Literacy: The role of communication skills

Written by: Liz Wood & Mary Hartshorne | Published:
Image: MA Education

Communication and language skills are key to literacy, but many children can struggle. Liz Wood and Mary Hartshorne offer some practical strategies to help

Communication is a fundamental life-skill – it is the way we learn, make friends and have successful life outcomes. It is still generally assumed that most development of speech and language happens in the early years. However development continues for all children and young people throughout school, adolescence and into adulthood.

Around 10 per cent of students in secondary school have long-term, persistent speech, language and communication needs which hinder their ability to engage with education.

In addition, there are a large number of students, up to 50 per cent in some areas, with poor communication skills. This may have a negative impact on their ability to process information, organise narrative, understand and use vocabulary, or have appropriate social skills.

Secondary-aged pupils with poor communication may find it difficult to put their thoughts into words for explanations or to change the style of talking to suit the situation. These spoken language difficulties will also affect their written language ability.

Poor language skills in children and young people have an impact on reading and writing which is long-lasting. Even those children whose language difficulties seem to resolve in primary school can have literacy difficulties at age 15; the underlying phonological processing difficulties have an impact right through schooling.

Given the higher level language skills needed for the more complex writing and reading in secondary school it is not surprising that adolescents with language difficulties have significantly poorer writing skills and reading comprehension.

In many cases, young people with language difficulties themselves identify the difficulties they have with reading and writing above their communication difficulties.

The demands of language in secondary school are high. All programmes of study require students to use a range of language skills, such as asking questions, reflecting on their own and other’s work, using complex grammar and subject-specific vocabulary.

Vocabulary in itself also becomes increasingly complex and by secondary age there is more figurative language to negotiate. The language skills of inference, comprehension monitoring, and text structure knowledge become critical to understanding what you read.

Likewise, writing becomes increasingly linguistically challenging. Ensuring ideas are linked in a logical way to express a clear explanation or argument needs skill in grammar, syntax and semantics. Words, phrases and clauses are the way meaning is conveyed. Choosing the right word, or the right sentence structure, can subtly shift meaning in the same way that body language and intonation does in spoken language.

For many students, difficulty with language and communication can present as a daily challenge and unless supported by staff can manifest itself in educational underachievement, disengagement, behaviour and emotional difficulties and mental health problems. Many of these difficulties are hidden and may never be identified but can have varying significant impact on a young person’s language and literacy skills, and on life chances.

Studies suggest that as young people get older they are more likely to purposefully hide their difficulties. Good “surface” language skills or clear speech may make everyday conversation manageable, effectively masking an underlying language disorder, while at other times language difficulties may be misinterpreted – a pause for processing, for example, can appear as sullenness.

Supporting the improvement of young people’s communication skills during secondary school is crucial to helping them to participate fully in learning and to make a successful transition on to employment or further training. So, what can help?

Using basic communication supportive strategies during classroom practice can ensure that information is delivered in the most accessible way to enhance students’ learning and engagement.

By managing the interaction opportunities, staff can ensure that all pupils can benefit from a communication-supportive environment.

For example, some pupils may need up to seven seconds to process the question before they are able to deliver an answer, so giving them the necessary thinking time to respond is crucial.

Similarly, encouraging an “asking friendly” classroom creates a safe space in which all voices can be heard and understood. Telling students that questions are welcomed and praising those who ask them will encourage more students to participate.

Vocabulary is the building blocks of language and the links between vocabulary and academic attainment are well evidenced. A visual display of words alongside the ideas and concepts they refer to will provide contextual understanding for students and help support further development in reading comprehension.

Other visual support such as labelling equipment and materials, mind-mapping, highlighting key words, or writing down or drawing the steps involved in completing an activity will help students’ general language skills – helping them to listen, with recall and to retain the information they hear.

A focus on developing the higher level language skills (comprehension monitoring, understanding figurative language, using contextual clues, predicting) that support reading comprehension can start well before secondary school. What is important for students with language difficulties is making the link explicit between these skills and the ability to read complex texts. These then have the potential to become strategies for students to use independently, so that they know that understanding individual words is not enough. Successful readers need to take into account the context of the text itself.

Providing structure for written work can help organise narrative into a logical sequence. There are many examples of writing frames available online, but for adolescents with language disorder providing specific introductory or connective phrases, such as “I believe”, “in my opinion”, “as a result”, “consequently”, can help to structure arguments.

Interaction skills are important for the development of language, social skills, emotional literacy, accessing the curriculum and life-skills. It is helpful to consider the specific group skills that are needed to enable all pupils to participate in these interactions. This can include taking turns, keeping to topics and accepting other opinions.

Plan how these will be practised as part of a lesson, for example, assigning pupils different roles in a group such as “listener”, “leader”, “note-taker” can provide structure to group discussion. Then think how pupils will get feedback, giving this explicitly – “that worked because you gave really clear instruction” – or asking them to mark how well their group worked together using a five-point scale.

It can be hard to change the way lessons are planned and how information is provided, but focusing on one thing at a time can help.

Experimenting with new strategies throughout the school week and slowly developing them in the weeks that follow can help initiate new teaching and learning patterns.

It is helpful to reflect and measure effectiveness as you go and most importantly note the differences in the pupil’s responses in relation to different strategies and techniques used. With the right support and focus on language skills it is possible to make a difference.

  • Liz Wood is communication advisor and Mary Hartshorne is director of outcomes and information at children’s communication charity I CAN.

Further information

I CAN is a children’s communication charity dedicated to helping children develop the speech, language and communication skills they need. I CAN provides resources and information for parents, families and people who work with children. It also works with teachers to give them the skills to help children who struggle. Visit or


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin