Supporting Primary School Students with Language Difficulties
If you walk into any primary school, you will see and hear words everywhere. This is because schools are language-rich environments, and the majority of the Australian curriculum is still made up of oral and written language tasks. As well as learning to read and write, primary school students are expected to process complex auditory information and to verbalise their wants, needs, feelings and ideas multiple times a day. Language is present in everything that a primary school student does, from socialising with their classmates at lunchtime to strategising before a soccer game.
Primary school students with language difficulties not only have difficulty reading, writing, and learning across all subject areas, but may also have difficulty making sense of the “hidden curriculum”. The “hidden curriculum” refers to everything that a student learns at school outside of the academic classroom content – this may include adapting to the unwritten rules, unspoken social expectations and unofficial behaviours that influence all of our interactions with teachers and peers.
Difficulties across these areas can quickly lead to behavioural issues and disengagement from learning if not managed well. This is where teachers play a critical role in supporting these students with not only the development of their literacy skills, but also with their learning across all subject areas as well as their social interactions with peers in the playground. Fortunately, good language teaching can support all of the students in the year level at once, and many of the strategies that are targeted at students with language difficulties will also benefit other students.
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 school difficult for students with language difficulties?
The areas of language that are most challenging for students with language difficulties include:
- Vocabulary – The vocabulary expectations of students increase greatly as they journey through the school years, and each subject has its own set of subject-specific vocabulary. For example, students with language difficulties can struggle with subjects such as mathematics if they do not understand the meaning of the words such as ‘equal’, ‘estimate’ or ‘difference’. 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.
- Narrative – Understanding narratives – that is, the story structure that is found in literature – is essential for building the bridge between oral and written language and is a foundational skill when it comes to reading comprehension. Students without a sound understanding of how narratives work will likely struggle to understand a lot of the texts that they are exposed to at school. This applies not only to students with language difficulties, but also to many children from cultural backgrounds who do not typically use the western narrative tradition.
- Discourse – ‘Discourse’ refers to any oral or written discussion about a given topic and is a common form of communication used in classrooms. Discourse relies heavily on the rules of the “hidden curriculum” and is an essential skill for classroom participation. Skills such as putting your hand up to join in the discourse, taking turns when talking, knowing when is and isn’t a good time to talk, and understanding and following the teachers’ instructions may not come naturally to students with language delay and may need to be taught explicitly. A poor ability to join in discourse activities can lead to confusion for students if they don’t understand why communication is breaking down.
- Code Breaking – Written language is created using a very specific code, and students with language difficulties often have difficulty cracking that code. This then leads to difficulties with literacy development, which in turn leads to difficulty accessing written materials in the classroom, which in turn leads to disengagement in all subject areas. Teaching and re-teaching students the ‘code-breaking’ skills of phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition can go a long way to developing their literacy skills and interrupting this cycle before it begins.
How can I support 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 therefore far more effective to implement classroom-wide strategies that make language more accessible to all students at the same time. An added bonus of this approach is that the student with language difficulties no longer feels singled out, and they are instead able to learn and thrive alongside their peers.
At Care Speech Pathology, we have extensive experience recommending classroom-wide strategies to support children with language difficulties and we regularly consult with teachers to discuss how they can implement these in their classroom. As soon as we have conducted a comprehensive language assessment with the student in question, we are able to provide tailored recommendations for maximising their ability to learn and giving them greater access to the curriculum. That is – we support you to support your student!
This may include providing strategies for teaching the hidden curriculum, optimising the environment, teaching vocabulary explicitly, building phonological awareness, using language facilitation strategies in every activity, getting the most out of multimodal communication, teaching narrative components from the ground up, providing linguistic feedback to all students and supporting new methods of classroom communication.
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