Supporting students with language difficulties

Information, strategies and resources to identify and support students with language difficulties.

Understanding language

Language is the ability to understand and use spoken, written and other forms of communication such as gestures and symbols.

It is a two-way process that includes:

  • vocabulary knowledge (semantics)
  • using and understanding grammatical structures (grammar, syntax, morphology)
  • knowing how language is used in different contexts (pragmatics)
  • phonological awareness of speech sounds, syllables and rhymes
  • higher order language knowledge and use, such as using figurative language or inferencing and predicting
  • conversational, narrative, procedural, persuasive and expository discourse.

The importance of language for learning

Language is essential for all learners and every aspect of their learning. Early language skills provide the foundation for language and literacy development and learning for all students, regardless of ability. Strong language skills are central to every student’s literacy and numeracy skills and academic attainment.

Language difficulties

Many students have difficulties with language. These difficulties will affect their:

  • social interactions
  • emotional wellbeing
  • behaviour regulation, and
  • educational progress.

Language disorder is a term used when language difficulties affect a student’s social and/or educational functioning and these difficulties are significant and persistent. A language disorder has two subtypes:

  • Developmental Language Disorder (DLD)
  • Language Disorder associated with [another condition]

Developmental Language Disorder

This is when a student has significant and persistent language difficulties that affects their everyday functioning and with no known reason for these difficulties.

Language Disorder associated with [another condition]

This is when a student has difficulties understanding and using language due to or because of another condition such as:

  • Down Syndrome
  • autism
  • hearing loss
  • cerebral palsy.

Why language difficulties are often overlooked

Many students with language difficulties are not diagnosed with a DLD. Their difficulties are often mistaken for academic, social-emotional, and behavioural difficulties.

Why it’s important to support students with language difficulties

DLD is a life-long condition that affects 1 in 15 school students in Australia.

Without support, students with DLD and language difficulties may face challenges with their:

  • mental health and wellbeing
  • relationships
  • personal development
  • education
  • employment
  • quality of life.

Research has found that people with language difficulties:

  • attain lower academic and vocational qualifications and often leave education significantly earlier than their peers
  • are more likely to experience anxiety and depression than their peers
  • have a lower quality of life than their peers by age 9, because of social-emotional problems
  • are over-represented in youth justice services (4651% of male young offenders have language difficulties)
  • are more likely to be underemployed, experience workplace conflict and rely more on government financial support.

The impact of language difficulties and DLD can be reduced when a student’s needs are identified, understood and appropriately supported.

Adjustments that support all students to develop strong language skills

Teachers can plan and implement instructional methods that support all learners. These adjustments provide good, evidence-based, Tier 1 practices that teachers should use to support all students’ language, including those students with language difficulties. These adjustments can be adapted for all ages and used across all subject areas and learning tasks.

The following resources will help teachers understand a student’s language abilities and make reasonable adjustments to support them in the classroom.

General receptive language classroom adjustments

General Receptive Language Classroom Adjustments
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Provides strategies to support students’ ability to understand and process spoken language. This includes:

  • adjusting the environment
  • using explicit language
  • repeating instructions
  • allowing the student extra time to process information
  • checking they understand.

General expressive language classroom adjustments

General Expressive Language Classroom Adjustments
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Provides strategies to support students’ ability to use language. This includes:

  • using visual supports
  • building word banks
  • providing sentence starters
  • providing models of correct sentence structure
  • using word associations
  • practising social skills.

What does a language difficulty look like in the classroom

What a language difficulty looks like in the classroom
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Shows some of the ways a language difficulty may present. Teachers may notice some of these behaviours in some students while observing and continually assessing their students’ learning.

Language checklists

If a teacher still has concerns about a student’s language after introducing good Tier 1 language practices, they can use the following checklists to gather more evidence and build a profile of the student’s language skills.

Language for Learning Checklist – Primary

Language for Learning Primary Checklist
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Provides tips on what to look for, including in a primary student’s:

  • behaviour
  • verbal memory
  • comprehension
  • expressive language
  • word retrieval
  • sound awareness.

Language for Learning Checklist Secondary

Language for Learning Secondary Checklist
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Provides tips on what to look for, including in a secondary student’s:

  • language use
  • behaviour
  • planning
  • social skills
  • difficulties.