Helping post-16 learners with language difficulties

Students with language difficulties find it hard to understand what others say, what they mean or what is expected from them.

In class they may look like they understand but they may actually be using clues from others to fit in.

They may find it hard to understand and remember new words, follow instructions, explain their ideas, complete writing tasks and work independently.

They often need help with organizing their belongings and their time.

How you can help at school or college

1. Identify key vocabulary/concepts from curriculum subjects

Identify these at the beginning of a lesson, link them to a picture on the board, and keep returning to the meaning of these words. Ideally, send a list home so that the student can revise these.

2. Encourage the student to ask for help

Initially this could be asking for repetition or saying ‘I need help’. Later support them to ask for specific help, such as ‘What page was it?’ ‘What does “account” mean?’ Regularly try to check the student understands what they need to do.

3. Auditory memory

Many students with language difficulties have difficulties remembering things they have heard. Help the students identify ways they can remember things, such as:

  • Rehearsal: repeating under their breath e.g. taking messages
  • Visualizing: making a picture in their head while you are talking
  • Note writing: students may need to practise taking notes and identifying which information is important.

Repeat new ideas, words and information as much as possible.

4. Give time

Give thinking time after providing information. Also try to give learning and listening breaks

5. Use visual support, tactile activities and real experiences as much as possible

Demonstrations to supplement explanations, pictures, symbols, key words, role play. Students with language difficulties often have visual strengths. Use a visual checklist of steps they have to carry out in a task, as they may have difficulties following longer instructions

6. Try to have a clear structure to the lesson

This can be supported visually – e.g. written/illustrated on the board

7. Give information in short chunks

Give time to process information or ask in between. Try to keep instructions clear and easy to understand. Ask students to explain what they have been asked to do so you know they understand

8. Think about the words you use

Be careful when using or referring to:

Idiomatic or figurative language – this can be confusing for students who take things literally, e.g. ‘hit the nail on the head’, ‘wait a second’. You may need to help them interpret what you actually mean.

Homonyms (words that sound the same but have different meanings) e.g. ‘desert’ (leave/abandon vs. a pudding), ‘clear’ (to clean vs. makes sense vs see through)

The passive tense (which is frequently used in textbooks) – some children will misunderstand who is doing what to whom e.g. in the sentence ‘the kangaroo rats are preyed on by foxes’, some children will think the kangaroo rat will attack the fox

9. Try to break down activities into separate steps that are easier to manage

For example, creative writing involves:

Thinking of ideas: try letting another student scribe in pairs, or audio-recording their ideas

Organising the structure: try using pictures, cartoon strips, mind maps and writing frames

Planning sentences: this may need to be done out loud first

Checking grammar, punctuation and spelling: try using checklists to help the students remember

10. Homework/coursework

When setting homework/coursework, try to make sure students are given time to write or draw instructions of what they have to do. Ensure they have accurately written down homework/coursework tasks.

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