24 practical ways to help school-aged children cope with language and reading problems at school and home

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Too many school-age children struggle to understand instructions, express their thoughts and feelings, read and/or write. So what can parents and teachers do to help at home and at school?

A. Knowledge is power: first, learn more about the child’s challenges

A key aim of this website is to provide free, evidence-based information to parents and teachers about language disorders.

Over the years, we’ve talked – a lot – about developmental language disorders, including risk factors, common signs and symptoms, the role of underlying issues with working memory, auditory processing and attention, bilingualism, phonological speech sound disorders, reading decoding, reading comprehension, writing, as well as some of the effects of language disorders, e.g. on school readiness, school and work outcomes, behaviour and mental health, and youth justice issues. We’ve done our best to translate some of the peer-reviewed research findings into Plain English.

B. Implement strategies and use free resources 

Here are 24 simple strategies and resources. Most can be implemented easily by parents at home and teachers at school at no cost:

  1. Speak slowly. Reduce your speaking rate, and pause more between sentences.
  2. Speak loudly and clearly (but be careful not to strain your voice). Consider amplification and other systems that will help the child hear what you are saying, even if there is background noise.
  3. Use good intonation, stressing key points – make key words longer and louder than less important words, e.g. “He WANTS to GO to the BEACH on TUESDAY”.
  4. Give the child more time to think about and answer your questions. Many children with language disorders need more time. Count to five if you have to, but don’t give up or jump in too early.
  5. Prepare children for what you are about to talk about, e.g. “We’re about to talk about insects. Today, I’m going to talk about 4 insects: bees, wasps, ants and termites”. Or: “Tomorrow, we’re going to the zoo. We’ll need to leave early. We’ll need to bring our good camera to take photos of the animals”.
  6. If the child is having difficulty, give clues, prompts (e.g. sentence starters), and binary choices (e.g. “Is it an ant or a bee?”).
  7. Speak and write to the child in Plain English:
    1. replace abstract, complicated words and jargon with simple words (e.g. instead of “acquire”, say “get”; instead of “purchase”, say “buy”; instead of “execute”, say “do”). If you need help to write more simply (a common issue for university graduates), check out the free Hemingway Editor; and
    2. where possible, avoid (or at least explain) ambiguous language (e.g. words with multiple meanings or non-literal/figurative language requiring higher level language skills).
  8. Break complex sentences and multi-step instructions into simple sentences.
  9. Use the “When…then” technique to replace complex instructions with simpler ones (e.g. Instead of “Before you go to lunch, finish your art project and clean up your desks”, say “WHEN you finish your art project and clean your desks, THEN you can have lunch.”).
  10. Introduce a “Word of the Week” at home and at school that you all use all week. Stick it up on a wall or fridge. Choose words that are useful at school and at home, e.g. high frequency verbs or words used in maths or sport.
  11. Use pictures and videos to help the child learn words and concepts. For example:
    1. draw stick figures, comics or line drawings to illustrate concepts;
    2. if you can’t draw (like me), use Google Images (in safe mode) and YouTube; and
    3. use mind maps, text planners, paragraph planners, word walls, story builders and question scaffolds.
  12. Give the child written notes to support what is taught orally in class.
  13. Make sure the child knows words needed for their favourite activities. For example, if your child loves basketball, help them understand terms like “double dribble”, “travel”, “time-out”, “cross-court” and “technical foul”). If your child loves dancing, make sure they know the names of the dance moves (sorry, I can’t help you there!).
  14. Teach the child words used in more than one subject, e.g. words used in exam instructions (e.g. “evaluate”, “criticise”, “assess”, and “compare”).
  15. For new words, REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT (at least 12 times): make sure the child feels confident enough to read it, recognise it when s/he hears it, say it correctly, spell it, define it in his/her own words and use it in more than one context. More information on vocabulary teaching strategies appears here.
  16. Use a Learner’s Dictionary, rather than a traditional dictionary.
  17. Teach common root words, prefixes and suffixes – more than 60% of multisyllabic words can be worked out from their word parts (Bromley, 2007). Use a Word Origin dictionary, or look at websites like etymonline.com.
  18. Teach high frequency synonyms, antonyms and homonyms, as well as age-appropriate idioms.
  19. For assignments and homework projects, teach children how to find, sort, cull and weigh different sources of information. For example:
    1. look up synonyms for the key words used in the question to help the child find the right search terms for Google and library catalogues;
    2. *controversy alert* use the free Simple English Wikipedia to read some background on the assignment topic;
    3. use the wonderful and free resource rewordify to simplify complex text and assignment questions;
    4. learn information literacy frameworks, e.g. Herring’s PLUS model to help children sort credible information from less credible information; and
    5. give the child examples of “good” assignments, e.g. model answers, so they can understand exactly what you want them to do.
  20. Get the child to self-monitor their comprehension by teaching them evidence-based reading comprehension techniques like summarising, predicting, visualisation, and inference-making.
  21. Teach the child evidence-based studying techniques, e.g the “Why technique”, memory peg systems, interleaved practice, note taking and mock exam practice.
  22. Teach the child Graham & Wong’s 3H strategy – Here, Hidden, Head – reading comprehension technique.
  23. Break down texts into their parts and analyse them one at a time, e.g. title, index, first and last paragraphs, unfamiliar vocabulary, glossaries, then each paragraph – use paragraph-by paragraph pop quizzes, or colour coding of paragraphs or sub-topics to help.
  24. For children struggling with writing, use acronyms to help plan and produce good paragraphs. For example:
    1. PEELS – Point, Evidence, Explanation, Link and Style;
    2. PIE – Point, Illustration, Evaluation; and
    3. TEEL – Topic sentence, Explanation, Evidence, and Link (Brent & Millgate-Smith, 2008).

Principal source: Starling, J. (2016). Language Friendly Classrooms: Supporting Primary and Secondary students with language and literacy difficulties. Learning Difficulties Coalition seminar I attended on 8 November 2016 in Parramatta, Sydney.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of Dr Julia Starling’s practical research. See, for example: How to help our secondary teachers support teachers with language disorders at school. (As always, any errors of interpretation are my own.)

Related articles:

Image: http://tinyurl.com/oewj5hc

Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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