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Language development in secondary years

Produced by Speech and Language UK/NEU: 4 key things you can do to enhance secondary school children’s communication.

Primary school children, one with his hand up

Supporting language development

Classroom resources on key actions to aid language development in school.

View the resources

The ability to express ourselves, understand others and be understood is the foundation skill for learning, life and work. Many young people in secondary schools have poor language skills and need supported opportunities to develop their abilities in order learn the classroom, make friends and achieve.

Research consistently shows that when needs are overlooked, difficulties with language can turn into behaviour problems, disengagement and influence mental health. At the very least difficulties with language will impact on attainment.

This leaflet outlines four key things you can do to enhance all students’ communication skills as well as develop your support for those who need a more targeted approach.

1. Know about typical language development

Communication and language skills continue to develop during secondary as students master complex verbal reasoning, more domain specific vocabulary, telling more detailed stories and using increasingly sophisticated social communication skills. Understanding what communication skills to expect from the young people you work with is important. If you know the progression of language you can support a student to achieve the next steps.You can also identify students who may need some additional support.

Here are some helpful resources that show what to expect at different ages and stages of development:

2. Identify children who need a more targeted approach

If you become aware through your observations and interactions with a young person that they may need some targeted support,then liaise with your SENCO. The SENCO can explore which aspects of language and communication the student is finding difficult and provide ideas for focused support. This in-depth exploration may give you an insight into why the student is behaving in a certain way or why they are struggling with their work. A helpful resource that the SENCO may use is:

The Progression Tools, as they can help with identification and also be used to track progression of these skills over time or following interventions.

Be aware that young people may have become very adept at masking their difficulties, this can be the case especially with difficulties understanding spoken language. Look out for indicators such as waiting for you to rephrase open questions to closed questions, and over reliance on others’ nonverbal communication to read the situation.

3. Know how to support all children’s language development

There is increasing evidence to show that a focus on students’ language at secondary can impact on achievement. There are strategies and approaches that you can use to develop communication friendly environments which support all students’ communication and language, including those who need a more targeted approach.

Key strategies include:

Building vocabulary – essential for literacy, access to the curriculum and academic achievement. Directly teach new words and help students to become active word learners.

Questioning – can be used to check what students know or to scaffold their learning. Carefully plan to match the level of the questions to the language level of the student.

Opportunities for discussion – these are important for the development of language, social skills,emotional literacy, access to the curriculum and life skills. Some students need to develop the tools to interact and work together, so plan how you will develop these as a starting point.

Giving thinking time – allowing young people time to assimilate new information, process what they have learned and formulate an answer is important. Some students take up to seven seconds to process language and respond, so pause and wait.

Creating an asking friendly environment – where pupils are encouraged to ask for clarification when they’ve not understood something. Providing clarification phrases for students to use can help.

More ideas of how to support language can be found on Speech and Language UK’s Talking Point

Knowing how to access targeted and specialist support when needed is important as it is often hard with secondary aged pupils to know where to start, but with the right support students with speaking and understanding difficulties can make progress. Link up with your SENCO to discuss the best way forward and for ideas of how the student can be supported further in your class.

Some schools support students through language intervention groups, such as those focused on developing narrative or vocabulary and if planned into the timetable these can be an effective way to build skills.

Some students have Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), which is a long-term language difficulty that impacts on everyday social interactions and educational progress to varying degrees. Increased academic and social demands in secondary put increased pressure on the language and communication skills of students with DLD. Some students’ needs may not previously have been identified as DLD as it can be mistaken for a range of things including behaviour problems, poor attention, being shy or quiet, general learning difficulties or another type of speech, language or communication need (SLCN) such as dyslexia or autism. It is therefore important to be tuned into possible signs of a language difficulty so that students do not get missed. Find more information on DLD and how you can support young people.

4. Work with outside agencies

Students with more significant difficulties will benefit from some specialist support within the context of a secondary environment. Discuss with your SENCO whether it might be necessary to involve other agencies, for instance the involvement of a speech and language therapist either through direct intervention or through training staff can be highly

significant in the student’s progress. Services vary depending on location but planning carefully and working closely together has been shown to be important to achieve the best possible impact.

These resources provide tips on what to consider before making a referral; how to provide effective information in a referral and what the decision making process might look like:

Making effective referrals - Considering the whole child or young person

Making effective referrals - Building a communication profile

Making effective referrals- The referral decision-making process

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