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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Linda Evans

Supporting SEN pupils with speech and language difficulties: classroom strategies for teachers and assistants

Tips for school staff to help children with SEN develop speech and language skills and overcome or minimise their difficulties.

Speaking and listening affect all areas of learning, and children with under-developed skills are at a significant disadvantage.

In 2008, the Bercow Report recommended that all adults working with children should receive information and training on how to alleviate children’s difficulties and help them to improve these skills. This is an important part of a SENCO’s role, so make use of any local authority support and consider organisations such as ican2 and The Communication Trust for updating your own knowledge, researching resources and arranging whole-staff training.

Much can be achieved in the classroom to support children and young people with SLCN, including some who may not have been identified.

It’s important for teachers to realise that pupils categorised as ‘inattentive’, ADHD, disruptive or ‘just not interested’ may actually be struggling to understand what is being said to them. By making teachers and TAs aware of these issues, and reminding them of some straightforward approaches, you can gradually improve speaking and listening skills (and often behaviour) across the board.

Be aware of how staff speak and listen

‘Fanks for vat’, ‘they was late again’, ‘must of’ instead of ‘must have’, etc. – incorrect pronunciation and grammar leads to additional confusion for children who are already struggling to understand and get things right.

It’s also important to recognise that children with SLCN might not understand non-literal language and sarcasm. ‘I think you’ve turned a corner today’, which I heard recently from a teacher pleased with a child’s progress, actually meant nothing to the child at all.

In terms of listening, teachers and TAs should be offering good models of this all the time: listening carefully when a child speaks to them, asking questions to ensure they understand the child’s meaning, and listening to each other (teacher to TA and vice versa) in a courteous way.

Where members of staff are failing to provide good models of speaking and listening, the issue must be addressed. You can refer to the Teachers’ standards; be sensitive, humorous and non-judgemental; speak to the whole staff rather than single out individuals; plan a focus week.

However you approach the issue, stress the importance of children hearing and being able to use ‘standard English’.

Some practical tips

The classroom environment

  • Seat pupils with SLCN away from distractions and near to you so that they can see your face clearly when you speak.
  • Use visual back-up as much as possible (facial expression and gesture, visual timetables, symbols, visual timers); show examples of completed work; use video clips to demonstrate processes.
  • Consider introducing a signing system, such as Makaton.
  • Establish class routines and explain carefully when there are changes.
  • Praise and reward good speaking and listening; focus on these skills at particular times, with clear explanations of ‘what I’m looking/listening for’ (WILF). Use good examples of speaking to reinforce good communication: ‘Jacob, you spoke really clearly and we could all hear what you said. Well done.’
  • Establish turn-taking rules, perhaps using a toy or bean bag to pass around the class (only the person holding the object can speak).
  • Allow time for pupils to answer. For example, ‘I’m going to ask a question that I want you all to think about carefully. We’ll take a minute (more or less as appropriate) to think abut this, then I’ll choose someone to answer.’ On choosing someone, say their name first: ‘Eva, can you tell us …?’ This alerts the pupil in good time so that they can be ready to respond.
  • Establish a system for asking for help, such as a special card for the child to display if they don’t understand.
  • Encourage pupils to ask each other for help and explanation when they don’t understand something – and praise this when you see it happening.

Differentiation strategies

Break down tasks and instructions into manageable ‘chunks’, perhaps with step-by-step symbol or picture cards to back up short, clear verbal explanations. This is something that a TA can be tasked with, but exactly how to do it should be carefully planned.

I sometimes see a TA sitting on the carpet with a child and talking to them at the same time as the teacher is talking to the class. This is distracting for other children (who aren’t sure which adult to listen to) and sends a message to the child with SLCN that they don’t need to listen to the teacher as their ‘helper’ is there to repeat and simplify what has been said. Instead, encourage the child to listen carefully along with everyone else at first, before the TA checks their understanding and then uses appropriate prompts and visual aids if needed.

Approaches to consider with a small group

These might include:

  • explanation of unfamiliar words, metaphors, etc and practice in using a dictionary and thesaurus
  • asking pupils to explain what they have read/learned (‘how’ and ‘why’ questions) and what they have to do; checking their understanding and perhaps noting down simple written instructions as an aide-memoire
  • helping them to organise their thoughts and plan tasks (making sure that the pupils do most of the thinking and talking)
  • rehearsing verbal responses for the plenary, or allowing a pupil to speak in a less-intimidating small group and then relaying what the individual said to the larger class
  • giving corrective feedback, so providing a good model of language
  • using role-play to encourage speaking and develop confidence. Being ‘in role’ often empowers pupils to be more extrovert; consider using a microphone or telephone (real or ‘play’)
  • using technology to motivate and support learners, e.g. Clicker 6 (Crick Software) to make a picture book and record the child’s voice telling the ‘story’.

Most importantly, allow the child with SLCN enough time to sequence and compose their thoughts in an unhurried and unpressured way, with lots of praise for the effort made.



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