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3 strategies to enhance students’ language development

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As a speech language pathologist, I'm consistently trying to find ways to improve learning outcomes for students, including through strategic technology integration. Our school is specifically set up to support students with language-based learning disabilities and differences -- such as receptive/expressive language disorders, dyslexia and ADHD -- and is in fact the only such school in Atlanta. 

Relying on research and technology to support learning

Nationwide, not every school for LBLD students believes in technology as a go-to solution, but we’ve embraced tech and used it to significant benefit. We keep ourselves apprised of the latest research, form a foundation of confidence and motivation for students, and pride ourselves on layers of language support at every level and personalized instruction boosted by state-of-the-art assistive technology.

Language learning is delicate in nature. There are a variety of approaches that educators must use, simultaneously, to get it right. When combined with unexpected circumstances, such as school closures caused by COVID-19, it’s impossible to do everything to the best of our ability without making use of all available tools and resources. With our knowledge of the research and intentional tech use, we can address many needs at once.

3 integrated language development approaches

Clear instruction, the promotion of oral language, visual and auditory support, and the building of metacognitive strategies are four of the key approaches for supporting language development. We emphasize each of these in our school and they’ve guided us through both remote and in-person instruction.

  1. Oral language promotion. Currently, we’re engaged in a multi-year training and pilot with Literacy How, which emphasizes oral language as the center of literacy. The belief is a successful classroom should have students engaging in discussions and using sentences with complicated syntax. Some of our students struggle with primarily decoding and dyslexia, while others have more specific struggles with oral language. Regardless, promoting oral language is important for all students. We prioritize oral language in our classrooms. If a student cannot demonstrate the use of a particular vocabulary word, morphological unit (such as a prefix), or syntactic structure in expressive oral language, then that student will likely struggle with its written form. Some specific techniques we use in the classroom are the “Whip Around” and the “Turn and Talk.” Both are quick activities where every student will practice using a specific target orally. For example, in a 4th grade classroom studying the prefix un-, a student may turn to a nearby classmate and use the following sentence starters: “I am interested in ____, but I am uninterested in _____.” They will fill in the blanks with something meaningful to them. 
  2. Visual and auditory support. Language is multimodal and multisensory―it’s built on visual, oral and auditory knowledge. So, when teaching language, we need to use each of these techniques, especially with students who may have learning disabilities in one or more areas. Visual support includes pairing an image of a word or situation, along with the spelling, definition and pronunciation. As mentioned above, it’s important to use clear images and also to account for cultural relevance and other factors that ensure students’ comprehension. Clear visuals are powerful for learning. Auditory support includes reading questions and definitions aloud. This is particularly vital for students with dyslexia or attention deficits. It keeps them engaged and ensures they have an equal opportunity to connect with the content. And even for students whose challenges are in other areas, think about how difficult or unintuitive some pronunciations can be―bringing audio into instruction clarifies a lot of potential confusion.
  3. Metacognitive strategies. A tool we use is called InferCabulary, a web-based “visual vocabulary” program that teaches students new words by allowing them to infer meaning from a series of pictures. I first learned about it from watching a TED Talk, in the middle of the early-pandemic scramble to find online tools. When I saw the program's founders were SLPs, it comforted me to know the tool is backed by research and built for students like mine. The tool helps promote metacognitive strategies. It has a “hide” feature, which allows students to hide an answer choice they know is incorrect. This prevents them from feeling stuck because they’re unable to ignore an incorrect option. There are different ways to use this strategy in the classroom, and it’s good to remember that knowing what answer is definitely wrong can be just as valuable a building block as immediately knowing what’s right. It all contributes to students’ metacognition and critical thinking, key skills for durable, sustainable language development. 

Keeping it moving

We’re now back to in-person learning, but regardless of what’s next, our consistent application of foundational strategies, combined with willingness to adopt new technologies, has given us continuity through the transitions. These same strategies can and should apply in any school, as all schools have some students with similar needs to mine. Understanding these key strategies can set up all teachers for success and make a positive impact on students’ confidence and achievement. 

Adrienne Murray is a speech-language pathologist at The Howard School in Atlanta, Georgia. Murray uses InferCabulary with her students.

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