Supporting pupils with SLCN – Part 5

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

Earlier in this series I shared some common characteristics to help teachers and school leaders identify speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) and explained why support for SLCN is crucial to enabling pupils to access the curriculum and make progress. I also shared some proven strategies for supporting pupils with SLCN through quality first teaching (wave 1).

Before we focus on proven strategies for in-class differentiation (wave 2) and additional interventions (wave 3), and to conclude my discussion of quality first teaching strategies, I would like to add some further thoughts on the explicit teaching of vocabulary (see part four).

The Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) report, Preparing for Literacy (2018), claims that there is relatively limited evidence about how best to improve vocabulary, but the existing evidence suggests that the following should be considered:

  • Providing pupils with a rich language environment (implicit approaches) as well as directly extending pupils’ vocabulary (explicit approaches).
  • Carefully selecting high-frequency words for explicit teaching.
  • Developing the number of words pupils know (breadth) and their understanding of relationships between words and the contexts in which words can be used (depth).
  • Providing multiple opportunities to hear and use new vocabulary.

In terms of selecting high-frequency words for explicit instruction, it may be wise to begin by teaching the “Tier 2” words identified by Dr Isabel Beck. Tier 2 words are those words which appear commonly in written texts but not in spoken language. They are not subject-specific terminology nor necessarily complex words, but are words that are vital to pupils’ ability to access the school curriculum and to them being able to demonstrate their understanding.

Once these words have been identified, they need to be taught on a number of occasions and in different contexts. Beck offers this possible teaching sequence:

  • Read a sentence in which the word appears.
  • Show pupils the word and get them to say it out loud.
  • Discuss possible meanings of the word.
  • Identify any parts of the word that may be familiar (e.g. Greek or Latinate roots, common prefixes and suffixes).
  • Re-read the sentence with the word in it to detect any contextual clues.
  • Explicitly explain the meaning of the word through definition and the use of synonyms.
  • Provide several other examples of the word being used in context.
  • Ask pupils to use the word in sentences of their own.

The EEF also says that prioritising high-quality interactions with children will help to develop their communication and language. A distinction is sometimes drawn between talking with children and simply talking to children. Talking to children tends to be more passive, while talking with children is based on their immediate experiences and activities and is likely to be more effective: “When done well, high-quality interactions often look effortless, but they are not easy to do well and professional development is likely to be beneficial.”

Multiple frameworks exist to help structure high-quality interactions. Guided interaction occurs when a teacher and pupil collaborate on a task and the teacher’s strategies are highly tuned to the pupil’s capabilities and motivations. The teacher is responsive to the pupil’s intentions, focuses on spontaneous learning, and provides opportunities for the pupil’s feedback. Discussion is a key feature of this approach and the use of a variety of questions helps to develop and extend pupil’s thinking.

Sustained shared thinking involves two or more people working together to solve a problem, clarify an issue, evaluate activities, or extend a narrative. Key features include all parties contributing to the interaction – one aimed at extending and developing pupils’ thinking. According to the EEF, techniques that teachers might use include:

  • Tuning in: listening carefully to what is being said and observing what the pupil is doing.
  • Showing genuine interest: giving whole attention, eye contact, and smiling and nodding.
  • Asking pupils to elaborate: “I really want to know more about this.”
  • Re-capping: “So you think that…”
  • Giving their own experience: “I like to listen to music when cooking at home.”
  • Clarifying ideas: “So you think we should wear coats in case it rains?”
  • Using encouragement to extend thinking: “You have thought really hard about your tower, but what can you do next?”
  • Suggesting: “You may want to try doing it like this…”
  • Reminding: “Don’t forget that you said we should wear coats in case it rains.”
  • Asking open questions: “How did you…?”, “Why does this…?”, “What happens next?”

Waves 2 and 3

Some pupils will require more tailored support in the guise of wave 2 in-class differentiations and wave 3 additional interventions which take place outside the classroom and off the taught timetable.

Such intervention strategies may take the form of one-to-one support from a teaching assistant, small group targeted teaching by an SEN specialist, or support from external agencies such as speech and language therapists.

Let us first be clear that the ultimate aim of such additional support, in most cases, is for it to become redundant over time. In other words, we want pupils with SLCN to become increasingly independent.

As such, it is important to ensure that all strategic interventions aimed at pupils with SLCN are monitored while they are happening. Often, schools review an intervention once it has ended, but this is not enough. Interventions must be monitored while they are still taking place in order to ascertain whether or not they are working, or working as well as they should be. If the monitoring data suggests a strategy is not having the desired effect, or not working for some pupils, then it must be stopped or changed before more time and money is wasted.

Another point worth making concerns the role of teaching assistants, because it is often they and not teachers who lead wave 2 and 3 interventions for pupils with SEN including SLCN. So the big question is this: what is the best way to utilise teaching assistants? Here are some tips inspired by the EEF research. Teaching assistants:

  • Should not be used as an informal teaching resource for pupils with SLCN.
  • Should be used to add value to what teachers do, rather than replace teachers – pupils with SLCN need as much, if not more, exposure to the teacher as all other pupils.
  • Should be used to help pupils with SLCN to develop independent learning skills and manage their own learning. To achieve this, they need to be trained to avoid prioritising task completion and instead concentrate on helping pupils with SLCN to develop personal ownership of tasks.
  • Should be fully prepared for their role in the classroom and need access to sufficient training and time to meet the teacher outside of class.

Furthermore, when supporting pupils with SLCN in one-on-one or small group settings, teaching assistants should use structured interventions. The most effective intervention strategies are:

  • Brief (20 to 50 minutes).
  • Regular (three to five times per week).
  • Sustained (running for eight to 20 weeks).
  • Carefully timetabled.
  • Staffed by well-trained teaching assistants (five to 30 hours’ training per intervention).
  • Well-planned with structured resources and clear objectives.
  • Assessed to identify appropriate pupils, guide areas for focus and track pupil progress.
  • Linked to classroom teaching.

Differentiation & interventions

In terms of in-class differentiation, pupils with SLCN are often helped by:

  • The use of modified language.
  • The use of visual prompts.
  • The pre-teaching of subject-specific vocabulary, as appropriate.
  • Access to a social skills group.

In terms of additional interventions, pupils with SLCN are often helped by:

  • Small group or one-to-one support for language to address specifically identified pupil targets.
  • Access to explicit social skills teaching.
  • Access to additional ICT teaching such as touch-typing, dictaphone, tablet and so on.
  • A referral to and advice from the speech and language therapy service and the Learning Language Service (LLS).
  • On-going advice from specialist teachers.
  • Advice from an educational psychologist.

A graduated approach

The provision of SEN support including that for pupils with SLCN – as articulated in the SEND Code of Practice – often takes the form of a four-part cycle of assess, plan, do, review.

The cycle recommended by the Code of Practice posits a “graduated approach” whereby actions are reviewed and refined as our understanding of a pupil’s needs – and indeed the support they require – increases.

Assess: At this stage, information is gathered from on-going, day-to-day assessments and this helps to form judgements about the progress an individual pupil with SLCN is making, as well as to highlight any barriers that pupils may face.

Where concerns about a pupil’s progress persist, further discussions with the pupil, their parents and the SENCO may be necessary. It may also be necessary to conduct further specialist tests, or to request advice from a speech and language therapist.

Plan: At this stage, everyone needs to agree what additional and different support will be put in place. The planning stage should involve the pupil, their parents, and relevant school staff who know the pupil well. The first step is to agree some targets for the pupil in order to focus attention on what needs to improve first, and to give the pupil a clear idea of what they need to do to accelerate the pace of their progress.

To help the pupil achieve their targets, additional tailored support needs to be put in place and this may include specific teaching strategies, approaches or resources both in and out of class, such as those outlined above and in part 4 last week. Clear and realistic timescales need to be set for monitoring and reviewing the plan. As I say above, it is crucial that additional interventions are subject to on-going monitoring rather than just reviewed at their end-point.

Do: The third part of the cycle is “do”. It is the responsibility of every staff member who comes into contact with the pupil with SLCN to implement the plan on a day-to-day basis. It is not the sole domain of the SENCO. In practice, this might involve:

  • Delivering quality first teaching to the pupil in every lesson.
  • Enacting any specific adjustments, strategies or approaches to classroom teaching as identified in the individual support plan.
  • Liaising with teaching assistants who are providing in-class support to pupils with SLCN.
  • Implementing any targeted additional, out-of-class interventions as identified in the plan.
  • Engaging in on-going monitoring of pupil progress and responding to the data by making any necessary adjustments to planning and teaching.
  • Communicating regularly with the pupil, their parents, the SENCO and any other staff and external agents who are involved.

Review: The school needs to formally evaluate how successfully the interventions and support they have offered have met the pupil’s needs. At the review meeting, it is helpful to consider the following questions:

  • What progress has the pupil made with regards addressing their SLCN? Have they achieved their agreed targets and what is the evidence for this?
  • What impact has the support/intervention had on the pupil being able to access the curriculum, make progress and communicate their learning? What are the pupil’s, parents’ and professionals’ views on the effectiveness and impact of the additional support/intervention?
  • What changes need to be made to the pupil’s targets and the specialist provision next term/year?

The SEND Code of Practice makes clear that this is a process and is therefore continual. Even if a review shows a pupil has made good progress and no longer requires additional support in order to mitigate their SLCN, they should still be monitored in order to ensure that their progress is sustained through inclusive quality first teaching.


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