Comprehension Difficulties in the Classroom and How YOU Can Help!

“He disturbs others while I’m talking!”, “She never listens!”, “He always does things wrong… but he can do it when I show him!”

Do those statements remind you of a child in your class??

In the UK, it is estimated that around 10% of school age children have some form of Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN). This can include difficulties with speech sounds, using and understanding words and sentences and social communication skills, as well as associated conditions such as autism or ADHD. That’s approximately 2-3 children in every classroom! (Afasic. (January 2017)).  Although SLCN comes in many forms, in this post we are going to focus on receptive language difficulties.

What are Receptive Language Difficulties?
Receptive language difficulties (also known as comprehension or understanding difficulties) can present in a variety of ways in different children; for example, children may have difficulties with following verbal instructions, understanding new vocabulary, answering questions, and understanding stories.
The classroom environment can be a confusing place for a child with comprehension difficulties; there’s lots of new vocabulary to learn and instructions to follow; it’s fast paced and there are many distractions!

A child with these type of difficulties may be accessing support/have previously accessed support from a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) (also known as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) in the US). It is important to follow any advice that you’ve been given by the SLT/SLP previously, however this post provides some simple strategies you can use to help a child with comprehension difficulties in your classroom!

How you can help:

1. Make sure you have the child’s attention: Before you give an instruction or ask a question, make sure that the child is listening and paying attention.  If they’re not listening, it is unlikely that they will understand what is being said to them. You can gain their attention by saying their name or tapping them gently on their arm. If you’re giving an instruction to a whole group, you could go over to the child and repeat the instruction to them directly, or say their name within the whole group, so they know it applies to them too, e.g. “Right everybody… Jack, are you listening? What you are doing is…”

2. Make it visual: Visual clues help most of us work out what someone means when we don’t understand, and pictures, objects and gestures are really important to help a child’s understanding too. Wherever possible you should try to present the instructions and information visually.  This could mean using real objects, pictures, symbols, drawings or gestures alongside spoken words.  Examples of using visuals are:

  • A visual timetable with images to show what you’re doing ‘now’ and ‘next’.
  • Using real objects when talking about new vocabulary
  • Using gestures or signing when giving an instruction

3. Keep your language simple: Try to keep sentences as simple as possible; use shorter sentences and avoid long, complicated words. When giving instructions it is useful to break instructions down into small steps (chunk them).  Often children with language difficulties cannot remember or process multiple pieces of information, so it is easier to give them one instruction at once. You could also try to emphasise the key words, which can help a child focus on the key information.

4. Show them what you mean: If you have given an instruction and the child is still struggling to understand, you could support their understanding by demonstrating the task and showing them what you mean! Show the child how to complete a task so that they know what to do. For example “fold your paper in half… watch me, I’ll show you… now you have a go”.

5. Check their understanding: Ask the child simple questions related to what you have told them, get them to tell you have they have been asked to do, or ask them to repeat the key points.  If the child is struggling to answer your questions, you could offer them forced alternatives, for example “what do you have to get?”… “is it your book or your pencil?”

6. Allow extra time: Children with comprehension difficulties benefit from extra time to process information. Try talking a little slower than usual and pause after you have said a sentence- try counting to 10 in your head before you prompt them. This can help the child think about what you have said and begin to process what they have to do and what they will say too.
I hope you find that these practical strategies can be easily applied in your classroom! Hopefully they will support a child with comprehension difficulties, but you may find that they also support other children in your classroom too!

Have you got any other strategies that you use in your classroom to help children with comprehension difficulties?  I’d love to hear about them, drop me a comment below!