Navigating Speech & Language Difficulties in the Classroom

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The relationship between language skills and academic performance is well-documented by research. Speech and language skills are critical to successfully navigating the classroom, from following directions to verbally expressing ideas to building relationships with peers. For children with speech and language difficulties, these everyday occurrences can feel daunting, and at times, can become roadblocks to success.

Children with speech and language difficulties often require individualized assistance to succeed in a classroom setting. For teachers, this presents a challenge amidst very demanding schedules and class sizes of thirty or more students, each with varying needs. Any hand-tailored strategy can easily be applied in a one-on-one setting, but within an entire class of students, it’s not always so easy.

This blog is dedicated to teachers and educators, in hopes of offering practical strategies that can be readily incorporated into the classroom on any given day despite the rigorous demands of a school schedule. Natural opportunities to encourage speech and language are threaded throughout each day, and my hope is to shed light on these moments. Additionally, I hope to offer guidance in troubleshooting those more challenging moments, and in the end, see our students with speech and language difficulties thrive in the classroom setting.

Is it a Speech & Language Disorder? Discerning the Red Flags:

A handful of students in your classroom may already be identified as having a speech and language disorder. Other students, however, may remain undetected. Here are common red flags to identify speech and language difficulties within the classroom:

Speech Red Flags In The Classroom:

- difficulty following directions that are spoken or read

- difficulty comprehending a story that is spoken or read

- difficulty organizing thoughts or ideas to convey information clearly

- appear to have words “on the tip of their tongue”, but can’t quite seem to access them

- frequently use non-specific words (e.g. stuff, those, thing) or semantically related words (e.g. “writing thing” instead of “pencil”)

- frequently use gestures instead of words to convey their message

- difficulty retaining the details or main idea of a story

- difficulty appropriately responding to questions or staying on topic

- difficulty reading or spelling

- difficulty recalling sequences of numbers or letters

- may be difficult to understand, and may use several speech sound errors or substitutions (e.g. “dut” instead of “duck”)

- frequently repeat sounds or phrases (e.g. “I I I I I want the blue car” or “I want I want I want the blue car”)

- appear to be “stuck” on a sound or word (e.g. “Ssssssee you later”)

- become frustrated when they cannot clearly convey their message

- begin to shut down or withdraw from communicating (e.g. “I don’t know”)

Strategies to help your students succeed:

- Create an atmosphere of acceptance and open communication. Often times, children with language disorders become aware of their communication breakdowns and feel hesitant to communicate at all. I once had a new student arrive for a speech-language evaluation. Although he was 5 years old, he answered my questions primarily through nodding and gesturing because he was so accustomed to others not understanding his speech. As much as possible, encourage your students’ attempts to communicate without penalty.

- Encourage students to be “active listeners”. Explain to students what listening means. I often explain this through describing good listening behaviors (e.g. “We listen with our ears, we look with our eyes, we think with our brain, our body is quiet, our mouth is not talking.”).

- Discourage interrupting between students. Language is far more difficult when we feel rushed or pressed for time. Convey to your students that they have time to share their ideas, and discourage interruptions. You might explain this to students in terms of “talking turns” (e.g. “It’s my talking turn right now. You can have your talking turn next.”)

- Encourage students to use extra “thinking time” before they talk. Children with language disorders (or all of us for that matter) benefit greatly from taking an extra moment to pause and think before they speak. This extra pause provides time needed to better organize thoughts and more accurately formulate a sentence.

- Avoid correcting grammatical errors. I am often tempted to correct children during communication breakdowns. The better approach is to indirectly model the correct form. You can do this by repeating the sentence back to your student, using correct grammar. This also lets them know you heard what they had to say. For example, if your student asks “What it is?” you might respond “Hmmm… What is it? I don’t know!” The focus should be on the content of the child’s communicative attempt (the intended message), rather than the syntactical appropriateness (the grammar).

- Use visual support to supplement verbal directions. For children with language difficulties, comprehending long strings of information can be a challenge. This task requires the ability to process auditory information, comprehend a multitude of linguistic concepts (e.g. before, after, first, then) and remember each step in its correct sequence. To help these students, write each step out on the chalkboard. You might draw simple icons, use a picture schedule, or write a short list of each step.

- Modify your linguistic input. Simplify your language and avoid sentences that are syntactically and semantically complex. For example, passive forms and stacked clauses may be more difficult for children with language disorders to interpret. Additionally, children with language disorders may have more difficulty decoding indirect requests or ambiguous language such as idioms. For example, if you tell your class “Samantha is feeling blue today”, you might also follow this statement with clarification “Samantha is feeling sad today.”

- Create multisensory learning opportunities. “multisensory learning”proposes that the more sensory pathways used when learning, the more efficiently and effectively the information will be retained. To tap into the various senses, you might have children stomp to each syllable when learning new vocabulary words, or act out the word meaning. You might incorporate color-coding or graphic organizers to help students organize their ideas for writing. Integrate sensory experiences such as touch, smell, sight, sound or movement into learning new concepts.

- Describe what is going well. Positive verbal reinforcement is one of the most effective tools I have found as a therapist. If you want to see a behavior increase, praise it. Use descriptive words to raise your student’s awareness of what they are doing well (e.g. “Wow. You are looking at me with your eyes, and your hands are quiet. You are a really good listener. I like the way you are listening.”)

- What to do when you can’t understand your student’s speech. Working through unintelligible utterances is a common concern for parents, teachers, and therapists. We don’t want to frustrate a child (especially if they feel self-conscious about their speech), yet at the same time, it’s important to provide accurate feedback regarding their message. I will often work with what I do understand, then ask for more information (e.g. “Wow! That sounds like very exciting news. You and mommy went where?”). If you simply cannot decipher any of the intended message, then gently prompt (e.g. “Hmm, tell me again”) or try to utilize contextual clues in the environment (e.g. “Can you show me?”).

Deanna Swallow

Deanna Swallow, M.A., CCC-SLP is a speech-language pathologist who earned her master’s degree from Northwestern University. Prior to living in Chicago, Deanna attended the University of California at Davis, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Human Development. During her time at Davis, Deanna served as a research assistant for an Infant-Development Study in the Department of Human Development. Deanna has experience working as a pediatric speech-language pathologist in private practice, Early Intervention, and in preschool and elementary school settings. She is strongly committed to helping children build confidence and achieve their maximum potential.

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7 replies
  1. Dana Nadel
    Dana Nadel says:

    Deanna-thanks for the very informative blog post! These tips are not only useful for teachers, but for other health professionals who work with kids as well. As a pediatric occupational therapist, I sometimes have clients who demonstrate the above red flags. In addition to referring them to a speech-language pathologist, I can use the tips you provided in my day-to-day practice during my sessions. Thanks!

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