Language skills and vocabulary are widely recognised as being the biggest predictors of a child’s success at school. The Rose Report (2009) stated that there is strong evidence that between 35 and 40 per cent of children with reading problems experience language impairment (5.2.5, page 111).
What’s more, there is a recognised connection between serious behaviour problems and language impairment, as evidenced by the high numbers of young offenders with low language skills.
Therefore, if we want to address behavioural difficulties in schools, as well as the underachievement of some pupils, it is essential that young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) get the support they need and are entitled to.
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But how do we provide this support? Seeking out the advice from specialist speech and language therapists is a must, but what can teachers also do in the classroom?
Here are three initial steps that schools can take:
Step one: diagnosis
As with any special educational need, the earlier the need is diagnosed, the better, as this means that intervention – whether inside or outside the classroom – can begin sooner.
Teachers and teaching assistants in early years and primary especially should be trained to identify and refer children with SLCN. There are a number of indicators to be aware of here. For instance, is the young person:
- Withdrawn, anxious or isolated?
- Hyperactive or lacking focus?
- Socially inappropriate or finding social interaction tricky?
- Irrational or impulsive?
Do they experience difficulties with…
- Sequencing events in the correct order?
- Finding the correct word or remembering new vocabulary?
- Idioms, metaphors and sarcasm?
- Staying on topic?
- Labelling emotions?
And speaking to parents is also a must.
Step two: modifying the classroom environment
There are plenty of simple steps that teachers can take to make the classroom environment more inclusive for those who experience language difficulties.
- Ideally, the young person should sit towards the front of the classroom, so that you can face them when addressing the whole class.
- Before speaking, use a phrase such as “everyone listen to this”, which lets them know that they need to tune in. If they do not pick up on this cue, use the pupil’s name to ensure they are paying attention. Once the information has been delivered, or the task explained, go to them first and ask them to repeat back the instructions to you.
- When talking with a young person with SLCN, slow down your speech (this may feel a little odd at first) and use simple language – avoiding sarcasm, metaphors and idioms. Be prepared to repeat and rephrase information and be patient when awaiting a response.
- Make sure you give an instruction by telling rather than asking. For example, “tuck your shirt in, thank you” as opposed to “can you tuck your shirt in, please?”. A child with a language difficulty might think or even reply “yes, I can do that” and then promptly do nothing. This could easily be mistaken for defiance, when in actual fact the young person has not recognised a question as an instruction because they do not possess the necessary receptive language skills.
- Likewise, if an incident occurs, ask the child to say what happened as opposed to explaining why something happened. This keeps it simple and allows the child to offer their side of the story. Asking a child to explain why something just happened could lead to further confusion and frustration.
- Make sure your classroom environment is a "safe space", where young people feel confident to ask questions, seek clarification and make mistakes. I like to lead by example on this one, by admitting when I make a mistake and by being curious – asking students to explain things to me that I might have no understanding of (such as Fortnite). Make it clear that no one is infallible.
- Question and answer sessions can be stressful for those with SLCN. There may be those students who you should avoid putting on the spot altogether; instead, you can warn them that you will be asking them, ensuring that they feel confident. You could also consider providing sentence starters for verbal activities, as well as for written ones.
- Explicitly teach subject-specific vocabulary, making this part of regular learning. Support new key words with visuals and try to get students to relate them to words they already know. For example, in geography students learn the word "intercept" when studying the hydrological cycle. Ask students what this word means on its own and the chances are they haven’t the foggiest, but include an image of a footballer (other sportspeople are available) intercepting the ball, and they can make the link.
Students may also be able to relate new words to similar ones, for example "confluence" (where two rivers meet – although I am sure you knew that!), compare it to "congregation", "conjoined", "converge" and see if students can make the connection.
You can also use gestures when teaching new vocabulary.
Step three: intervention
There will be some young people with language needs who will require more intensive and personalised support and this will require staff with specialist training.
At our school, we are fortunate to have a TA who holds an Elklan speech and language qualification, which means she is able to deliver bespoke, personalised intervention sessions. For example, she may explicitly teach a young person how to request help or clarification, by giving them a number of phrases relevant to a variety of situations.
Our school also has TAs trained in social communication skills, who run a communication and interaction skills intervention, which is either delivered to a small group or one to one, depending on the needs of the young people/person. In these sessions, students can work on a number of skills, such as starting a conversation, ending a conversation and expressing emotions.
Gemma Corby is Sendco at Hobart High School, Norfolk. You can read all her articles on her Tes author page