We are soaked in language in schools: everything we do, everything we say and everything we read is filtered through it. So take it away and it’s as if we are operating heavy machinery with one hand tied behind us, a patch over one eye and cotton wool in one ear. We are impaired.
You’d think that difficulties with language would therefore mean an SLD (specific learning difficulty), and for many people it does. But as with anything in schools (or anything to do with human beings, full stop), nothing is as simple as it first seems.
Imagine that you have a new pupil in your class. They are quiet and well-behaved but withdrawn. They cry easily. They avoid eye contact and are clearly lonely. At playtime, they stand friendless while children at play shoot past and around them. Academically, they aren’t making much progress; their attainment is low.
As a short-term solution, you place them in a lower set, or a special educational needs and disability (SEND) support group. After all, they can’t keep up; they just don’t have the language.
Many of the children coming into our classes who cannot make themselves understood don’t have SEND, but rather English as an additional language (EAL). Just like children with SEND, they need specialist and informed teaching, but – and this is the important point – it is not the same kind of thing at all.
As a teacher of SEND, what you need to do is to slow the curriculum down, open it out, make steps to learning smaller than you would generally do. Very often, you need to work with fragile and teetering self-esteem, because the social stigma of SEND, even among children, is strong. You need to help them overcome the walk of shame out of class and into intervention.
That is not the same approach as children with EAL need.
This is not to say that I haven’t seen putting the two together work in an unexpected way. I’ve seen barriers broken down and friendships made between the fiercely bright but not English-speaking and the developmentally delayed. I’ve seen a little girl – for whom being helped was a way of life – transformed and empowered by the novel experience of being the one in the know.
But I have also seen children who had thought that they had made a new friend abandoned and confused once that friend was moved up and out. I have seen looks of horror as children whose only need was knowledge of English were made to sit with children who struggled with every academic area. I have seen deep unhappiness and loneliness in children on both sides of the divide.
Teaching is a subtle business and we need to know that not all labels mean the same. Attainment, as a measure of need, doesn’t tell us very much.
Nancy Gedge is a teacher at Widden Primary School in Gloucester
English isn’t a special need
This is an article from the 4 March edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here