Published in ERN September 2000 Volume 13 Number 6.

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