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  • Dr Chris Moore

Supporting Understanding in the Classroom

Children with language difficulties, arising from a hearing impairment, medical condition or a special educational need, may find it challenging to cope with the array of spoken instructions and requests in a typical school day. There are a number of signs which indicate that a child may be having difficulty with understanding language. These include:

- Being confused by what they’ve been asked to do.

- Unable to repeat back what they’ve been told.

- Carrying out instructions incorrectly.

- Finding it hard to get started to an activity or follow along with a story.

- Needing instructions repeated and reminders of what to do.

- Giving irrelevant answers to questions or echoing what they have been told.

- Appearing distracted or reluctant to participate during a task.

- Presenting as withdrawn or engaging in less appropriate behaviour.

There will be some students in your class who may require a referral to a Speech and Language Therapist for an individual assessment and specific guidance on intervention targets. The following are some general strategies and ideas to consider in supporting a child’s understanding and comprehension. A Communication Friendly Classroom is vital for reducing stress, safeguarding their confidence and self-esteem and helping children to engage in learning and social activities to the best of their ability.

Change how you deliver verbal information

Ensure that you gain the child’s attention before delivering an instruction. This might be through the use of their name, a clapping routine or rhyme, a visual cue, etc. Think about where the child is sitting – ideally away from sources of noise or distraction – and whether you need to deliver or repeat instructions in front of a less cluttered area of the room.

Keep instructions clear and concise. If you feel that you’ve given a lot of information, summarise the key points. Beware of metaphors and idioms which are not easily understood or may be unknown to the child. Keep your language literal and explicit.

Some children may need extra processing time before they can be expected to respond. A nice rule of thumb is to wait 10 seconds before repeating the same words. But it will be important to observe how long it takes the child to respond to verbal instructions and information in different contexts and adapting your language appropriately.

Give instructions and directions in the order in which they are to be carried out. You may wish to use a consistent and memorable structure such as “First…then…” to emphasise the sequence.

Ask the child to repeat back what has been said, so that you can check their understanding. Encourage them to tell you when they don’t understand. Some children may be comfortable with statements such as “I’m not sure what to do” or “Can you say that again?”. Others may prefer a more discreet method of gaining your attention – a code word or a visual cue card which tells you that you need to repeat or break down the information further.

Use non-verbal strategies and resources

Visual supports can be really important in enhancing a child’s understanding. Use your judgement as to whether a picture or symbol of the task or routine is sufficient or whether a photograph of the child or their peers engaging in this routine is more effective.

A whole-class or personal visual timetable may give a clear structure for the child to anticipate. Children who may be overwhelmed or confused by a full-day schedule may need a more short-term measure, such as Now/Next. Those with additional and complex needs may not be ready for visuals right away and will respond more to an exchange of objects linked to each activity.

Checklists can be a great method for promoting older children’s organisational skills, especially when there are multiple belongings and materials to take out or put away. A key word or short phrase accompanied by a symbol can be a nice visual reference to fall back on, when the child may have forgotten the verbal instructions.

When in doubt, show the child what you mean. Point to or hold up items as you talk about them or walk towards areas of the classroom when asking the child to retrieve specific equipment and materials. Think about the need for additional labelling of classroom areas.

The rules of games may be less confusing when the child is given a clear and predictable role. In whole-class activities, demonstrate what is expected first and have good peer role models in close proximity. The use of music, rhythm or visual markers on the floor can help to communicate where to stand and when to carry out an action.

Develop understanding through games

For young children who are still learning to derive meaning from verbal instructions, listening games are a fundamental starting point. You could describe sounds in the natural environment during a “listening walk”, ask the children to name sounds which you have recorded or play Musical Statues/Chairs. “Ready…Steady…Go!” games, where you can gradually delay blowing the bubbles or rolling the toy car, can also promote looking and listening skills.

Play matching and sorting games. This might start at the level of matching everyday real objects (e.g. a spoon, pencil, watch, etc) with pictures. Categorise items by their basic properties, such as shape and colour, before moving on to functions (“Pick up the one you eat”).

Give lots of practise with prepositions. Younger children may benefit from games which use physical toys (a teddy bear or action figure) or placing cards in different positions on a large picture (“Put the car on the bridge”). For older children, we can build these words into daily routines. In the classroom, this might be “Put your book under your desk”, while in PE you could say “Put the red cones in the box”.

Games which develop auditory memory will have benefits for children’s general understanding. These might include action songs where they have to remember a certain word/movement, recalling the items in a shopping list or reciting the order given to a restaurant. “Go” games are also useful here, as you can slowly build up the amount of language (e.g. “Touch your nose…go!” vs “Bend down, jump up…go!”) or bring in “Simon Says” to help them tune in to specific instructions.

You can also play games in pairs or small groups. Barrier games can give the experience of listening to a friend’s instructions about the construction of a tower or sequencing pictures to create a story. For older children, this could be a drawing activity where one child calls out directions to the other. Descriptive activities like “Guess Who” can also provide practise with asking and answering questions.


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