Supporting pupils with SLCN – Part 4

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

So far in this five-part series on supporting pupils with speech, language and communication needs, we have explained how important it is to identify SLCN as a primary need when pupils transfer to secondary school so that appropriate interventions can be put in place. We said that support comes in three “waves”:

  • Wave 1 is quality first teaching.
  • Wave 2 is in-class differentiation.
  • Wave 3 is additional interventions.

Last week we began looking at Wave 1 support strategies. Before we move on, let us explore some further strategies for quality first teaching that work particularly well for pupils with SLCN (and indeed for all pupils):

  • Dual coding, including the use of mind-maps.
  • Thinking time.
  • Explicit vocabulary instruction.

Dual coding

Dual coding is the combination of words and images. We have two specific yet connected cognitive subsystems: one specialises in representing and processing non-verbal objects or events; the other specialises in language. In other words, we process verbal and visual information separately and so can double the capacity of our working memory if we utilise both verbal and visual processing at the same time.

What’s more, dual coding allows us to boost the information traces in our long-term memory (as two connected traces are stronger than one single trace) and it enables us to recall – or recognise – the information in two different ways.

By combining an image with a complementary word (written or preferably spoken), we’re utilising both a verbal/semantic process (deciphering spoken/written words) and an iconic process (deciphering images).

Dual coding works particularly well for pupils with SLCN because, as we have already seen, these pupils tend to have strong visual processing capabilities and benefit from the use of diagrams such as mind-maps and from short bullet-points rather than lots of dense text.

However, as with all teaching strategies, dual coding only works when it’s done well. Reading a text aloud in parallel with the same written text on-screen (such as reading text verbatim from a PowerPoint slide) – even if this is short bullet points – is a bad combination because pupils are required to conduct one and the same verbal/semantic decoding process in two different ways. Rather than splitting and therefore doubling working memory capacity, it requires pupils to process twice the information using one process, thus halving working memory capacity. As a result, working memory becomes overloaded in what’s known as “the redundancy effect”.

The best way to make use of dual coding is to, for example, explain a visual (a diagram, graph, mind-map, etc) verbally, not through text on the visual. If there is writing on the visual, it’s best not to explain it. Furthermore, we should present visuals and text at the same time so that pupils don’t have to remember one part while processing the other.

Thinking time

In 1974, Mary Budd Rowe conducted research into the way in which teachers asked pupils questions in the classroom. Her findings on “thinking time” or “wait time” – the amount of time, once a question has been asked, that a teacher allows to elapse before asking someone else or providing an answer themselves – were quite astonishing.

Rowe found that, on average, teachers left less than one second before answering their own question or before asking someone else to answer it.

Rowe also found that thinking time of less than one second prevented most pupils from taking part in classroom discussions because such a short interval did not allow enough time for pupils to think through the question and then formulate an answer. This is particularly pronounced for pupils with SLCN who often struggle to process information, formulate their thoughts and articulate an answer clearly and concisely.

Rowe’s research concluded that teachers, acknowledging their wait time was insufficient, compromised by asking more simple, closed questions where straightforward recall – as opposed to higher-order thinking – was enough for pupils to be able to provide an answer. As a further consequence of this, classroom talk was superficial.

The teachers involved in Rowe’s research were encouraged to increase the amount of time they gave pupils to answer their questions. Teachers achieved this by allowing a period of time to elapse before pupils were allowed to put their hands up and answer. This extra time was used for one of the following purposes:

  • Thinking time – allowing pupils time to process the question and think through their answers before anyone was allowed to volunteer a response aloud.
  • Paired discussion time – allowing pupils to think about the question with a partner for a certain amount of time before giving an answer;
  • Writing time – allowing pupils to draft their thoughts on paper first before giving their responses.

Most of the above involves pupils working together to discuss their thoughts before sharing them with the whole class. In this way, effective questioning involves pupils taking group responsibility – if pupils have time to discuss the answer in pairs or groups before anyone responds verbally, pupils are more ready to offer answers and to attempt more difficult thinking, because they know that others will help them.

Having “talking partners” as a regular feature of lessons is more democratic, too, because it allows every pupil in the room to think, to articulate and therefore to extend their learning. This has two advantages: first, pupils with SLCN and those who are reluctant to volunteer answers get to find their voice; second, the garrulous, over-confident pupils get to learn to listen to others. In short, it creates a spirit or ethos of cooperation which is at the heart of formative assessment.

Once the teachers in Rowe’s study had had the opportunity to get used to increasing their wait time, Rowe went back to look at the effect it had had. She found:

  • Pupils’ answers were longer.
  • Pupils’ failure to respond had decreased.
  • Responses were more confident.
  • Pupils challenged and/or improved other pupils’ answers.
  • More alternative explanations were being offered.

Teachers involved in the King’s Medway Oxfordshire Formative Assessment project, which began in 1999 and was undertaken by Professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam as part of their initial research into the effects of formative assessment, found that “increasing waiting time after asking questions proved difficult to start with … the pause after asking the question was sometimes painful (and) unnatural … (but) given more thinking time, students seemed to realise that a more thoughtful answer was required (and that they now) give an answer and an explanation without additional prompting.”

For obvious reasons, pupils with SLCN particularly benefit from being afforded more thinking time to process what has been asked and to articulate a response. To ensure thinking time is especially effective for them, the teacher or teaching assistant can: warn pupils they’re going to ask a question, explicitly teach clarification questions, model asking questions, use strategies such as “snow-balling”, flag up questions at the beginning of the lesson, provide a list of key questions in advance, or ask pupils to draw and/or write down an answer before they put their hand up.

Explicit vocabulary instruction

Department for Education research suggests that, by the age of seven, the gap in the vocabulary known by children in the top and bottom quartiles is something like 4,000 words (children in the top quartile know around 7,000 words).

For this reason, when teaching pupils with SLCN, teachers need to be mindful of the importance of vocabulary and support its development so that pupils who, because of a specific need, did not develop this foundational knowledge before they started school and through primary school are now helped to access the curriculum.

One way to do this is to plan group work activities which provide an opportunity for pupils with SLCN to mingle with pupils with a more developed vocabulary, to hear language being used by pupils of their own age and in ways that they might not otherwise encounter.

Another solution is to model the clear and correct use of spoken language. In other words, we should give unambiguous instructions, use accurate descriptive and positional language, utilise precise terminology where appropriate, and give clear feedback.

Next, teachers can use simple, direct language and place verbs at the beginning of instructions. “Teacher talk” is not necessarily better than the language pupils access in other environments but it is different. As a result, pupils’ language proficiency might be different from that required to access the curriculum, or even to understand simple classroom instructions.

Confusion and disobedience can result from the fact that pupils are unfamiliar with the language structures and “lexical density” of the more formal teacherly language of the classroom.

This does not mean that teachers should use the same language as their pupils, but that they might sometimes need to use simpler language and emphasise important words.

Furthermore, teachers can teach active listening skills. Most pupils can hear, but are not naturally active listeners. Active listening requires selective and sustained attention, working memory, cognitive processing, and information storage and recall mechanisms. Teachers can help pupils develop these skills by giving them tasks such as listening for specific or key information, listening in order to answer specific questions, and listening to follow instructions.

Teachers can also teach note-taking skills whereby pupils have to write down the key points ascertained from a piece of spoken language. What’s more, they can develop communication skills, such as turn-taking and the use of eye contact.

Teachers can build on pupils’ language by elaborating on their answers to questions, adding new information, extending the conversation through further questioning, or reinforcing language through repetition.

To help pupils with SLCN build their vocabularies, teachers can also:

  • Use fewer “what?” questions and use more “why?” and “how?” questions.
  • Give pupils time to rehearse answers to questions, perhaps by discussing their answers in pairs before sharing them more widely.
  • After each question has been asked, give pupils thinking time before they are expected to share their answers.
  • Enforce a “no-hands-up” policy as often as possible.
  • Model the kind of language they expect pupils to use in group discussions and answers.
  • Explicitly teach key words in their subject and by repeating key words as often as possible (give key words as homework and test pupils on their spelling and meaning so that they become the expected discourse of all pupils).

In addition to the above, teachers of pupils with SLCN should make sure that the development of spoken language permeates the school day. After all, spoken language is used all day, every day so we should take advantage and build spoken language activities into daily routines, such as during tutor time (e.g. ask a question of each pupil that must be answered in a sentence), when handing out materials, when pupils enter and leave the classroom, and when giving instructions.

Teachers can also make sure that pupils have a regular opportunity to speak. The teacher tends to dominate classroom discussion – and it is right that teachers talk a lot because they are the experts in the room in possession of the knowledge and experience that pupils need. But it is also important that pupils get a chance to interact with the teacher and with each other and to do so beyond responding to closed questions.

What’s more, teachers can plan opportunities for one-to-one discussion. Spoken language develops best through paired conversation and when one of the people in the pair has a better developed vocabulary. Therefore, it is worth investigating ways of pairing up pupils with people with more sophisticated language skills, perhaps an older pupil or a parent or volunteer. This could be a case of volunteers reading a book with a pupil or simply engaging in conversation. One-to-one conversation also enables young people with SLCN to develop conversational skills such as turn-taking, intonation and eye contact.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley

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