maxine burns

Coping with change: transitioning through the years

Maxine Burns, I CAN’s Speech and Language Advisor, spoke recently at the Transition Conference in Wigan on the broad topic of being ‘secondary ready’. 

Transitions of all kinds have long been an area of interest for me; particularly those that involve the preparation for the move from primary school up to secondary school, and then on from school to lives as young citizens.

‘Secondary ready’ is a deceptively simple term for a process that is enormously complex. Transitions involve a complicated relationship between the set of skills children and young people have in preparation for the next phase of their school lives and the support and scaffolding offered by adults to develop and apply those skills. In this respect, transitions are a process that start in one phase and continue into the next over an extended period of time.

Of course, so many skills necessary to access education and make successful transitions are based on foundations of good language skills. Yet, a very significant number of children and young people struggle because of difficulties with language – 10% of all children and young people have a language disorder that will need long term support. Furthermore, in areas of deprivation, as many as 50% of children start school without the level of language development they need for learning.  These statistics are shocking and mean we need staff to have the skills to support them effectively. This is particularly true at times of transition when staff need the right toolkit of information, strategies and interventions to support these vulnerable students.

My aim at the conference was to help delegates understand what they could do in terms of language support to get their students ready for secondary, by providing them with information, tips and ideas that would be useful for them, not just at the point of transition but in their day on day work supporting the speech, language and communication skills of the children and young people in their schools.

What helps transitions for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN)?

Support for language skills useful for transition can focus on these areas:

Active listening and comprehension monitoring: Children with SLCN can often find active listening challenging. They are used to not understanding and by secondary transition stage, may have learned to switch off from too much verbally presented information. Knowing when you haven’t understood and why is built on effective listening skills and therefore it is essential that these are nurtured and refined throughout the early and primary school years. But ensuring newly arrived high school students are listening effectively is more than asking ‘are you listening?’ and ‘does everyone understand?’ questions. Many students will benefit from staff strategies such as:

  • Opportunities to reflect on what they’ve heard, e.g. “That was a lot of information; what can you remember?”
  • Recognising when they haven’t understood and why e.g. “Did you notice any new words that I used? Were there any that you weren’t sure of?”

Vocabulary: Vocabulary is one of the biggest indicators in how well children are going to do in school. Providing support to all children to learn vocabulary is therefore crucial. The number of new words encountered by students in secondary school is estimated to be around seven per day so equipping students with the means to learn and understand these is vital. Research suggests that children learn new words better when they have opportunities to hear, see and use them 12 times than when they encounter them four times.

Narrative skills: Effective narrative skills are essential for students to explain what they know, whether orally or in writing. If they can’t say it or explain it verbally, then they will struggle to write it down. Investing time supporting students’ skill and confidence in giving verbal explanations and refining their ideas will improve their ability to record their ideas more fluently in writing.

Group skills: Students at secondary school are expected to have greater independence in their learning and this may involve working in a group to complete tasks cooperatively. Young people with SLCN will often struggle with group work as they lack the language skills to be able to offer ideas, suggest alternatives and negotiate solutions. All too often for these students, talk can become off task and behaviour deteriorates and the approach is discarded in favour of more individualised work.

Students with SLCN need greater support to develop the skills required for this useful approach to learning. Activities need to be more carefully structured and clear roles in a group taught. Students need to understand what to do as well as what not to do in a group.

Those 10% of young people with long-term SLCN will benefit from the approaches described above. But these young people will need additional support to make a successful transition from primary to secondary school. This might already have included making extra visits to their secondary school, meeting key staff in advance of the move and specific small group or individual preparation to counter their anxieties and enable strategies to be proactive rather than reactive. I CAN’s Moving On resource is perfect for such vulnerable students and covers topics from ‘timetable and organisation’ to ‘hopes and worries’. Pupils have a chance to collate tailored personal reminders in a handy credit card sized ‘passport’ they can keep and refer to throughout their settling in time at secondary.  

And finally…

Transition is an exciting as well as a potentially daunting time for all students. For those with SLCN the challenge is greater and they need additional support in order to fulfil the considerable potential they have.