Ask a child ‘what works’. How classroom teachers can consult children with communication difficulties

By Haley Tancredi

In Australia children with disabilities have the right to be consulted about what can be done to help them participate fully in school life. The Australian Disability Standards for Education specifically directs teachers to “consult the student” about what adjustments they could reasonably make within their classrooms to help students with disabilities “participate in education on the same basis as a student without a disability”. An adjustment is reasonable if it balances the interests of all parties affected.

A school might make more general adjustments, such as in timetabling, room access and so on, but teachers can make specific adjustments. For example a teacher could change her teaching methods or the way she organises her class to enable her student with disabilities to participate more fully.

It is these specific actions taken by teachers that interest me. Although we have had the Disability Standards for over fifteen years it is still not common practice for teachers to consult students with disabilities about the reasonable adjustments that can be made for them in the classroom.

I believe part of the problem could be that there is limited practical guidance available to help professionals, such as teachers, enact their obligations to consult. This is particularly the case if a child has communication difficulties.

Many students with disability will experience communication difficulties, including students with Autism, students with hearing impairment, students who speak English as an additional language or dialect and students with Developmental Language Disorder (DLD). This means for a significant group of students, the consultative process itself will need to be adjusted so they can participate in consultation.

In my recently completed Master of Philosophy study I consulted students with Developmental Language Disorder to understand which adjustments can best help them to learn. These adjustments informed the development of an intervention with their teachers.

The purpose of my study was to determine whether and how adjustments based on student insights impacted teaching methods, access to the full curriculum, and academic outcomes, for students with language difficulties.

But first I want to explain what Developmental Language Disorder involves and talk about what ‘consultation’ means in relation to teachers and students with disability collaborating to design and implement ‘reasonable adjustments’.

Developmental Language Disorder: ‘hiding in plain sight’

Developmental Language Disorder (DLD) is diagnosed when children have difficulties with language for no obvious reason, which impact on their learning and everyday life experiences. It is a lifelong condition that results in persistent impairment of the acquisition and use of language. It affects around two students in every classroom.

Although described as a “hidden disability”, once teachers understand Developmental Language Disorder they often realise that it is hiding in plain sight. These students demonstrate difficulty with phonology (the sound patterns within language) and syntax (the way words and phrases create a sentence). Written grammar, word finding, semantics (meaning of a word, phrase or text) and vocabulary, pragmatics (the social functions of language), discourse and verbal memory are also impacted. The communication difficulties that students with Developmental Language Disorder experience mean that without adjustment, the language of pedagogy, curriculum and assessment may present barriers to a student’s access and participation.

For example, students may experience significant difficulty understanding teacher instruction and difficulty storing and retaining verbal information.

Consulting students with disability

Consultation is a process of inviting someone to communicate their thoughts and feelings about a situation, or event that is important to them, to someone who can help change that situation or event. For a student with disability, consultation about adjustments may be the first time they have been involved in formal decision-making at school. It is part of being a democratic citizen. It is an important social and emotional capability, a lifelong skill. It is also a highly complex (and abstract) linguistic and information processing task.

If the process is not accessible, there is a risk that students with communication difficulties will just “check out” and appear quiet, or have their thoughts misinterpreted during consultation. That is why I believe guidelines for teachers on consulting students with communication difficulties are needed.

Three elements that can help teachers consult students with communication difficulties

Through my methodological approach to interviewing students with communication difficulties I identified three elements for successful consultation. These elements uphold a child’s right to share their insights and minimise participation barriers within the consultation process.

The three elements could be used in future consultative conversations and interviews with students with communication difficulties by professionals working in schools (such as teachers, guidance counsellors and speech pathologist) and educational researchers.

  1. Ask concrete questions, based on students’ experiences.

Use concrete questions that draw on students’ experiences. Questions that concrete terms and phrasing will be easier to understand for a student with communication difficulties. For example: “how can teachers help you understand instructions?”, and “is there anything that you wish your teachers knew about you and how you learn?”. Questions that use abstract or high-level terms such, “explain” increase the risk of the student not understanding the questions and thus not being able to fully participate in consultation.

  1. Use multiple short interviews

Conducting multiple, short interviews (rather than one lengthy interview) supports students to manage the processing demands of consultation and allows students multiple opportunities to share their insights. A minimum of two interviews is suggested. The interviewer can cross-check the student’s insights in subsequent interviews to clarify meaning and to support the student to organise and expand their ideas.

  1. Use visual supports and dynamic activities

Teachers can support students organise and expand their thoughts through a co-constructed mind-map. This process enables students to create a static, visual record of their ideas and enables ideas to be clarified and expanded in real time. Pre-prepared visual aids are also effective in supporting students to direct their thinking and make connections between suggested adjustments and their own experiences (both positive and negative).

So … what do students with communication difficulties say helps them to learn?

When asked, using an adjusted process of consultation, the students in my research said they found learning easiest when their teachers:

(a) provided both whole class and individual instruction,

(b) used short, simple language structures and familiar vocabulary during instruction, and

(c) paired talking with other means of representation, such as pictures, video or simple text.

These adjustments align with previously documented evidence-based practices for supporting students with communication difficulties. Research has found that when teachers adjust the pace, quantity and complexity of spoken and written language and rephrase information using accessible terms and language structures, students have better access to classroom instruction.

Changes to teaching practice can benefit all students in the class

The adjustments that the students in my research described form the basis of quality differentiated teaching practice, where teachers are conscious of the need for explicit, perhaps minor, adjustments to their teaching methods to help students with disabilities access learning on the same basis as their peers. Quality differentiation seeks to mitigate the impact of a student’s disability through responsive teaching that minimises/removes barriers to a student’s learning and enables that student to participate.

These adjustments are likely to benefit all students in the classroom, but especially other students with communication difficulties. Also, these adjustments can be designed from the outset of unit planning, which may further address equity issues related to learning and assessment.

Many classroom teachers already use the pedagogical approaches I have described in this blog post but it is the art of utilising most of these practices, all of the time that is likely to result in maximum participation for students with communication difficulties.

And it is the presence of hidden difficulties/disabilities that is a problem for teachers. So I believe the consultation process is a basic, vital step for teachers to take.

By adopting communication accessible consultation practices, teachers have the opportunity to uphold their obligations to consult students about the reasonable adjustments they can make for their students and harness the practical benefits that the consultative conversations offer.

Haley Tancredi is a HDR candidate at QUT and a certified practicing educational speech pathologist. Haley’s research and clinical interests are inclusive pedagogies, adolescents with language disorder, student voice and teacher/speech pathologist collaboration in inclusive classrooms. Haley is active on twitter @HaleyTanc


Haley will be presenting her paper on this topic at the 2018 AARE Conference in a Symposium titled “Teaching for diversity in Australian classrooms: Supporting structures, inclusive pedagogies, collaboration and adjustments” on Wednesday 05.12.18 from 1-3pm. Suzanne Carrington will chair the Symposium. Other speakers are Ilektra Spandagou, Shiralee Poed, Kate de Bruin and Suzanne.

Haley is the recipient 2018 AARE Postgraduate Student Award.

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