Speech and language support in the secondary setting

Written by: Sal McKeown | Published:
It’s good to talk: Secondary school students using the ICAN charity’s Secondary Talk materials (Photo: Stephen Ford/ICAN)

Speech and language skills continue to develop as students move into secondary education, with many needing particular help and support. Sal McKeown looks at the approaches and strategies of three schools

It is often assumed that most children arrive in secondary school with fully developed speaking and listening skills, but in fact language develops throughout adolescence and beyond. Secondary is a much more demanding environment which taxes young people’s language skills, not just in class but in their social interactions too.

Some children will have special needs, but there is a bigger group of children who lack the words they need for learning. They do not quite manage the right tone or talk in the wrong register for the group they are in.

They struggle to acquire the academic vocabulary needed for secondary. It is not a case of “talking posh”, because “the little professor” will quite likely be mocked and ostracised by intolerant class mates. It is all a question of using the right sort of language and tone of voice for the right purpose and to fit in with different groups.

Maxine Burns, a speech and language therapist in North Wales, works with seven secondary schools. She explained that these days there is only funding for speech and language therapists to see the most complex cases, so there is pressure on teachers to support those with less severe needs – and teachers have not been trained for this.

Some teachers are quite naturally concerned that if they create a more talkative classroom, which helps develop these skills, they may be storing up problems and risk creating a less disciplined environment.

Ms Burns offers some advice: “Make your classroom communication-friendly so students feel they can ask questions. The phrase, ‘well you should’ve been listening’ is guaranteed to close down a conversation. “If a young person is brave enough to ask a question you have to take it seriously.”

Ms Burns advises teachers to manage talking and not just let it happen or it will turn into a free-for-all. Instead, split up friends to minimise gossiping and give pupils different roles. If someone is always the one who generates ideas, then make them an observer or note-taker.

One of the main reasons that schools are keen to address the issue of speech and language development is to raise standards and help students to get better grades in public exams.

Kat Wilkes is English teacher and achievement leader at Wolverhampton and Bilston Academy. For children at her school the local dialect can be a barrier: “Black Country children are proud of their dialect but it can affect their ability to communicate in Standard English and this impacts on their writing skills across the board,” she explained.

Examples of the dialect include, “I day” instead of “I didn’t”, “it wor me” instead of “it wasn’t me”, and “I cor do that” instead of “I can’t do that”.

Some also have limited vocabulary and the academy has many children with special needs and a high proportion of English as an additional language (EAL) children. Newly arrived children may become fluent in the Black Country dialect before they master Standard English.

The loss of the speaking and listening aspect of the curriculum has had consequences. Many of the children express themselves better orally and need to practise talking in sentences so that they can verbalise their thoughts before they put pen to paper.

The academy has worked hard to create a communication-friendly environment with lots of speaking and listening using prompt cards. It has also used targets from the Secondary Talk programme, where one student in the group monitors the level and type of talk.

The programme has been created by children’s communication charity I CAN and offers speech and language materials specifically designed for secondary.

Wolverhampton and Bilston Academy has an experienced SENCO and a new assistant principal for literacy and they are using the programme as part of their focus on promoting Standard English.

They are also now using Accelerated Reader, getting pupils to read aloud and recording them so children can hear and monitor their own voice. They also work on register, so media students have been doing road safety videos in simple language aimed at five-year-olds. Furthermore, sixth-formers have been acting as role models so younger pupils have examples of how to speak in different situations.

Pupils who are learning English as an additional pose a different problem. Addey and Stanhope School in Lewisham has a large number of bilingual pupils including many who were born in the UK.

EAL teacher Cecilia Wylde explained: “Up to Level 4 you can get away with social language skills but as a senior you will need the grammatical structures and vocabulary of more academic work. If learners have those structures in their home language they often transfer well into English but they need those reference points.”

For recent arrivals, past education is very important. Parents from Vietnam or some African countries may have had limited or interrupted access to education and as a result, while their children may be bilingual, they are not necessarily accessing higher level language at home and may struggle at school.

Students have to learn, rehearse and use the specialist vocabulary of their subject, such as “photosynthesis” and “carbon dioxide”. They need to be able to understand and manipulate complex and compound sentences and to write

in a more formal way using words, such as “conceal” and “obtain” as opposed to “hide” and “get”.

“Children can get this complexity of language from discussions at home in their own language,” Ms Wylde continued. “Once upon a time they might have got it from reading, but reading is not such a popular pastime these days.

“Also, in the past many children watched television alongside their parents and would see programmes which had higher level language skills, but now they are more likely to watch programmes on a device on their own.”

Some schools have created a curriculum focus – monitoring and then specifically teaching the vocabulary and structures needed for each of the particular subjects.

At St Anne’s Catholic School in Southampton they used the I CAN materials to help them use talk as a tool for learning. They set up a working party and decided to focus on English, science, geography, music, EAL and literacy. They concentrated on vocabulary, teacher talk and structuring pupil interaction.

In science, students had a glossary in the back of their books and were encouraged to add to it as they learned new terms. Some girls found that visuals made topics such as genetics easier to understand.

Teachers got them working in pairs and gave them thinking time to develop answers and try their ideas out on others and found that this paid dividends: “Even the girls who were quiet put their hands up now. More girls are involved and there are better discussions.”

PE is a traditionally noisy environment but at St Anne’s they managed to develop better speaking and listening by displaying key points on the board, adopting a hands-down policy and choosing students at random to answer questions.

Staff also appointed group leaders who would go and get instructions from the teacher and then pass them on to the rest of the group. Pupils said they felt they were making better progress and enjoying sessions more and staff noticed that the relevance and level of questioning by pupils was much better.

It seems that the most successful strategies involve specific language teaching, working on vocabulary and using questions in a structured way allowing time for discussion so students can plan their answers.

These steps make students more confident and independent learners but they need to be introduced early, as one student said: “I wish I’d known this in year 7. It would’ve helped me a lot.”

Helpful strategies

Some strategies that will work for most of the children in any given class:

  • Structure the lesson so students know what is going to come up.
  • Have a clear visual reference on the board so they can see where they are in the lesson.
  • Flag-up key words which are essential for the topic and explain that they will have to understand and use these words.
  • Develop exercises where students have to match key terms to their meanings (to teach new words).
  • Try “word bingo” to practise and reinforce subject-specific vocabulary.
  • Plan questions in advance.
  • Do not just ask students to recall information – ask them open-ended questions.
  • Make sure you tell them when they will have thinking time to develop a better quality answer.
  • Arrange for students to talk in pairs or small groups to build and structure answers.
  • Model good structures and praise students who use them.
  • Emphasise starter phrases, such as “I like that idea” or “We need to consider” or “Who agrees with that?”.
  • Sal McKeown is an education writer specialising in SEN and technology.

Further information

I CAN’s Secondary Talk: www.ican.org.uk/secondarytalk


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