Bridging the communication gap in the classroom: Part 2

Written by: Carmen De Pablo López & Maria Breed | Published:
Image: MA Healthcare/Lucie Carlier

In this three-part series, experts Carmen De Pablo López and Marina Breed are advising on speech, language and communication needs. In part two, they explore some strategies to help unlock language and communication

Imet with some friends recently to catch-up with our latest news and stories. Explaining about Christmas in Spain should be quite easy for me (Carmen) but I got stuck – I just couldn’t remember the words in English.
The game charades perhaps illustrates well how I felt. It also illustrates the difficulties often encountered in this particular area of SLCN (speech, language and communication needs).

Charades tests the difficulty of word absence – we must use gestures and facial expressions which illustrate the words. In terms of SLCN, I would say that this would fall under the umbrella of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), which has been researched since the 1950s.

McLachlan & Elks (Secondary Language Builders, 2015) offer first-class advice and tips for supporting SLCN children in this context...

Communication creators

For example, there are some simple techniques we can put into practice without much effort at all:

  • Use good listening skills: stop what you are doing, look at the person, think about what they are saying.
  • Wait and give the speaker time to talk, and time to respond to your questions: they will have to compose the answer.
  • Don’t interrupt, appear interested.
  • Place yourself at an easy distance, don’t cram into their space but don’t distance yourself either.
  • Don’t give up! If you don’t understand, ask for clarification.

These techniques will encourage communication rather than making the young person feel frustrated or even isolated and rejected. This is successful basic human interaction – inclusive, understanding and empathic. When we are particularly tired, feeling anxious or tense, words may not come easy. An encouraging listener makes a whole world of difference.

At other times, however, the difficulties come with the different components of language: speech production, vocabulary, sentence grammar or social understanding. Here are some examples to illustrate these situations – would you be able to identify what kind of difficulty is apparent?

  • A Teacher: Ask Sam to hang on for a minute. Pupil: But there is nothing for him to hang on to.
  • B Pupil: While I stir the mixture you pouring it in.
  • C Pupil: The boy has burst his arm, but he is still playing on his skateboard.
  • D Pupil: He plays that thing that’s got a string bit and a stick.

(The answers: A is social understanding, B is sentence grammar, C is speech production, and D is vocabulary.)
Working with memory

Memory and learning go hand-in-hand. If we don’t use the information we learn, we soon cannot remember it and we then can’t apply the learning. Again there are some simple techniques to support memory and recall that are not difficult (but which do require forethought and planning).

Short-term memory can be supported by improving listening skills and encouraging the student to repeat back in their own words what has been explained or taught. This is particularly useful when assessing for learning in the classroom, as the teacher can gauge whether the task/instruction has been understood. When repeating the information back, the student also consolidates the learning.

McLachlan & Elks (2015) advise four broad approaches to boost memory and recall:

  • Differentiating the tasks.
  • Using memory aids.
  • Increasing self-help.
  • Supporting focus shift.


Remember that students with SLCN might easily overload with information, causing them to switch off. Differentiation will include the amount of information students are given in one delivery

Memory aids

When teaching new vocabulary in the modern languages classroom, teachers are used to using pictures, real objects, body language and other visual aids. These visual aids are absolutely relevant in all subjects and can really support pupils with SLCN.

Also, breaking down words, using memory strategies (songs, “sounds like” exercises, pictures, etc), or employing word maps and mind maps will all create memory hooks and connections, facilitating recall. Agree with students what is going to work for them.

Asking for help

Self-help fosters independence but most importantly, self-confidence. Students must feel at ease to ask if they don’t understand. They must know where to go in their notes or in the classroom if they need to double-check concepts or sequences. Use colour-coding to take students through tasks or link related concepts and steps.

Increasing focus

Having a routine helps students to focus when homework is given or learning objectives are being copied. If students have to listen to your instructions at the same time as they have to copy down from the board, they will not retain either.

Furthermore, it is not helpful to have to copy from the board regularly as the physical distance creates a learning barrier: they have to find the sentence on the board, remember it and then write it down, then look back to the board and find their place – it can become too complicated! Having the information next to them keeps them focused.

Simplifying things

Breaking down and sequencing tasks, simplifying language, repeating key points, giving examples set in real contexts that are relevant to students – these approaches will all undoubtedly support SLCN in the classroom (and could well be of benefit to all students, regardless of SLCN). Both receptive and expressive language can present a barrier to understanding so simplifying questions especially will aid comprehension.

To do this, first of all think about making questions more concrete. So instead of “why did you throw all your books on the floor – what should you do now?”, try “where are the books, where do the books go? Let’s put them away”.

Relating to personal experience is also effective. So instead of “why do you think firefighters wear such big heavy coats?”, try asking “what does it feel like when you stand close to a fire?”.

And use familiar vocabulary when asking questions: Instead of “what is the function of a knife?”, try asking “what can you do with a knife?”.

Offering a choice is also sometimes a good idea – “is this a violin or a guitar?” instead of “what instrument is this?”.

Strategies at Tor Bridge High

At Tor Bridge High we encourage staff to include the following strategies and principles in all lesson-planning:

  • Write the lesson objectives clearly and concisely on the board.
  • Identify the topic clearly and be clear about when the topic is changing.
  • Write a short list of tasks on the board.
  • Keep verbal and written instructions short and simple.
  • Pre-teach key words/vocabulary.
  • Be aware of how much time you are doing the talking.
  • Repeat key information often with visual support.
  • Slow down rate of speech.
  • Emphasise new words by pausing, repeating and stressing the word.
  • Explain the meaning of new words.
  • Use new words often.
  • Use visual supports.
  • Use “rating scales” – e.g. thumb up (okay) thumb sideways (unsure), thumb down (help). Encourage students to use RAG cards at the back of their planner.
  • Provide students with a written list of instructions.
  • Structure tasks in the order the actions need to be carried out.
  • Give lots of explanations and examples.
  • Be aware of the wide variety of meanings some words have.
  • Pause between instructions.
  • Limit the use of idioms and irony.
  • Use explicit pauses to provide thinking time and observe the results.
  • Encourage students to talk with a partner before answering a question.
  • Use open questions that allow a fuller and more thoughtful answer.
  • Monitor response of students to ensure understanding.
  • Use clear alerts for when the class needs to listen.
  • Make your classroom an “asking friendly” environment. Noisy environments are not conducive to effective, fluid communication. Reducing the background noise and considering where students are sitting will increase levels of attention/concentration.

Blank Levels

In the first article in this series, we explained about Blank Levels (Blank, Rose & Berlin, 1978) as a method to ascertain a young person’s stage of language development. At Level 3, language is used to re-tell events or a story – children have to use the resources they have in order to explain their interpretation or the sequence of facts. Level 3 questions might include, for example: what happened in the story? What will happen next? What did the cat say? How did the mouse feel? What could you call the story?

McLachlan & Elks (2015) offer a variety of activities to support re-telling at Blank Level 3, when predictions make their debut in language development and higher-order thinking skills begin to be applied.

These activities include following and giving directions, teaching sequencing (ordering of ideas, events) by breaking things down into smaller steps using words such as “first”, “second”, “next” and then summarising into sentences. In this way the skills of deducing and inferring are explored. The grand finale of sequencing is predicting, but give children a narrow choice of what might happen next, otherwise they will be lost.

Blank Level 4 involves problem-solving and justifying a prediction or solution. This requires children’s own knowledge and thinking about the future and past:

  • Predicting changes: “What will happen if..?”
  • Solutions: “What should we do now?”
  • Causes: “How did that happen?”
  • Justifying: “Why can’t we eat ice-cream with a knife and fork?”
  • Explanations: “How can we tell he is sad?”

Inferencing and justifying

Inferencing and justifying decisions are areas which require a level of language which may need supporting/scaffolding with pictures or story-boards. The beauty of using these visuals is that you can keep referring to them, as opposed to imagining the situation – from abstract to concrete. McLachlan and Elks (2015) share many resources in their Language Builders series.

Speaking frames

Speaking frames on display in classrooms will support all students, especially those with SLCN. For example:

  • In my opinion...
  • I believe that/I agree that...
  • Surely...
  • One way of looking at it is...
  • On the other hand...
  • I agree/disagree because...
  • What would happen if...
  • That’s a good idea because...
  • The answer is... because...

And some more formal constructions:

  • It is vital that...
  • Others must agree that...
  • It is clear that/clearly...
  • Of course/without doubt/undoubtedly...
  • The time has come to...


The support we offer our students would not be possible without professionals who are committed to research, sharing best practice and creating first class resources for educators. We are indebted to them and we will explore their work further in the next issue.

  • Carmen De Pablo López is head of inclusion and Maria Breed is language support centre manager at Tor Bridge High School in Plymouth. The third and final article in this series will publish in SecEd on February 8.

Practical workshop

Carmen and Marina will be presenting a practical workshop at SecEd’s Ninth National Pupil Premium Conference on March 23 in Birmingham. The workshop is entitled “Identifying and tackling speech, language and communication needs to raise Pupil Premium outcomes”. Visit



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