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Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) occurs when a child or adult has difficulties with talking and/or understanding language, but doesn’t have any other biomedical conditions, such as autism or intellectual disability.
These difficulties can impact on an individual’s level of literacy, ability to learn and form friendships, and emotional wellbeing.
According to a 2016 study, 7% of children have DLD. That means that in an average class of 30, two children may have DLD. It’s much more common than autism, yet remains a ‘hidden condition’ that’s often missed, misdiagnosed or misinterpreted as poor behaviour, poor listening or inattention.
Classroom strategies Support from professionals can make a real difference to children with DLD. Speech and language therapists and specialist teachers can help them to develop various skills and strategies, and better understand their difficulties and strengths.
Mainstream teachers can support these children by developing an understanding of their individual difficulties, but also by making a series of simple adaptations to their teaching practice with the aid of these 10 key strategies:
Allow the pupil with DLD more time to process information and instructions (receptive language) and formulate their answers (expressive language).
Visual prompting can help signpost activities for pupils with DLD and trigger memory. Make use of interactive whiteboards, iPads, apps and online videos. Provide visual timetables, language-rich displays and clear, simple signage around the school.
Add pictures to your worksheets, and where possible, make use of real-life objects.
Signing supports the development of expressive language and can help with understanding, since the young person will be given an extra ‘visual clue.’ The majority of teachers aren’t trained signers, but we’re all capable of effectively using gestures, facial expressions and body language in our everyday teaching. If you have a pupil with DLD in your class, ensure that you use these skills more overtly.
It might also be useful to familiarise yourself with, or even make up your own, signs for key curriculum vocabulary that the whole class can learn.
Pupils with DLD will respond well when taught using a multi-sensory teaching approach. Try to provide multiple opportunities for kinaesthetic learning – especially in topics that have a heavy language load.
Start with the pupils’ own first-hand experiences, focusing on life skills and creative tasks where possible. Model the language you want the pupil to use throughout practical activities – this will then support any subsequent spoken or written tasks.
Slow your rate of speech, issue one instruction at a time and build the task up. Keep your sentences short and concise, pausing between sentences so that pupils can process the information more easily. Be prepared to rephrase what you say more than once.
Try to use a word order that follows time – for example, ‘Finish question 10 before you go outside’ will be easier for a pupil with DLD to understand than, ‘Before you go outside, finish question 10.’ Also, simplify your vocabulary – such as using the word ‘make’ instead of ‘produce’.
To support pupils’ understanding of everyday instructions, chunk the information by employing pauses. For example, ‘Tidy your desk … collect your planner … then line up.’ It’s often useful to repeat such instructions. Be explicit, and use literal language. Pupils with DLD struggle to understand inference and language forms such as idioms and metaphors.
Pupils with DLD will know fewer words than their typically developing peers. It’s therefore vital that we teach them new words, ensuring that key curriculum vocabulary is explicitly taught. Try to plan vocabulary activities that target subject-specific words, as pupils with DLD will tend not to ‘pick up’ new vocabulary like their classmates.
Consider setting aside five minutes at the start of lessons for ‘vocabulary time.’ The whole class could benefit from this, particularly in subjects such as maths and science, where the vocabulary used can be highly abstract and involve a great deal of complex temporal or spatial language.
Break down tasks into smaller, more manageable parts. Provide a tick list, so that pupils can see their progress and know what to do next.
Try to recap previous learning at the beginning of each lesson. Many pupils with DLD have difficulties with working memory and will thus benefit from such prompting. Throughout the lesson, repeat what you want the children to learn and model the use of targeted vocabulary. Do the same activity more than once, but make small changes each time to extend learning.
Ask the pupils to repeat back to you what they’ve been asked to do, so that you can assess their understanding.
Whether spoken or written, always model the language you want the pupil with DLD to use. Provide them with a toolkit of phrases and sentence structures they can use to answer specific question forms.
These 10 strategies shouldn’t be viewed as ‘extra workload’ for teachers. Supporting pupils with DLD is ultimately about maintaining good classroom practice – making lessons visual and/or practical, prioritising vocabulary, using innovative resources, maintaining consistency and allowing time for consolidation of learning.
Moor House School & College in Oxted, Surrey, is one of the few schools in the country specialising in supporting pupils aged 7 to 19 with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), providing individually tailored education with integrated speech and language therapy, for those with the most severe and complex forms of the condition.
Moor House shares expertise and specialist knowledge with the wider community, including staff at mainstream schools and colleges. Bespoke training sessions can be provided to primary schools, secondary schools and further education colleges, with courses suited to the requirements of individual staff and students.
You can find out more about DLD by downloading a free training presentation for teachers created by Moor House Training & Research Institute, titled ‘DLD – What every Teacher needs to know!’, via moorhouseschool.co.uk/dld-training.
Sue Marr is an experienced teacher, having previously worked in both mainstream and SEN settings; she has taught pupils with DLD for many years, and possesses extensive experience of devising and delivering a mainstream curriculum that’s been highly differentiated for the language needs of the pupils in her class.
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