Knowledge is power and all that, but I do wonder, sometimes, just how much a classroom teacher needs to know in order to do their job effectively where students with language difficulties are concerned. Yes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but so is a preconceived opinion based on an academic theory, rather than knowledge of the person.
In terms of teaching, what can a teacher do? First and foremost, remember that teachers are not speech and language therapists (SaLTs) and they won’t have the time to conduct speech therapy themselves (although having a teaching assistant to carry out a programme designed by a SaLT is useful, and often done in school); what teachers can do is use therapeutic approaches that turn every interaction and even the environment into a learning opportunity.
Many teachers use pictures and film to support learning; you can also use symbols (Communicate in Print is the standard) and so can the children. You might have seen someone using red and green cards to show their feelings, or variations upon a theme of smiley faces (saying how you feel when you are feeling intensely is always difficult, language disorder or not). As language difficulties also affect reading and writing, having a few symbols or useful visuals within texts is helpful, too.
And while the internet and computers are all very lovely, there is nothing quite like an interaction with something real that can be touched, tasted, felt or even experienced (AKA an object of reference). Experiences and objects also give us strong contexts within which to speak, listen, read and write; in other words, to communicate.
Signing and gesture are also useful, especially when a child’s receptive language is greater than their abilities to express themselves. Simple signs such as yes, no, stop, please, thank you and so on, aid communication, not just by themselves, but also in the way that the person signing makes themselves super clear, with precise pronunciation, good eye contact and actions. Makaton is commonly used with young children (you can pick up useful signs from Justin Fletcher or Dave Benson Phillips – find their videos online).
It might sound complicated, but it really isn’t – it’s more a question of knowing that every act of communication is a learning opportunity, and treating it as such.
Nancy Gedge is a consultant teacher for the Driver Youth Trust, working with schools and teachers on SEND. She is the author of Inclusion for Primary School Teachers. She tweets @nancygedge