Language and communication strategies as part of good pedagogy

Written by: Daniel Sobel & Sara Alston | Published:
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Paraphrasing Chomsky ... we need more “Linguists” than pedagogues in education... ??

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Language challenges are often considered as part of SEN strategies. However, Daniel Sobel and Sara Alston argue for language and communication strategies rooted in general good pedagogy and offer five easy classroom tips

I was going to begin this article with an example of a student who takes things literally. But, I think all teachers can recognise this a mile off. And, besides, we have known that effective communication between two people stretches way beyond the verbal since the 1970s.

With this in mind, one of the key outcomes of any good education system must be to enable its students to communicate clearly, thoughtfully and with confidence across a range of topics and scenarios.

A child’s ability to understand and to be understood is paramount for good mental health and socialisation. In short, a large part of teaching is communication, both verbal and non-verbal. The use of good communication during teaching is also vital.

However, understanding language challenges are nearly always covered as an aspect of SEN. In this article, however, I want to show that when it is rooted in general pedagogy it can have a positive impact on issues of behaviour management. This article is based on notes for our forthcoming book about a different way of "doing SEN".

Most challenging behaviours are rooted in misunderstanding instructions and the unwritten codes around how to participate in learning and school life. Responding to behaviours is too often about managing the behaviour itself rather than considering the antecedents and causes.

Often the biggest issues that go unchecked come from situations where children have not understood what the teacher has said: the child does not understand what the adult has asked them to do, so they do something else, or nothing. This then gets wrongly perceived as "misbehaviour" or laziness.

It is worth noting the desperately sad truth around the high incidents of language and communication problems found in prison inmates, which suggests at least a correlation, if not a cause and effect, between people who cannot function well in society and their ability to understand and be understood.

It is not a far stretch to think of this as being a major cause of disruptive behaviours in the micro-society of the classroom. It is odd, then, that we do not include this in any great detail in teacher training or in the curriculum beyond the early years.

The Early Years Foundation Profile includes "Communication and Language Development" as one of its prime areas of development. To achieve a "good level of development", children need to develop their skills for: listening and attention and understanding and speaking including awareness of the needs of the listener.

However, the entire speaking and listening curriculum for key stages 1 and 2 consists of a mere 12 bullet points, and while children need to be able to gain, maintain and monitor the interest of their listeners, they do not need to consider if they have understood what they are saying. By key stage 3, spoken language is given a single eight-line paragraph.

Suffice to say, children have not learnt all they need to learn about communication and language development, particularly the key skills of making sure that they have been understood, by the age of five.

Children learn communication skills, not in any one particular lesson over another, but in every lesson and, of course, not just in lessons. The front desk, the lunch counter and every other human encounter is a lesson in how to communicate. This of course includes all the terrible habits and negative messages that can damage a child’s sense of worth and self-perception. Indeed, managing interactions at playtime and lunchtime depends on these untaught skills.

When the child’s masking of their lack of understanding is not a big and disruptive behaviour, it is very easy to assume that they understand.

These are some of the common behaviours that children may exhibit to mask their misunderstanding (which they may or may not be conscious of):

  • Confidently answer or do something other than what the teacher asked, be it a different task, or the right task but in completely the wrong way.
  • Tentatively answer something in a brief way because they do not feel sure they are doing the right thing.
  • Confidently write a small amount of text, convinced that they have fully and perfectly answered the question.
  • Avoid engaging with the task because they have no idea what to do. They may appear to be messing around and not settling in small and annoying ways, or perform a big behaviour to distract from the task at hand such as get into a confrontation or feign sickness.
  • Procrastinate but appear to be trying hard. Inside, they feel very anxious and lost in the lesson, but they do not want to attract the attention of the teacher or get into trouble.
  • Be busily and quietly engaged in something, including "helping" someone else, that at a quick glance looks like completing the task, but in reality is not.

A broader and deeper understanding is required by schools that they are places of “communication and miscommunication” and that this will inform behaviour, SEN, teaching styles and so forth. In the meantime, here is a list of tips for effective teaching communication to maximise clarity and help the message “arrive” with effect. The ultimately revolve around three principles.

  • Avoid giving too many instructions at a time.
  • Support your instructions with gestures and facial expressions.
  • Provide written instructions.

Tip 1: So instead of: "After you have completed the task, rewrite the second paragraph again with the new words you have learned." Try something along these lines: "Please complete the answers to the questions on page 40 of the big blue textbook (holding up a book to support understanding)." Then rewrite the second paragraph about trees in your green exercise book (holding the book to give a visual prompt) using some of the highlighted words from page 40 of the big blue textbook.

Tip 2: Use visual cues and symbols to support your instructions. You might display simple instructions on your board as follows: Get your book. Get your pencil. Look at the board. Ready to start your work.

Tip 3: Avoid making instruction overly complicated. All too often we add additional instructions to an underway activity, thus making the task increasingly complex:

  • "Everyone get your books." The children shuffle around to get their books.
  • (Loudly) "And pick up a worksheet from the front desk."
  • Most children start moving to the front, when the teacher realises that glue sticks are needed.
  • (Loudly) "And grab a glue stick from the red draw at the back."
  • Twenty per cent of children will not be able to keep up with these changes. We often further complicate things by mixing instructions intended for different groups.

Tip 4: Avoid confusing instructions and chat. For many children, teachers’ chatty and humourous asides are key in building relationships. But for many, particularly those with social communication and/or speech and language difficulties, this general chatter becomes very confusing when muddled with instructions. These children can struggle to differentiate between the two. Try and keep your instructions and general chat separate so that you are modelling both clear instructions and how to share general conversation.

So instead of this: "I used to know someone who studied geography and he actually visited a volcano and he showed me his photos. They were amazing, and showed actual lava spurting out. So, I’d like you to draw a volcano with lots of hot lava coming out. He told me that the volcano was particularly hot and quite stinky because of the sulphur, smelling like farts. Okay, so get and on and draw please."

Try this: Tell the great story about your friend who visited the volcano; give a clear pause and then move on: "This is the task we are going to do now: Draw a volcano with lava running down the side." At the same time, show them a picture of a volcano and display the instructions on the board.

Tip 5: Avoid repeating the same instruction in different ways. Instead of this: "Get what you need to start your learning. You’ll need your book. Your green maths book. Sean, check you have the right book please?" Shortly you note that some children haven’t followed your instruction, so you add: "Green book, maths book. You all need your green maths book, now! Hurry up, we need to get on." Try this: "Get your green maths book." Point to a green maths book, ideally Sean’s so that you can give it straight to him. Say it once and wait for the children to follow the instruction. If needed, repeat the same instruction.


Behaviours are often caused by misunderstanding and the key is to run the class with as much clarity as possible. It is easier said than done but the tips above do not require expensive interventions or time and emotionally sapping behaviour responses – they are meant to be super easy ways of communicating that form an approach rather than anything special or unique.

I once read that it takes a special teacher to hear what the child can’t say – I would just add that we need all teachers to speak in ways that all children can understand and in so doing we will contribute to (although not completely solve) the reduction in behavioural challenges.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert, which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. You can find all his articles for Headteacher Update on our website via
  • Sara Alston is an experienced SENCO and safeguarding lead who also works as a SEND, inclusion and safeguarding consultant and trainer. Read her previous articles for Headteacher Update via

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Paraphrasing Chomsky ... we need more “Linguists” than pedagogues in education...

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