• Dr Chris Moore

Supporting Expression in the Classroom

Spoken language is so important for deepening social connections, communicating needs and views and developing skills such as reading and writing. Here are some indications within the classroom which can tell us that a child is having difficulty with expressive language.

- Using single words or very short and simplistic sentences.

- Producing words in the wrong order and struggling to retell an event/story effectively.

- Difficulty recalling words and choosing the most accurate word when naming an object.

- Using a limited range of vocabulary, with fewer adjectives and more non-specific language (e.g. “the thing”, “it” or “that”).

- Inaccurate use of tenses, plurals and pronouns.

- Relying on gesture to convey their needs.

- Appearing quiet and struggling to form friendships.

As with children who have difficulties with understanding language, those presenting with some of the issues above may be known to or require a referral to a Speech and Language Therapist. Below are some general strategies and activities in creating a Communication Friendly Classroom for students. This is essential in helping them to feel competent and effective in expressing their needs and views and enjoying more reciprocal and complex interactions with peers and adults.

Modelling Expressive Skills

Gradually expand on what the child says. So if they say “train”, you can say “Yes, red train”. Similarly, if they say “Drinking juice”, you can say “Yes, dolly drinking juice”. For those who use minimal or repetitive words, it may be necessary to use phrases or sentence starters from their perspective (e.g. “Want milk”, “More Lego”, “I want some ____”) to teach them how to express a need verbally.

Avoid explicitly correcting the child or asking them to say a sentence again in a different way. To safeguard their self-esteem and prevent the conversation from being disrupted, simply repeat back what they said with the grammatical errors corrected. So when the child says “I goed to the cinema” you can respond with “Wow, you went to the cinema!”.

Manage classroom discussions carefully. It may be stressful for the child to suddenly be put on-the-spot with a question. Give advanced warning that you’ll be asking them a question and try to give a clear sequence for them to anticipate. “After Lucy gives me her answer, I’m going to ask you for one”.

Provide extra time for the child to formulate their response to a question. Utilise the good role models of language within their peer group, by asking them a similar question first. This give the child with expressive difficulties the opportunity to listen to an effective response and frame their own answer in a similar way.

Choices can be important for those children who are reluctant to contribute to discussions or fearful of making a mistake if they speak out. Offer two possible answers and say each of them first so that the child can copy. For example: “Is it the yellow one or the red one?” or “Is that a big tiger or a little tiger?”. Older children can be given a wider variety of choices, but may still benefit from having potential answers or key words modelled first to decrease the degree of word finding required.

Promoting Vocabulary Acquisition

In the Early Years, descriptive commenting is brilliant for developing language skills. Instead of asking questions about the child’s play, simply give a running commentary. “You have a blue car and a red train”. “I see one, two, three, four cows in the farm”. “You put the dog under the tree”. These comments attach meaning to the words we use and enhance the child’s ability to talk about what they are doing. I’ve written more on descriptive commenting in a previous blog:

Provide as much context as possible when teaching a new word. Say the word and encourage the child to say it as well. Talk about the individual sounds within the word, give a clear definition and use the word in an everyday sentence. Associate the word with real objects or pictures.

If you know the word which the child is struggling to find, give them a cue by saying what sound it starts with, referring to an object or picture or using a lead-in contextual sentence with the missing word at the end. If both of you are unsure, give prompts such as “What does it look like?”, “Where do you find it?” and “What group does it belong to?”.

Children in the later primary school years may benefit from a spider diagram or mind map, where they can link several new words with a particular topic or category. These can be especially helpful for planning and sequencing ideas in writing activities. Always check that the child understands the vocabulary and instructions associated with a task.

Keep new words displayed on the whiteboard, a dedicated word wall or a reference page in their work book. This allows the child to have regular exposure to the words. Encourage them to draw pictures for each word or look up their definitions in the dictionary.

Developing Language using Games

One of the most straightforward group activities for developing vocabulary can be having the children name a series of objects or pictures which they pick out from or post into a box. Use the prompt questions suggested above if they do not know the word. This can gradually develop into “What does it do?” games where they have to describe the function.

Being able to describe what is happening in pictures is also important. For younger children with more significant expressive difficulties, this can start at the level of naming objects and vehicles or using action phrases such as “The boy is sleeping” and “The girl is running”. Older children could be asked to look at a large picture of city streets and give directions to their peers about how to position a toy car or figure (“Turn left”, “Go over the bridge”, “Park next to the red car”). Ensure that the directional language is modelled first and consider having the words and phrases displayed for visual reference.

We can help children to make associations between words through categories, such as animals, clothes and vehicles. There are many ways to achieve this depending on their ability and interests - with real objects (ensure there is a clear distinction, such as having a “big” toy noticeably bigger than the “small” one), pairs of pictures (a fork with a spoon) or written words which are placed into coloured boxes or circles on a page.

Sequencing activities can be useful for practising how to re-tell an event or story. This can start at the level of placing pictures in order. Some children may benefit from the framework of First/Next/Then/Last. You can also practise this skill with a visual schedule related to daily routines (e.g. getting dressed and ready for school, organising their books and equipment for a learning task or even following a baking recipe).

“What am I?” games can be a fun way of matching descriptive clues to a word. One child can select a picture and give three clues such as “I have four legs. I live on a farm. I say moo”. Ensure that the children listen to all of the clues first, especially if teaching less familiar words. You can add more of a challenge by having pictures of verbs rather than nouns. Older children may enjoy games such as Twenty Questions or I Spy with multiple descriptive clues rather than just the beginning sound. The barrier games referred to in my “Supporting Understanding” blog ( are applicable here. The child with expressive difficulties would be given practise as the speaker rather than the listener.

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