‘How can I teach English to a learner who has difficulty speaking and understanding their own language?’

Sally Farley

As teachers we know that good communication is vital for successful learning, so it is not surprising that this is a worry for English language teachers across the world. Communication skills help children to understand and explain the world around them, share their ideas and feelings and make friends. Good language skills enable a child to reason and learn. They also help to develop a sense of self and the feeling of belonging to a group or community.

If we discover that there is a learner with speech and language difficulties in our class we might wonder how to help them to get the most from our lessons. By understanding the different kinds of speech and language impairment and knowing some useful teaching strategies we can really make a difference to these learners and help them to experience enjoyable and successful learning.

What is speech and language impairment?

Speech and language impairment varies from person to person and can range from mild to severe. A learner may have difficulty with speaking, ‘expressive language’ or understanding, ‘receptive language’. They may have problems expressing feelings and interacting with others. This can cause low self-esteem and frustration, and may lead to behaviour problems in the class. As speech and language problems are not always obvious, we have to think about what lies behind the behaviour and the need the learner may be trying to express.

Most children with speech or language impairment are of average intelligence, but may have other specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or ADHD. Speech and language impairment is sometimes linked with conditions such as hearing loss, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy or autism. Chronic ear infections may also be a cause. Some learners have difficulty with both language input and output and need to be taught the communication skills that other learners learn automatically.

Expressive language difficulties

Some learners have problems with the muscular movements needed to form words. They may have trouble producing certain sounds and simply leave them out, or substitute one sound for another. This can make them difficult to understand and result in delayed or unclear speech.

Expressive language difficulties can also affect the ability to put words in the right order in a sentence and tell stories with the events in the right sequence. Their speech can be jumbled up and hard to understand. Sometimes the learner will use inappropriate grammatical structures and their speech may sound immature for their age. They may also have trouble with learning and accessing vocabulary. These problems occur in their own language and will also appear when learning English. Having trouble explaining and describing things makes it hard to join in class discussions.

Receptive language difficulties

Some learners have problems with the way they hear and process language. This can impact on the ability to understand what others are saying and respond appropriately. Learners with hearing impairment have a physical barrier to understanding speech, but there are can also be ‘pragmatic language’ difficulties where, although the learner can hear what is being said, they do not understand the meaning. They may not know how to use social language and lack an intuitive understanding of social cues and conventions. There can also be problems understanding ‘figurative language’, which includes the use of irony, humour and metaphor. This can lead to a tendency to take things too literally. A learner with receptive language difficulties may have trouble in one or more of these areas.

  • Following instructions
  • Understanding abstract concepts
  • Concentration
  • Understanding stories, both written and spoken
  • Understanding metaphorical language
  • Making friends
  • Listening to others

Teaching and learning strategies – how can we help?

1. Encourage and accept all forms of communication

Learners with speech and language difficulties are often lacking in confidence and shy about speaking in public, so avoid asking them to repeat mispronounced words or finish their sentences for them. It is better to model the correct form in your response. Concentrate on the message the learner is trying to communicate rather than the grammar. Allow alternative ways of communicating like gestures, writing or drawing.

2. Be conscious of your own communication style

Make sure your language is clear and direct and face the class so that learners can see your expressions and read your lips if necessary. Give instructions one at a time in the order you want them to be carried out, using visual cues and gestures to support them. If you say the learner’s name before asking them a question they will know you want their attention. Try to avoid ambiguous language and always be prepared to repeat anything the learner does not understand.

3. Teach active listening skills

Explain to the whole class that it is important to be attentive and look at someone when they are talking to you, and not to interrupt. You can teach turn-taking by having a special object which is the ‘speaker’s token’. The holder of the object is the only person who may speak. When they have finished they pass it on.

4. Give time to think and respond to questions

All learners can benefit from this. Using the ‘think, pair, share’ model in class provides the time needed to process information and organize thoughts before having to answer.

5. Use sound discrimination exercises

We know that phonemes are the building blocks for language. You can help learners who have difficulty recognising and decoding phonemes through multisensory activities like clapping and stomping out syllables in new vocabulary or colour-coding the different groups of phonemes. Rhyming bingo and card games where the learner can match the same sounds can be really helpful.

6. Help with sequencing and word order

If the learner has difficulty explaining things or telling stories in the right order, just ask them to give bullet points of what they want to say and put them in the correct sequence on a timeline. It is also helpful to cut up stories so they can practice putting them in order - you can use pictures for younger learners.

7. Build vocabulary

Use pictures, objects and photos to help understand and remember new vocabulary. Encourage learners to use their visual memory by making a personal vocabulary box of key words on picture cards.

8. Help build self-esteem

Make sure to notice and praise good interactions and speech. Describe what they do well and identify and work with their other strengths, such as creativity and physical talents.

9. Help learners to make their needs known

Always check that the learner has understood the task and clarify any misunderstandings. Encourage them to let you know if they have not understood by using a pre-arranged signal.

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