Top tips for adapting teaching practice to support children struggling with speech and language

Jane Harris
Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Last week’s school census statistics reveal that once again children struggling with speaking and understanding language form the largest group of SEND concern in school.

Jane Harris is chief executive of ICAN. Picture: ICAN
Jane Harris is chief executive of ICAN. Picture: ICAN

A total of 319,757 children are now struggling with speaking and understanding language. This is a whopping 42 per cent increase since the 2015/16 academic year. These numbers make it even more staggering that there are no significant proposals in either the Schools White Paper or SEND Green paper to get them the help they need.  

Instead, government has set out new targets and aspirations for schools that cannot be met without more support. The ambitious 90 per cent literacy and numeracy targets - as outlined in the Schools White Paper - will not be reached if children aren’t supported to speak and understand language at an age-appropriate level.

Covid has damaged the speech and language skills of so many children and so far, the government’s green paper on Special Educational Needs seems inadequate to the scale of that challenge. Only 10 per cent of pupils with speech, language and communication needs gained a 9-5 pass at GCSE in English and maths in 2019, compared to 43 per cent of typically developing pupils nationally. With the right support, at the right time however, many can catch up with their peers.  

So, what can the children’s sector do to help? And how can we avoid being trapped between national government inaction and local accountability?  Teachers told us that they feel they haven't had enough initial training or ongoing CPD in speaking and understanding language. Other professional groups – health visitors, mental health professionals, social workers – may feel the same.  

Ongoing training is a good place to start. Dedicate a forthcoming team meeting or INSET day to the importance of speaking and understanding language and how you can check if children are in line with their peers. Teachers and health and social care professionals should also know what kind of interventions to put in place for children who are struggling and how to adapt their ongoing practice for children with lifelong speech and language conditions. There is no point providing standard ’talking therapy’ for example to support a child’s wellbeing if they are struggling to talk or use words.

This is not just an early years or primary only issue.  Some children will have struggled in this area since toddlerhood and will likely never been given the support they need – this could be a growing group in your area due to covid. Some children will have a lifelong speech and language condition, like DLD (Developmental Language Disorder) that affects 2 children in every classroom.

Get involved as soon as you identify a need rather than just waiting for specialist speech and language therapy support. Often, you will only find waiting lists and limited capacity to offer frequent support. Fortunately, many children can be helped effectively in the classroom through interventions that a Teaching Assistant could deliver - the best known are probably TalkBoost and NELI. You will need to decide which work best for your schools and the age group of children you are most concerned about. These in house targeted interventions will maximise the number of children we can all help in school so that we can preserve specialist resources for the children with the biggest challenges.

Top tips for adapting your teaching practice:  

  • Share information about how speaking and understanding language skills develop. Take a look at our Primary and Secondary Typical Talk posters and discuss with colleagues how your children’s speech and language skills compare.

  • Give children thinking time, ask a question and say you’ll come back to that child for the answer in a minute 

  • Use visual supports for learning, this can be targeted for individual learners, e.g., drawing a pictorial reminder of a homework task 

  • Have an ‘asking friendly classroom’ where it’s OK for children to say they haven’t understood something. 

Our Talking Point website has information about typical development of children’s speaking and understanding language skills, and a Progress Checker to check what is expected for their age.  We also have information on how to support students with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) in the classroom.

Alternatively, I CAN has a free Enquiry Service that practitioners or parents can contact for advice. Book a confidential chat with a speech and language therapist here

You can read more about this in our report: Covid Generation

Jane Harris is chief executive of I CAN the children’s communication charity

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