This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in January 2019. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
In the first part of this series last week (January 10), I asked the simple question: what does SLCN stand for? I suspect many secondary school teachers are unfamiliar with the acronym and yet SLCN is a major cause of SEN in secondary school pupils.
SLCN stands for speech, language and communication needs. Speech, language and communication underpin basic literacy and are necessary for students to understand and achieve in all subjects. As such, all children and young people need good speech, language and communication skills in order to access the school curriculum, make good progress and achieve good outcomes, in school and in life.
What’s more, speech, language and communication are closely linked to behaviour, and social, emotional and mental wellbeing because they influence how young people interact with their peers and how they feel about themselves.
The impact of SLCN
Just 26 per cent of young children with SLCN make expected academic progress in the early years compared with 69 per cent of all children. Children living in areas of social disadvantage are at much higher risk, with around 50 per cent starting school with delayed language and other identified SLCN.
Just 15 per cent of pupils with SLCN achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics at the end of their primary school years (compared with 61 per cent of all children) and only 20 per cent of pupils with SLCN gained grade 4 or above in English and maths at GCSE (compared with 64 per cent of all children).
SLCN also has an impact on pupils’ social, emotional and mental health: 81 per cent of children with emotional and behavioural disorders have unidentified language difficulties. Young people referred to mental health services are three times more likely to have SLCN than those who have not been referred.
SLCN has an impact on pupils’ future life chances. Children with poor vocabulary skills are twice as likely to be unemployed when they reach adulthood; 60 per cent of young offenders have low language skills.
Last week we said that one of the reasons SLCN is not widely understood in secondary schools is because pupils’ needs are often wrongly identified and coded when they transfer from primary school.
The Communication Trust believes that an average of 40 per cent of children with SLCN are not being identified as such and, they say, the most difficult to spot are older pupils, particularly those who have difficulties with vocabulary, those who struggle with formulating sentences, and children with difficulties understanding.
Ultimately, the statistics suggest that you can expect two in every class of 30 pupils to have some form of SLCN. So what can secondary schools, school leaders and teachers do about it?
Identifying pupils with SLCN
There are several common risk factors to look out for. For example, boys are more likely (at a ratio of 2.5:1) to have SLCN than girls. Summer-born pupils are 1.65 times more likely to have SLCN than those born in the autumn. And pupils eligible for free school meals are 2.3 times more likely to have SLCN than those not eligible. SLCN may manifest itself in pupils’ limited social interactions, poor literacy skills, poor behaviour, low self-esteem and poor levels of achievement.
A pupil who is experiencing difficulties with receptive language may do some of the following:
- They may have a limited vocabulary knowledge compared with other children of their age.
- They may not volunteer answers in class.
- They may parrot what you’ve said but without understanding it.
- When you ask them a question, they may appear to be answering a different question.
- They may have difficulty following instructions.
- They may appear forgetful or may take time to decipher/process more complex and/or longer sentences.
- They may show disruptive behaviour or become quiet and withdrawn. This may be because they are unable to understand what is being asked of them, are frustrated, or are frightened of failing.
- After an instruction to the group, they may look around the room at what the other pupils are doing before they start the activity. They may not have understood the instruction and are using their peers’ actions as clues to help them carry out the activity.
- They may appear to stop concentrating when you are talking to them in a group. They may not be able to understand what you are saying and so switch off.
- In activities that involve a lot of talking, like class discussions, they may be quiet and not join in, or they may join in but give inappropriate answers.
A pupil who is experiencing difficulties with expressive language may do some of the following:
- They may use the wrong words for things or use a word that sounds similar.
- They may use very general words where a more specific word would be better.
- Their language may sound immature compared with other children of their age.
- They may omit the endings of words.
- They may miss out the small parts of a sentence like determiners such as “the” and “a”.
- They may wrongly order the words in a sentence, and/or miss important information in a sentence.
- They may seem to be struggling to express themselves, for example they may know a word but appear not be able to access it, resulting in lots of fillers or gesticulation.
A pupil who is experiencing difficulties with social communication/pragmatic language, may do some of the following:
- They may find it difficult to take turns in conversation.
- They may find it difficult to follow social conventions and may have difficulties initiating and maintaining conversations.
- They may find it difficult to understand non-literal language such as metaphors and sarcasm, which they take literally.
- They may have poor eye contact – not appearing to look at you or at peers when talking with them.
- They may show some disruptive or difficult behaviour due to difficulties understanding how to use language flexibly for a range of purposes.
- They may not use much expression in their face or tone of voice.
- They may talk about the same topic of conversation over and over and/or change topic frequently.
A pupil who is experiencing difficulties with speech sounds may do some of the following:
- They may be unintelligible to unfamiliar listeners.
- They may omit parts of words and/or have difficulties making some specific sounds in speech.
- During phonics work, they may not be able to produce – or discern the difference between – some of the sounds.
One form of SLCN is stammering although this does not always manifest itself as you might expect. A pupil with a stammer may do some of the following:
- They may prolong sounds (e.g. sssssssorry).
- They may “block”, meaning that when they are attempting a word they make no sound at all or make a strangled sound.
- They may repeat sounds or parts of a word (e.g s-s-si-sir, or p-p-please).
Understandably, some pupils become tense because of their stammer. They may have some tension in their face – particularly in the muscles around the eyes, lips or neck, and/or make extra movements when they speak, as though they are trying to force words out. They may blink or tap their hands or feet. Some pupils also try to mask their stammer. They may, for example, avoid speaking in certain situations or to certain people. They may also change the word they were going to use mid-sentence.
What can teachers do to help?
A small number of pupils with the most severe SLCN will require specialist support such as speech and language therapy.
Some will require some targeted interventions outside of the classroom. Most will require some tailored support in the classroom. And all will benefit from quality first teaching and from a learning environment that supports their development. Before I proffer my own advice on how to support pupils with SLCN, let us hear what the pupils themselves say…
According to the charity, I CAN, pupils with SLCN say that to help them access the curriculum and make better progress they want:
- Opportunities to ask questions and seek clarifications.
- Teachers to use drawings and diagrams such as mind-maps to support verbal instructions.
- Teachers to explain what they need to include in their answers to questions.
- The use of bullet points instead of writing on the whiteboard and in handouts.
- To learn the vocabulary that they need to know before a lesson.
- Lessons where the teacher talks briefly and then they work in groups.
- Thinking time after a question is asked.
- Opportunities to work with a partner.
In the remainder of this series, I will share proven strategies for supporting pupils with SLCN. I will do so under the following headings: Quality first teaching, In-class differentiation, and Additional interventions.
Quality first teaching
The best way to improve outcomes for pupils with SLCN, as with any additional and different learning need, is through quality first teaching because, if we improve the quality of timetabled teaching in the classroom, all pupils – including those with SLCN – will make better progress.
A study by Hanushek and Rivkin (2006) found that teacher effectiveness had more impact on outcomes than anything else – pupils in the classroom of the most effective teacher out of a group of 50 teachers took just six months to make the same amount of progress that pupils taught by the least effective teacher took two years to achieve.
What’s more, Hamre and Pianta’s research (2005) showed that, in the classrooms of the most effective teachers, socio-economic differences were null and void – in other words, pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds made the same progress as the least disadvantaged.
Since the National Strategies were launched in the late-1990s, it has been common practice to talk of three waves of intervention for pupils with SEND.
The three-wave model is often expressed as a pyramid similar to Bloom’s taxonomy, whereby Wave 1 sits at the bottom and thus provides the foundations on which all other forms of SEND support are built.
According to the National Strategies, Wave 1 is “quality inclusive teaching which takes into account the learning needs of all the pupils in the classroom”.
As such, if we do not first provide pupils with quality classroom teaching, then no amount of additional intervention and support will help them to catch up.
A 2008 government paper defined the key characteristics of quality first teaching as follows:
- Highly focused lesson design with sharp objectives.
- High demands of pupil involvement and engagement with their learning.
- High levels of interaction for all pupils.
- Appropriate use of teacher questioning, modelling and explaining.
- An emphasis on learning through dialogue, with regular opportunities for pupils to talk both individually and in groups.
- An expectation that pupils will accept responsibility for their own learning and work independently.
- Regular use of encouragement and authentic praise to engage and motivate pupils.
National Strategy guidance also said that quality first teaching includes a balance between the following approaches:
- Directing and telling.
- Explaining and illustrating.
- Questioning and discussing.
- Exploring and investigating.
- Consolidating and embedding.
- Reflecting on and talking through a process.
- Reflecting and evaluating.
- Summarising and reminding.
- Guided learning.
Next week, in part three of this series, I will continue my exploration of quality first teaching and then examine the central tenets of effective in-class differentiation and additional interventions.