How to Improve Reading Skills in Students with ADHD

The research is clear: listening comprehension skills are integral to reading success. That means working on listening skills in speech therapy, remediation, and intervention is important and the skills to do so should be a part of all our our toolboxes. But since many of our caseloads include students with ADHD, for whom listening skills can be an extra struggle, what should we do? Let’s talk about listening comprehension, its relationship to reading success, how it’s impacted by ADHD, and some strategies and activities we can implement with our students.

Disclaimer and Disclosure: Though I am an ASHA-licensed SLP, the information in this post is intended only for informational purposes. It is based on my clinical experience and judgment. You are responsible for using your own clinical judgment and doing your own research before implementing any intervention strategy. I hope this post inspires you to research these ideas and determine if they are appropriate for your clients or students. 

listening comprehension and reading success

We’re all familiar with the simple view of reading, but let’s review just in case. The simple view (Gough & Tumner) is, in fact, simple:

decoding + language comprehension = reading success

Plain enough, really!

The consensus is that once students can decode a text accurately, their comprehension of that text will be limited by their ability to comprehend the text when listening to it. In other words, if they aren’t able to understand and remember the text when listening to it, they’re unlikely to understand and remember it when reading it. In the early grades, decoding alone is an important predictor of reading success, but as students get older and texts become more complex, the language comprehension ceiling becomes more evident.

For SLPs and others of us in remediation and intervention, this suggests we can have an active role for improving our students’s reading skills, even if we’re not going to be specifically targeting phonics, decoding, or fluency.

Additional research tells us more about the kinds of language skills we should be thinking about when working on listening comprehension. These skills include:

  • vocabulary
  • grammar/syntax/morphology
  • narrative skills
  • inference
  • verbal working memory

The same research suggests that these aren’t predictors of poor comprehension as individual skills, but that they are predictors become of their inherent role in language comprehension as a whole. Additionally, verbal working memory was a predictor only in that it is a skill inherent to the four aforementioned language skills.

So, to summarize:

  • As students get older, their ability to understand spoken language is a significant predictor of their ability to understand the same written language.
  • Effective listening comprehension remediation should target word meaning, word, sentence structure, and text structure, and inference.
decoding + language comprehension = reading success. why listening comprehension is important for reading.

how adhd impacts listening skills

When it comes to our students with ADHD, we’re really looking at two different sides of the listening coin.

First, we have to think about a student’s difficulties with listening that are due to distractions, noisy environments, speaking rate, etc… Students with ADHD will likely benefit from self-advocacy and environment modification strategies.

Second, we have to think about the language delays and language processing difficulties that many students with ADHD experience.

Both of these factors should be taken into account and addressed in order to help students with ADHD improve their listening comprehension skills.

listening comprehension strategies

Self-Advocacy Strategies

A good place to start early on in therapy or remediation is teaching students to advocate for themselves in less than ideal listening situations. I would suggest approaching it like this:

  • Step 1: Talk with your student about what impacts their listening most.
  • Step 2: Explicitly teach strategies that can address their specific struggles.
  • Step 3: Discuss when and how to use those strategies in a controlled setting using stories, scripts, and more.
  • Step 4: Practice strategies in the therapy room by creating distractions that the student will respond to in real time. Discuss afterward.
  • Step 5: Collaborate with other teachers to monitor strategy use in the classroom.

So, what kinds of strategies should we teach? This will vary based on the student’s needs, of course! However, here are a few ideas that will likely work for many students.

  • Practicing asking for accommodations to be made in the classroom
  • Practicing explaining an ADHD diagnosis and its impacts to a variety of relevant individuals (teachers, parents, coaches, etc…)
  • Practicing asking for clarification or repetition from a variety of relevant individuals (peers, friends, teachers, parents, etc…)
  • Practicing talking to friends or family about how they can help (getting their attention before speaking, speaking slowly, making eye contact, etc….)

Environmental Modification Strategies

Environmental modification strategies can be taught similarly to self-advocacy strategies. They should be chosen based on individual needs, explicitly taught, and practiced in a variety of situations. Here are a few examples of strategies that could work for your students following the same steps as above.

  • Wearing noise-canceling headphones or listen to white noise during individual work or tests
  • Sitting in a less distracting area of the room, whether that be the front, off to the side, or closer to the main teaching area
  • Using schedules, sticky notes, or other visual reminders for difficult tasks
  • Taking notes and/or chunking spoken and written directions
Photo of over the ear headphones to represent listening comprehension

Language and Listening Comprehension Strategies

Now that we’ve tackled the environment and self-advocacy, let’s look at language and listening comprehension skills and strategies that we can target in therapy and remediation. Based on the research cited above, we’ll focus our efforts on a few specific skills.


I like to look at vocabulary using a few key (and often overlapping) strategies:

  • Describing or defining words
  • Semantic feature analysis
  • Applying all relevant skills from the language processing hierarchy
  • Appliying context clues for unknown words in a sentence or text

These strategies are definitely not mutually exclusive! In fact, I typically use information from a semantic feature analysis to build descriptions or definitions and many skills from the LPH are also semantic features. Some information from a semantic feature analysis or the LPH can be useful when examining words in context and applying context clues to determine the meaning. It all works together!

In order for students to understand what they are listening to or reading, they have to have an appropriate knowledge of the words they’re hearing or reading. Since we’re discussing poor readers, we’re looking at these skills in the absence of decoding or recognizing words. However, it is important to reinforce both the phonological and orthographic representations of the words—how they sound and how they look. Involve the senses—sight, sound, and touch—to really engage students with target vocabulary words.

Want to work on tiered vocabulary using picture books? Click here!

Syntax, and Morphology

When it comes to syntactical and morphological skills, let’s look at a few key ideas:

  • Understanding and applying refixes and suffixes
  • Understanding and using passive voice sentences1
  • Understanding and using adverbial (temporal and causal) clauses1
  • Understanding and using center-embedded relative clauses1
  • Understanding sentences with 3+ clauses1

Prefixes and suffixes are important because of how they can change word meaning, which can also affect our semantic knowledge mentioned above. Zipoli (2016) identified passive voice and clauses as some of the most important syntactical features needed for comprehension. That helps us narrow our focus and touch on the most vital skills in our sessions, rather than teaching parts of speech and other syntactical features of language in isolation.

Deconstructing and combining both words/word parts and sentences are great approaches for building morphological and syntactical skills.

Narratives and Text Structure

Now, let’s think about the structure of what our students are taking in. When thinking about these skills, I like to reinforce:

  • Story grammar
  • Types of nonfiction texts (description, cause/effect, compare/contrast, problem/solution, sequence)
  • The purpose of information (This can be more general. Am I listening to a teacher’s directions? Am I taking a message for my parents? Am I listening to announcements from the principal?)

These skills are important because they give students a solid foundation to begin on. So, if a student knows that they’re listening to a fictional narrative, it’s helpful for them to key in on story grammar features. In contrast, if they’re listening to a nonfiction text, it’s important for them to recognize whether they’re listening to the reasons something happened (cause/effect) or possible solutions to a problem (problem/solution). Knowing the structure will help them recognize the salient features associated with that structure.

In a more general sense, students should also be given opportunities to think about real life listening opportunities that they deal with—things like listening to teachers, announcements, or parents. If we can help them understand the salient features of these activities of daily life, we’ll help them build functional skills for the real world.


Lastly, students need to be able to read between the lines (so to speak). At times, they will need to make reasonable inferences about what isn’t explicitly said. Marzano2 suggests teaching students these questions:

  • What is my inference?
  • What information did I use to make this inference?
  • How good was my thinking?
  • Do I need to change my thinking?

Teaching students to infer will inherently teach skills like identifying the main idea and key details. It also builds on academic skills, such as finding evidence. And one more thing—we use inference skills all the time, not just when reading! So this can also help with social skills and ADLs.

suggested activities for therapy and remediation

Now that we’ve looked at some of the specific strategies we can use, as well as some of the research behind them, I want to share a few activities that you can use to put them into practice! These activities are most appropriate for upper elementary through high school aged students. Although I am looking at activities for students who can decode effectively (at around a third grade level), these activities are perfectly appropriate for students who can’t because the focus is on listening and oral language.

A couple of these units are my own, while the others are products I found on Tpt and thought helpful! Click on the photos below to go directly to the store links for more information.


1: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1053451216659465

2: https://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/inference

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