Joseph’s Year 3 (P4) class teacher noticed that he didn’t seem to understand all the questions he was asked, often giving some unusual responses. Was he not listening? Did he not understand the language? Assessment of Joseph’s speech and language skills showed it was actually a little bit of both; Joseph had poor listening behaviours and difficulty processing larger amounts of spoken information and understanding higher-level questions. He was, however, very skilled at masking this! He often smiled, nodded, and responded with reassuring noises, like ‘yeah’, ‘ok’, and ‘yep, I understand.’

Higher-level questions are the type that require us to apply our thinking skills, such as inference, reasoning, prediction and problem-solving, e.g. ‘Why did he do that? How do you know?’ Children usually begin to answer these questions from 5-6 years old, becoming more skilled as they mature. Some children continue to find these types of questions difficult to answer well into Key Stage 2 and need extra support to develop these skills.

Active Listening Behaviours

Joseph needed some visual reminders of good listening behaviours, such as facing the person, looking at the person, trying to understand what they are saying, and remembering what was said. These active listening behaviours were reiterated at the start of every session and the visual reminders left out on the table throughout its duration. Sometimes the adult would only need to point to a card to remind Joseph to stay on track.

Strategies to Support Processing of Spoken Information

I reminded Joseph’s teacher to break down longer instructions into smaller chunks, repeat the key information, use visual support to back up the spoken information, and to check his understanding. To help Joseph become more independent at clarifying information, he was given some visual prompts to remind him to ask for repetition, e.g. ‘Could you say that again, please?’ As he became more familiar at using this phrase, he stopped needing the visual support as often.

Strategies for Understanding Higher-Level Questions

To help Joseph understand those higher-level questions, his TA and I looked at picture-based scenarios that were accompanied by a short story. We always started by talking about Joseph’s own experiences of the situation, to help him better relate to the information. Once we’d all discussed our experiences, we could help him apply his existing knowledge to the new situation. Joseph needed prompting to look for the clues in the pictures. His TA or I would then think aloud while we pondered the possible thought processes of the characters. It was important to remind Joseph that we had done some ‘looking’ and now we were doing some ‘thinking’.

Once Joseph consistently notices the clues in pictures and independently makes links between what he sees and what happens next, he will move on to applying those skills to texts without pictures. This is much harder and he will need extra help with these. Joseph’s teacher makes sure he has plenty of time to think about questions and that she gives him extra visual support where possible. Working in groups with other children to answer questions also provides Joseph with a model of his peers’ thought processes.

We definitely noticed an improvement in both Joseph’s listening skills and his ability to answer questions with the extra support he received. His teacher has also noticed he is asking for help more often, which shows he is starting to support his own learning!

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