By Natalie Fogden and Becky Rothwell, SEND Advisers at HFL Education

With increased language demands across the curriculum, secondary school students with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) may experience difficulties that have a significant impact on their attainment.

Alongside this, teachers may lack confidence in supporting students with SLCN as most will have not received specialist training.

Students may:

  • Have difficulty processing information
  • Struggle to embed, use, and understand technical vocabulary
  • Be unable to generalise language and make connections across subjects
  • Avoid participating in class discussions

Here we explore some effective, universal strategies, aligned to the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) SEND five-a-day approach, that teachers can employ to challenges such as these in a secondary setting.


1. Explicit instruction

Explicit instruction³ refers to a range of adult-led approaches focused on teacher demonstration prior to guided and independent practice.

Using explicit instruction, when teaching new vocabulary and complex concepts and skills, can support students with SLCN to access and make progress.

As Ofsted⁴ explains in their progression model, students are successful when the knowledge they need is built up over time. This helps them to gradually understand more complex ideas and undertake more complex tasks.

For students with SLCN, vocabulary instruction is an important area of focus.

Students with large vocabularies can understand new ideas and concepts more quickly. Explicit vocabulary instruction is recommended as an effective and important strategy to support vocabulary development⁵.

Consider a whole school approach to explicit vocabulary teaching as consistency can reduce cognitive load for students across all lessons.

Adopting the following approach from Alex Quigley can promote consistency across the curriculum:

  • Select: Teachers preview the lesson content, including any reading material, to determine essential vocabulary required to understand the topic, especially those that may not be part of the student’s prior knowledge. Remember to not make assumptions of what students may or may not know especially for those with SLCN. Check students’ level of understanding through an open-ended question session before a lesson or topic.
  • Explain: Teachers emphasise the selected words to students by explicitly teaching each word.
  • Consider the role of pre-teaching for your students with SLCN to increase knowledge, confidence, and engagement. When explaining vocabulary, give student-friendly definitions (with images), multiple meaningful examples and ask for student feedback to clarify misconceptions.
  • Breaking down and exploring the morphology (structure and construction) of words can further support language acquisition. Students with SLCN often have morphology deficits and therefore struggle to make connections between related words and understand increasingly complex language structures⁶.
  • Consolidate: Ensure students are repeatedly exposed to the words to deepen understanding.

A good example of a step-by-step process to language instruction is the SEEP (stem-example-explanation-picture) vocabulary approach⁷.

Vocabulary learning should be developed over time to strengthen connections and increase a student’s ability to recall knowledge and concepts automatically. An example of this could be a brief five-to-ten-minute language review of previously taught vocabulary as a starter activity.

Presenting visual and verbal explanations at the same time, can support students with SLCN to process, understand, retain, and use language more easily. Visual cues can be presented in many ways including simple images, flow charts and diagrams. Teachers should consider how these will be displayed both in the classroom and in students’ books. Don’t forget the use of ICT as a valuable visual tool to enhance teacher explanation.

Graphic organisers are an excellent example of dual coding and can be used to present information in a clear and accessible format. With a range of ways to record information, teachers and students alike can use them to organise ideas, clarify or simplify concepts with high language demands.

Where used as an effective tool, teachers select information and key vocabulary whilst embedding visual cues linked to the curriculum focus. Oliver Caviglioli⁸ provides some great examples.


2. Flexible grouping

The EEF recommends collaborative learning as a strategy within flexible grouping.

A consistent approach to partner talk, across the curriculum, provides discreet opportunities where all students, including those with SLCN, can experiment with language, make mistakes, and embed understanding of key vocabulary. But what does this look like in practice?

  • Facilitator: Teachers provide clear questions for discussion then, during partner talk, monitor and, if required, guide discussions. Positive responses heard, including technical language to reinforce concepts, are shared by the teacher. This reduces pressure, for students with SLCN, to speak in front of a large peer group whilst validating responses.
  • Time: Ensure time is given for partners to truly discuss and reflect on questions whilst trialling the use of technical language in reduced stakes conversations. In practice where this is consistently used, students, with SLCN, have the confidence to explore, process and embed curriculum specific language over time.
  • Varied partnerships: Trial different pairings/groupings to expose students with SLCN to strong language models. Often the most unlikely pairings lead to the most productive discussions!


3. Additional scaffolding:

Remember some students with SLCN may require additional scaffolding to initiate conversation, such as graphic organisers, speaking frames or word banks, increasing access to higher-level language.

Small changes in high quality teaching can make a significant difference to learners with SLCN, improving confidence, life skills and outcomes.

These strategies do not come at the cost of other learners – the most significant changes come when approaches are embedded as part of whole school initiatives.

To equip your students, for the language rich secondary curriculum, consider which strategy you will implement first and how you will share this within your faculty and beyond.

Find out more here:


1. Alex Quigley (2018) “Closing the Vocabulary Gap”
2. Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2020) “Special Educational Needs in Mainstream Schools Guidance Report”
3. Gary Aubin, (2023) “EEF blog: What exactly is Explicit Instruction?”
4. Heather Fearn and Jonathan Kay (2021) “Ofsted blog: Curriculum: keeping it simple.”
5. Mutia, A., Sahardin, R., & Putra, G. M. (2023). “The impact of vocabulary instruction on vocabulary achievement. English Education Journal, 13(4), 464–477”
6. Morphology-Language-Disorder-Australia.pdf Retrieved from (2024)
7. SEEP-Vocabulary-Approach-Language-Disorder-Australia.pdf Retrieved from (2024)
8. Oliver Caviglioni (2024)

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