How to help our secondary teachers support teenagers with language disorders at school

To look at the way public speech pathology services are funded, you’d think language disorders happen to a small group of toddlers and pre-schoolers and then magically disappear when they go to school.

If only.

Yes, early intervention is best practice and is supported by reams of research.  But we know that:

  • language disorders – particularly in comprehending language – have a high persistence rate into adolescence (e.g. Clegg et al. 2005);
  • teenagers with language disorders are at risk of poor academic progress, bullying and behavioural problems, like acting out in class (e.g. Snow & Powell, 2004).  Lots of teenagers with language problems give up, drop out and end up in unskilled, poorly paid jobs.  And teenagers with language disorders are well over-represented in the youth justice system;
  • in places like New South Wales, Australia (where I work), teenagers don’t have meaningful access to public speech pathology services.  Unlike some other places, we don’t have speech pathologists in our public high schools;
  • most teenagers with language disorders are expected to cope with the mainstream curriculum – despite their well documented problems with oral and written comprehension, written expression, new word learning and understanding the so-called “hidden curriculum” – teacher expectations of how they should behave when listening to others and speaking in class; and
  • busy teachers have a whole class to teach, often with limited support from over-stretched and under-resourced special education staff.

So, given all these constraints (which are unlikely to change any time soon), what can we do to help teenagers with language disorders cope with the curriculum at school?

Answer: we can arm our secondary teachers with evidence-based strategies that have been proven to help teenagers with language disorders cope with the language demands of school.  For example:

1. Written language tips:

  • break down large amounts of information into smaller, visually distinct sections;
  • add graphics and icons – use technology like Google Images and smart boards to explain key concepts visually;
  • explain instructional vocabulary (like “devise”, “analyse”, etc.) in plain English that makes it easier for the student to identify what precisely is required of them (e.g. “write about”);
  • put questions on the same page as the text to make it easier for students to cross-reference and check their work; and
  • explicitly teach these 6 evidence-based reading comprehension strategies.

2. Oral language tips:

  • be explicit about instructions – don’t expect students to infer what you want them to do from the context;
  • make instructions short – break multi-step instructions into separate steps;
  • give students more time to process and answer verbally;
  • rephrase key information in plain English, and repeat it regularly; and
  • face the class when giving instructions.

3.  Tips to help students process information:

  • get the whole class involved in breaking down complex texts, e.g. with mind-maps that summarise key facts;
  • provide visual planners (like this one) to help show students how to structure tasks;
  • outline the sequence of tasks to be covered in the lesson with visual cues; and
  • involve the whole class in creating visual aids (charts, posters, etc) to assist information processing and retention.

4. Tips for vocabulary instruction:

  • choose, say, “10 key words” that are essential to understand the given topic and teach them directly;
  • embed vocabulary in activities such as creating visual symbols;
  • conduct whole-class interactive tasks to break key words into root words, prefixes and suffixes; and
  • use these tips to deepen comprehension of key words and aid retention.

Quality research tells us that teachers trained to adopt strategies just like those listed above can materially improve the written expression and listening comprehension of teenagers with language disorders, without needing to pull kids out of mainstream classes or recruit additional specialist resources to give them additional support.

Related articles:

Source: Starling, J., Munro, N., Togher, L., Arciuli, J. (2012). Training Secondary School Teachers in Instructional Language Modification Techniques to Support Adolescents With Language Impairment: a Randomised Controled Trial. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 43, 474-495.


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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