Supporting the oral and written language of students with additional needs

Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.

Supporting the oral and written language of students with additional needs

Information provided by Dr Julia Starling, Speech and Language Pathologist, at the TCFNSW seminar in August 2016.

Classroom as places for language learning -

The Problem


"Early oral language difficulties are highly correlated with later written language difficulties" - according to Smart, Prior, Sanson & Oberklaid, 2001; Stothard, Bishop, Chipchase & Kaplan, 1998.

In early childhood, children learn to communicate orally, involving speech (articulation/sounds) and language (words/sentences). School-age children develop their written language from oral language. Phonological and phonemic awareness underlies development of the mastery of the speech-sound system. This in turn supports reading accuracy and spelling ability. Developing maturity of oral language supports reading comprehension and written expression. Vocabulary is needed for reading accuracy, comprehension and expression.

Communication Disorders

  1. Speech/phonology – poor speech clarity and inaccurate representation of phonemes in words leads to speech sound errors; difficulty with polysyllabic words; decoding/encoding problems.
  2. Language – difficulty with comprehension and expression. Poor vocabulary. Written language difficulties. Poor reading comprehension.
  3. Auditory Memory – difficulty holding and manipulating information leading to cognitive overload:- can’t follow instructions; forgets messages; doesn’t retain new words leading to poor expressive vocabulary.
  4. Fluency – stuttering hesitation impacts social communication and mental health.

Terms and Definitions

Language impairment, language difficulty, language disorder (DSM-V), language disability, SLI, receptive/expressive language impairment/disorder, language-based learning difficulties.

“A difficulty with the understanding and/or use of language in both oral and written domains, when this impairment cannot be attributed to a primary cause such as intellectual impairment, neurological damage or sensory impairment such as hearing loss” (Leonard, 1991).

Oral language: listening comprehension, verbal expression.

Written language: reading comprehension, written expression

Signs and symptoms of Language Impairment video from the YouTube RALLI campaign (Raising Awareness of Language Learning Impairment).

Oral and written language system according to Greathead (2012)

  1. Syntax
    Receptive Language – Comprehension of which grammatical structure to use and when. Expressive Language – Correct and age-appropriate use of the structural elements of language (grammar).
  2. Semantics
    Receptive Language – Understanding the relationship between words and what those words mean in different situations e.g. categorising. Expressive Language – The use and organisation of words and sentences (e.g. vocabulary).
  3. Pragmatics
    Receptive Language – The ability to understand and interpret social situations.
    Expressive Language – The use of language as a social tool, and for a specific purpose e.g. greetings, stating sympathy.
  4. Meta-linguistics (Using language to understand language)
    Receptive Language – Objective understanding of the use of language e.g. humour, figurative language, phonological awareness.
    Expressive Language – Ability to use metalinguistic language.

The scale of Language impairment

Between 7 and 16% of students are affected – 3 students per class. 40-60% of juvenile offenders have written and oral language issues. Many people have life-long language difficulties. Affects students in all grade levels and subjects even P.E., Maths and Visual Arts. Early oral language difficulties are highly correlated with later written language difficulties. The impact of impaired language is persistent and pervasive in older children and adolescents.

Identification of Language impairment

  1. In early years:
    Delayed speech and language development. First words often not until 2 years old or later; slow to develop complex sentences. Immature grammatical constructions e.g. retains irregularities longer than other children e.g. Me goed/I went; mouse/mice. Restricted vocabulary, comprehension and production. May have fine and gross motor issues.
  2. School age children:
    Poor oral language impacting literacy skills. Problems with phonological awareness. Continuing grammatical difficulties. Poor vocabulary development, understanding and retention. By the end of Grade 2 children, on average, know 6,000 root word meanings. With estimates of 70% of English words having at least 2 meanings. Grades 3 to 6 add 1000 words per year. Slow rate of processing oral and written language. Poor auditory working memory, retention and acting on information. May be experiencing poor social verbal interaction.
  3. Older children and adolescents:
    Poor higher order skills, literal interpretations, difficulty with analytical thinking and abstract language. Falling behind in increasingly demanding language environments. Reading comprehension and writing often become major issues. Mental health problems, pragmatic issues, withdrawal behaviour, acting out and being distracted.


Creating the language-friendly classroom

  • Reduce the complexity of teacher language both oral and written – vocabulary, sentence length, number of instructions, use explicit language rather than implied, beware of the possibility of literal interpretations.
  • Make a plan to sequence the introduction of new ideas and explain the links to other concepts.
  • Chunk information into small meaningful sections.
  • Increase opportunities for repetition and rehearsal, checking for understanding.
  • Increase opportunities for repetition and rehearsal, checking for understanding.
  • Provide written information that students can process by themselves – independence tools.
  • Prioritise essential curriculum vocabulary with descriptions that are relevant and use-able.
  • Prioritise essential curriculum vocabulary with descriptions that are relevant and use-able.
  • Increase visual supports with spoken language – provide written and pictorial summaries of oral presentations. Provide summary notes. Use visual aids, demonstrations, concept maps, time lines.
  • Reduce the speed of delivery, increasing the time for processing and production. (Allow 5 seconds of wait time for kids to think before answering questions.)
  • Teach phonics systematically and meaningfully – (Alison Clark).
  • Specifically teach vocabulary. Teach up to 10 keywords for a topic, mostly Tier 2 words. Revisit them up to 12 times. Have the class come up with definitions of word meanings rather than just copy them from a reference source.
  • Follow Robert Maranzo’s six steps for direct vocabulary instruction.


Each new curriculum topic for all subject areas involves the introduction of a set of vocabulary items and terminologies which must be processed and retained in order to develop even the most rudimentary knowledge and application of that topic. (Beck 2002) Meaning may be stated once and supplied on a glossary sheet that is difficult to interpret. Meanings often copied out verbatim from dictionaries, with no “real” understanding extracted.

Direct Vocabulary Instruction – Beck, McKeown & Kucan (2013): Bringing Words to Life.
Tier 1: The most everyday, basic and familiar words in our vocabulary that rarely need direct instruction. e.g. clock, baby, happy, face, sky.
Tier 2: Words that are of high utility for language users but that often need to be directly taught. They are of high frequency use and are often found across a variety of domains. e.g. coincidence, absurd, industrious, fortunate, cultural.
Tier 3: Words that are of low frequency use, or that apply to specific domains. They may be essential to learning a topic. e.g. Isotope, lathe, peninsula, metamorphosis.

Prioritising words for vocabulary instruction –

  • “Must know” words: essential to learning a topic or concept. These words should be directly and systematically taught.
  • “Should know” words: Highly significant, although not essential to understanding the topic or concept.
  • “Could know” words: Interesting and stimulating though not necessary for a basic understanding of a topic.

Robust Word knowledge –

  • Can define the word in a generalised way.
  • Not dependent on context.
  • Can apply the word in appropriate situations.
  • Breadth and depth: knowledge of multiple meanings for a word; metaphorical use; range of derivatives.
  • Can readily retrieve the word, with well-mapped semantic connections and phonological specifications. (Student can read the word, say it, spell it, know what it means and use it appropriately.)

Class Resources

Notes by Harley Mills