Supporting High School Students with Language Difficulties

by Care Speech 
8 February 2022

Teenagers with language difficulties face a number of everyday hurdles – fortunately, there are many ways we can support these students in the clinic, at home and at school to achieve personal and academic success.

High school students with language difficulties often face their most significant challenges in the classroom where verbal information comes thick and fast, time is of the essence and there is always new content to cover. Fortunately, teachers play a critical role in enabling these students to participate fully in classroom activities and to thrive and achieve alongside their peers.

Remember that high school students with language difficulties face learning challenges across all areas of the curriculum (not just English!), so support needs to be provided using a whole-school approach.

What are language difficulties?

Language skills and intelligence are not the same. “Language difficulties” refers to a specific breakdown in the process of recalling, processing, comprehending, retaining, formulating, and expressing information using words. However, people with language difficulties may be very intelligent and even have above average aptitudes for other styles of learning.

Language difficulties are estimated to affect two students in every classroom. Language difficulties are surprisingly common, and may occur:

  • as a language specific diagnosis such as Developmental Language Disorder; or
  • as a co-occurring diagnosis, for example, alongside intellectual impairment or Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Comprehensive assessment by a Speech Pathologist is important for students with language difficulties so that specific areas of difficulty can be identified and supported with day-to-day strategies. Despite the myriad of challenges faced by students with language difficulties, many are able to adapt their learning style and go on to lead successful careers in their adult lives.

Why is high school difficult for students with language difficulties?

The areas of academic language that are most challenging for students with language difficulties include:

  • High-level vocabulary – The vocabulary expectations of students increases greatly as they journey through the school years, and each secondary subject has its own set of subject-specific vocabulary. Explicit teaching of required vocabulary can enormously increase the chances of academic success for students with language difficulties, especially as those who are not regular readers are unlikely to access this vocabulary without specific instruction.
  • Figurative language – Figurative language is any language that is not used literally (e.g. idioms such as ‘over the moon’, ‘jump through hoops’ or ‘read between the lines’). Figurative language is frequently used in secondary school settings and can be very confusing for students with language difficulties to understand without an explanation.
  • Verbal reasoning – This is the ability to think aloud with words and makes up a large component of the verbal and written requirements of most secondary subject areas. Explaining a mathematical equation, deconstructing a text, formulating an argument, planning a team strategy, and introducing an artwork are all tasks that require verbal reasoning. Students with language difficulties, especially those that have no underlying intellectual impairment, may have excellent ideas that they are simply struggling to express. This, in turn, can have a significant impact on their academic success.
  • High-level syntax – Syntax, also commonly known as grammar, is the way our language is structured and refers to the way we formulate our words, phrases, and sentences so that they make sense to others. Academic texts associated with high-school learning often contain a high level of syntactic complexity that is not accessible to students with language difficulties. Consider the following sentence: “Unlike protons and neutrons, which consist of smaller, simpler particles, electrons are fundamental particles that do not consist of smaller particles”. For a student with language difficulties, this same content would be better simplified to “Protons and neutrons are made up smaller, simpler particles. Electrons are not”, accompanied by a picture for visual reference.

How can I support my students with language difficulties?

Simply teaching the above-mentioned skills in isolation is unlikely to have a significant impact on a students’ overall academic success unless they are provided with one-to-one support at all times. It is far more effective to implement classroom-wide strategies that make language more accessible to all students at the same time.

  • Multi-modal communication - Students with language difficulties often benefit from information being presented in a variety of ways. Visual representation can assist not only with language comprehension but can help students to organize their ideas when creating text. Consider the use of PowerPoint presentations, visual schedules, graphic organisers, story maps or sequencing tasks. In some subjects, the use of movement, such as role play, may be a creative and fun method to allow students to demonstrate their understanding. It is also important to ensure that students have access to a text when answering questions aloud in class. Needing to recall specific information that was presented in only one way can be very challenging, so having a reference point to go back and check can be very helpful.
  • Teaching vocabulary – Identifying and pre-teaching subject-specific vocabulary is likely to benefit all students in a class. It can also be beneficial to recap this vocabulary briefly at the start of every lesson so that students have a better chance of recalling the terminology from one week to the next. There are many graphic organisers available that can assist students to integrate new vocabulary into their pre-existing knowledge.
  • Increase visual appeal – Large blocks of plain text on white paper can not only seem very daunting for students with language difficulties but can also be very difficult to process and comprehend. Breaking text into smaller sections with visible delineations such as coloured sections, subheadings and bullet points can make larger texts more digestible for students with language difficulties. This is because they can also use the visual and conceptual parts of their brain to make sense of the new information in front of them.
  • Less is more – Ensure that all information, both verbal and written, is presented in the clearest and most concise way possible. Attempt to provide shorter, more succinct instructions and emphasise and repeat key information. Make assessment tasks more accessible by enabling all students to demonstrate their knowledge without the requirement to use complex language.
  • Give it time – Students with language difficulties will often require more time to process information than their peers, and it is important to check in at frequent intervals to ensure that they are still engaging with the lesson. You may let a student with language difficulties know to give you a small nod when you make eye contact with them if they are still following the information, or a small headshake if they would like you to slow down or repeat something.
  • Encourage note taking – Taking notes can aid a student’s understanding and retention of verbal information. Students should be encouraged to take their own notes during lessons in a way that makes sense to them (for example, using bullet points, key words, arrows, or diagrams), rather than copying directly from the board.
  • Optimise the environment – Students with language difficulties are likely to perform better in a classroom where they are seated away from distractions (e.g. background noise or other students) and within the eye gaze of the teacher. Students should also have easy access to visual supports (e.g. the whiteboard) to accompany verbal information.
  • Praise – Students with language difficulties are at significant risk of disengaging with the curriculum should they feel that they are not experiencing any success in the classroom. Praise and encouragement are critical for supporting these students and enabling them to reach their full potential. Consider focusing on these students’ learning strengths, giving them specific positive feedback, and even making your praise publicly known to other students in the classroom.

Language for Life

Not all students will have the goal of further education, but this doesn’t mean their language development is less important. We all rely on language every day to become functioning members of society in whatever future path we choose. Accountants, tradespeople, and bus drivers alike all need to be able to:

  • Ask and answer questions.
  • Follow verbal and written instructions.
  • Create and maintain relationships and solve conflict.
  • Provide and gain information using written language.

For students for whom academic success is not a priority, language use should still be supported and encouraged as an integral part of a functional or life skills program.


If you have a student who you believe could use support with their functional or academic language, please contact a Speech Pathologist from our team. We are trained to work with families and schools to provide support that is tailored to a students’ needs. Please contact us on 1300 086 280 or at [email protected].



Clark, J., & Klecanaker J. S. (2016) Therapeutic strategies for language disorder children: the impact of visual imagery on verbal encoding in vocabulary instruction. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 14(2), 129-145.

Paul, R., Norbury, C., & Gosse, c. (2018). From infancy through adolescence: Listening, Speaking, Reading, Writing and Communicating (5th ed.). Elsevier.

Startling, J. et al. (2011). Supporting secondary school students with language impairment. ACQuiring Knowledge in Speech, Language and Hearing (13)1, pp. 26-30.

Ukrainetz, T.A. (2019). Sketch and speak: An expository intervention using note-taking and oral practice for children with language-related learning disabilities. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 50, pp. 53-70.

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