Pupils with SLCN in secondary schools

Without adequate support at secondary level, SLCN can contribute to poor educational outcomes and limit the opportunities for pupils in later life. This unit concentrates on the difficulties experienced by pupils with SLCN in secondary schools and looks at strategies and approaches that you can adopt to minimise the impact of their SLCN.

The unit explores:

  • The difficulties experienced by pupils with SLCN in secondary school and the impact of these difficulties.
  • Typical language development in secondary years.
  • Transition from primary to secondary school.
  • Different strategies and approaches for developing pupils’ speech, language and communication skills in secondary school.

Risks of SLCN in secondary school

This mind map shows some of the risks to which secondary-aged pupils with SLCN are more prone.



  • Lower academic achievement
  • Literacy difficulties

    Access to the curriculum becomes ever more dependent on literacy as a pupil progresses through education. Literacy difficulties will limit a pupil's educational outcomes if they are not identified and supported.

  • BESD

    The impact of SLCN on both social interaction skills and an individual's self-esteem – due to academic failure and frustrations or social isolation – can result in:

    • Internalising behaviours such as anxiety or depression.
    • Externalising behaviours such as anti-social behaviour.
  • Exclusion
  • Social isolation

    Although all available evidence suggests a desire for social interaction, pupils with SLCN tend to be shyer and to have poorer-quality friendships.


SLCN and employment

A study of a sample of unemployed 18- to 24-year-old men living in Wales for a 2009 presentation found that 88% of the participants had language difficulties.

Language difficulties in older children

For some pupils, their SLCN only become apparent during secondary education. Other pupils may experience 'illusory recovery', where language difficulties seem to be resolved during primary school, but re-emerge as literacy or learning difficulties in secondary school. It is likely that, in both cases, language difficulties become apparent due to the increasing academic and social demands presented as children progress through education.

Select one of the circles to find out more about the characteristics of language difficulties experienced by these two groups.

  1. Narrative
  2. Vocabulary
  3. Social communi-cation
  4. Figurative language
  5. Information processing


Secondary-aged pupils in both groups may be able to produce long stories, but they will contain lots of errors. This is most notable when the pupil is asked to give specific information, for example in recounting an event or explaining something.

For pupils whose language difficulties are associated with social deprivation, you may find that they struggle to produce lengthy pieces of spoken language, even if their understanding of simple sentence structure is adequate.

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Where a pupil's language difficulties are associated with social deprivation, they may have limited use of complex words. For all groups of pupils whose SLCN manifests in limited vocabulary, you may find that their ability to understand vocabulary seems to worsen over time.

Many young people become more aware of the importance of vocabulary as they move into adolescence. They link 'long words' to intelligence and, in some social groups, not 'fitting in'.

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Social communication

Pupils with SLCN will experience difficulties in joining and keeping up with conversation. In older children, problems with the meaning and use of language are likely to be more pronounced than the grammatical aspects of language.

They may also demonstrate difficulties moving from one style of language to another. This can result in the pupil appearing to be rude, or inappropriately using an overly casual style of language.

Both of these areas of difficulty in social communication will influence a pupil's relationships with teaching staff and their peers, meaning that his/her academic and social development may be impacted upon.

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Figurative language

Pupils with SLCN may experience problems in understanding figurative language, jokes and sarcasm.

This will obviously impact on the way in which they interact with, and are perceived by, peers. It also limits their access to the curriculum; in secondary education, it is estimated that 37% of instructions provided by teachers contain multiple meanings and 20% contain at least one idiom.

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Information processing

The impact of problems with working memory capacity and a pupil's speed of processing information become more apparent during their secondary education.

Several aspects of secondary school put increased demands on working memory and information processing:

  • A requirement to transition between, and concentrate on, several lessons and subjects throughout the day.
  • An expectation for pupils to engage in independent learning.
  • Teachers that tend to give instructions and information in larger chunks, rather than giving step-by-step guidance to pupils as they progress through routines or activities.
  • Pupils experiencing a move away from multi-sensory support and being expected to learn much more from written and spoken information only.
  • The increasing social demands of unstructured break times.

It is these increasing demands that highlight the difficulties that a pupil may be experiencing.

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Language development during secondary education

In typically developing pupils, the following skills grow and develop during secondary school:

  • Complex verbal reasoning
  • Understanding and using figurative language
  • Telling more involved stories
  • Using more sophisticated social communication skills

These skills are all required to enable a secondary pupil to:

  • Access the academic and social curriculum
  • Cope with the demands of adolescence
  • Make a successful transition from secondary education to further/higher education or work
  • A structured approach to teaching language

    This video features Rachel Drinkwater, lead language practitioner at Bankside Primary School in Leeds, teaching a group of pupils of mixed ability. A high proportion of Bankside’s 700 pupils have English as a foreign language and SEN, and Rachel explains how using ECAT strategies can encourage children to develop their use of language.

    This clip relates to the video task in briefing 4 in your PDF of unit 13.

    Show transcript


    Bankside is a large inner city Primary School in Leeds of which a high proportion of its 700 pupils have English as a foreign language and Special Educational Needs.


    Are you ready Sahill?


    Rachel Drinkwater is a Reception Class Teacher.


    Within the cluster of schools in the Leeds area, we are developing the ECAT, Every Child a Talker, strategies. So within every setting, a lead language practitioner which here at Bankside is myself, has it put into place, and the lead language practitioner’s job, so my job role, is to feed through the ECAT strategies down to other teachers, and nursery nurses, and teaching assistants, within those settings to ensure that the ECAT strategies are being used, carried through and developed in order to ensure our children’s progress in talking.

    So it’s the practitioner’s role to be engaged with the child, to be down at their level, to be commenting, asking open ended questions, to ensure that you’re getting full sentences back from the children, to make sure that they are using their voices more than anything, so that their language develops.

    Classroom interaction

    Rachel: Whisper into your hand what you’re going to do today.


    So this morning I’m with a group with a range of ability. I had 2 SEN children, I’ve got 3 higher ability children in that group, and the rest are middle ability children. And we use these sessions to get the children talking and to get them interested in different things.

    Classroom interaction

    Rachel: Can we all say ‘Shell’?

    Pupils: Shell/Shelf

    Rachel: It does sound a little bit like a shelf, but it’s not a shelf, it’s a shell.

    Pupils: Shell!

    Rachel: “sh” “eh” “ll”

    Pupils: “sh” “eh” “ll”

    Rachel: Get your chopping boards out.

    All together: “sh” “eh” “ll”. Shell. Do it again.


    We’ve actually got a brand new sandpit, that’s why I decided to choose shells. And then just to give each child a shell, it’s making sure that every child has the opportunity to be part of the lesson. And then we’re using describing words and vocabulary, and then they use their thinking fingers first, so that they’re thinking, and then they talk to their partners so they’re sharing ideas, which gives everybody a chance to be part of it. Then we share ideas back.


    Rachel: Rumana, what do you think might be in the chest?

    Rumana: Treasure

    Rachel: “I think…”

    Rumana: I think it’s going to be a treasure.


    So it shows how involved and how interested, how sustained the learning was, is that a child said this morning, I’m going to go and bury my shell, and she went straight outside and buried her shell. So, it’s child initiated, they’re all involved, and it’s a great way of using language and talk.

    Classroom interaction

    Rachel: Owais, say it again.

    Owais: Spin it

    Rachel: You want to spin your shell. Show me.


    Owais has got cerebral palsy, and his speech and his language is very delayed as well within pronunciation and his vocabulary. Sahill is the same; his speech and language is very delayed.

    Classroom interaction

    Sahill: I can see

    Rachel: You can see. What can you see?

    Sahill: It’s walking

    Rachel: Pardon

    Sahill: It’s walking

    Rachel: The shell is walking.


    He’s working at scale point 4 and 5 on the early years’ foundation stage. It’s important, I think, that they’re involved in the whole class. It’s nice to see because I taught Sahill last year, and Sahill wouldn’t have even sat down and joined in last year. He was involved for a good 15 minutes. I think they were really involved this morning which is brilliant. They were focussed, they were on task, they knew what the learning objective was and they were doing it. Then they shared their ideas. They were willing to share and use their loud and proud voice to share with the other children.

    Quality first teaching is about thorough rigorous planning. You know where your children are and where they need to get to, you know your objectives, your success steps, vocabulary, that’s the main focus at our school. Differentiating, so making sure every child is being covered, from your low SEN children, your middle ability and your higher ability, making sure there’s a challenge in place for your higher ability, and they all achieved the learning objective.

    I think my lesson this morning was a good example of quality first teaching.

Effective practice in secondary schools

In unit 13, you will have read about the persistent nature and wide-ranging implications of SLCN for secondary school pupils. It is important to remember that with good quality support, pupils can make good progress and meet their potential – both academically and socially. This mind map shows some of the key features of effective practice. You can read more about each area in briefing 6 in your PDF of unit 13.


Effective practice

  • Embedding communication at a universal level
  • Staff who are skilled and confident in working with SLCN
  • Supporting access to the curriculum
  • Functional approach to language development
  • Enabling pupils to play an active role in their learning
  • Support during transition
  • Involving pupils in decision-making
  • Specialist interventions