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Supporting Students with Speech & Language Needs - Strategies for Teachers & Teaching Assistants

Speech and language skills affect all areas of learning and children who are under-developed or delayed in their understanding or use of language are at a significant disadvantage.

You may have children in your class who have already been identified as having Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN), and there are many other SEN needs that cause SLCN. However, there may also be children in your class who have not been officially identified as having SLCN, but their behaviour may indicate that there is something. For example, pupils who may have been noted as being 'inattentive' or 'just not interested' may actually be struggling to understand what is being said to them. Likewise, those who 'act out' or are disengaged from the work set may be struggling to articulate that they need help.

So much can be achieved in the classroom when it comes to Speech and Language needs and by following a few simple strategies, you can improve speaking, listening and often behaviour skills across the whole class.

Practical Tips to Aid Speech, Language and Communication

  1. Seat students with SLCN away from any distractions so that they can clearly see you and hear you when you are speaking. (This does not mean sit them on their own - it is fine for them to be seated with peers, providing those peers also show exemplary listening skills)

  2. Use visuals as much as you can. This includes bodily visual clues, such as gestures and facial expressions, but also visual timetables, videos, timers etc.

  3. Establish turn-taking rules to promote good social communication. Perhaps a beanbag or toy that a child holds when it is their turn to speak?

  4. Use sign language, like Makaton, to support verbal language.

  5. Allow students time to process and answer questions. Just an extra couple of seconds can be beneficial.

  6. Address students by name when you want them to speak; 'James, could you tell us..."

  7. Establish a system for how to ask for help - traffic light cards on the desk is a great visual way to quickly assess the level of understanding in the class.

  8. Praise good use of language, speaking and listening.

Differentiation Techniques

Some children with SLCN or other conditions which affect their speech and language will have a Teaching Assistant to support them. It is important to establish how the TA is going to support the child as, sometimes, TA's can be more of a distraction and hindrance than a support.

For example, if sitting on the carpet and the TA is repeating what the teacher is saying to a child with SLCN, this may actually send the message that the child doesn't need to listen to the main teacher as the TA will repeat and simplify everything. I have also worked with TA's who, in the interest of ensuring the child gets good scores on classwork, will give away the answers far too soon. Now, I'm not saying that TA's are a bad influence on the child, but ensure that they are trained to work with children effectively, in a way that still promotes independence and helps improve on speech and language skills. In the first example, instead of repeating what the teacher is saying, they could allow the child to listen to the teacher, assess their understanding and then use visuals or prompts if necessary.

When working in small groups, there are some really easy differentiation techniques you can use to aid speech, language and communication skills;

  • key word tables for each topic. For example, if teaching about Ancient Egypt, the table may include words like Pharaoh, pyramids, hieroglyphics etc.

  • explanation of unfamiliar words

  • corrective feedback, both for both written and oral language

  • using role play to encourage speaking

  • asking students what they have read/learned, using 'how' and 'why' questions to assess understanding

It is so important to give children with SLCN time to process and compose their thoughts so that they can then form an answer. Allow them space to do this, do not hurry them and praise them for the effort made, even if errors were made.

Be Aware of Your Language

Children are like sponges; they will absorb so much from the environment around them. This includes language and speech patterns. Just like you wouldn't swear around a toddler in case they pick up bad words, you should be conscious of how you and your team speak so that you are good role models for children.

Incorrect speech patterns such as "fanks" instead of "thanks" or "must of" instead of "must have" can be confusing for children, especially those who are already struggling with developing their spoken skills. Ensure that you are speaking grammatically correctly and enunciating all the correct letters in words.

Additionally, children with SLCN may also struggle with idioms and non-literal language in a similar way to children with autism. Phrases such as 'pull your socks up', meaning to start an activity or get stuck in, may completely go over their head. Even when you have good intentions and offer great feedback, like 'you've really turned a corner', this may mean nothing to the child so try to be as literal and specific as possible.

Finally, be a role model. Children will look to teachers, TA's and other staff for reference on how to behave, and that includes communication behaviours. Ensure that you demonstrate good listening skills when you are speaking with someone, especially when you are listening to a child. Show skills such as maintaining eye contact, don't interrupt and show engagement in the conversation. Children will pick up on these skills and hopefully then apply them themselves.

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