Supporting learners with SLCN in the classroom

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For learners with SLCN, maths vocabulary can feel like another language. How can you give them the support they need to become confident communicators in their maths lessons?

Speech, Language, and Communication Needs (SLCN) is an umbrella term used to describe learners who have difficulty communicating with others. Learners with SCLN may find it challenging to say what they want to say, have difficulty understanding what’s being said to them, or because they don’t understand the social rules of communication.

I recently observed a lesson where the teacher was introducing some key mathematical vocabulary. At the point where the word ‘axis’ was mentioned, a child with SLCN looked up at the teacher and said, “Woah, this is hard, it’s like learning another language!”.

Before you can support learners with SLCN you need to be aware of the challenges they’ll face. Let’s look at some tips and maths games you can incorporate in your classroom.

What are the challenges for learners with SLCN in primary maths?

For many pupils with SLCN, maths can feel like another language. Words like difference, multiply, and divide have alternative meanings in maths and it can be confusing for a child with speech or language difficulties.

The profile for each child with SLCN will vary, depending on whether they have a receptive or expressive language difficulty or whether they have challenges with the social use of language. A learner with SLCN is likely to have particular trouble using or understanding mathematical vocabulary. Often, poor working memory capacity means they find it hard to learn and remember new words.

Other challenges they may face include:

  • Remembering sets of numbers
  • Responding quickly to mental recall of times tables
  • Explaining their reasoning when justifying their approach to problem
  • Following instructions
  • Understanding what has been said to them if the language is complex, for example understanding the difference between ‘few’, ‘fewer’, and ‘fewest’

How to support learners with SLCN in the primary maths classroom

When it comes to learning and retaining new vocabulary, having extra support can make all the difference for learners with SLCN. So what can you do to support your learners?

Try pre-teaching new maths vocabulary

Try pre-teaching so learners are familiar with the words before the lesson. This helps them feel more prepared and gives them confidence in class. Where possible, teach the words within a context rather than in isolation as this will help children with SLCN make sense of what the word means.

Provide visual support for new maths vocabulary

Giving learners visual support for the vocabulary can also help. Try using a maths word mat, or list. Where possible, include mathematical symbols alongside the words to reinforce the pictorial representation. Teaching an older pupil the root meanings of some maths words can support their understanding (e.g. tri = 3).

Use simple strategies to make a big impact

SLCN support doesn’t need to be complicated to be effective. There are lots of simple things that you can do that can make a big difference. Here are some other strategies to try:

  • When developing word problems, use clear unambiguous language and keep redundant information to a minimum.
  • Ask the learner to repeat instructions or information given to them verbally, so you will know how much they have processed and understood.
  • Where pupils are expected to respond quickly to a mental calculation use the ten-second rule so they have some processing time or give them the question and say you’ll come back to them later.
  • Scaffold learning by providing talk frames to support mathematical reasoning and explanations e.g. “I think the answer means…”, “I worked out the answer by…”
  • Model the language you want to hear. Make using mathematical language a key part of your classroom environment.

What maths games help learners with SLCN with new vocabulary?

In numeracy, there is a range of words and symbols used to describe the same maths operation. For learners with SLCN, understanding that ‘add’, ‘more’, and ‘plus’ can mean the same thing can be hard to grasp. Maths games are a great way to introduce new vocabulary, and have fun while you’re at it.

Play the Maths Snap game

To reinforce language associated with the four main operations, try the Maths Snap game. In groups, ask your learners to think of as many alternative words and symbols for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division as they can. Write each one on a separate card. Learners can then use the cards to play snap in pairs, matching the words and symbols to each operation.

Repetition and frequent retrieval of words from memory is important, so don’t forget to provide lots of opportunities for pupils to review and revise vocabulary.

Play the Sticky Note game

Have you ever played the party game where someone puts a sticky note with the name of a famous person on your forehead? Try the maths version of this game. Instead of celebs, use mathematical vocabulary such as ‘quadrilateral’ or ‘inverse’. Learners can ask questions to try and discover the mathematical keyword on their foreheads!

Effective use of spoken and written language is key across the entire curriculum. In maths, language is essential in supporting the development of mathematical vocabulary and explaining mathematical reasoning. Learners with SLCN face many challenges in their maths lessons, but with your support, you can help them to become more confident communicators.

is an Independent Education Consultant specialising in SEND and school improvement. She has had experience as a teacher, SENCO, headteacher and SEN adviser. She is author of The Perfect SENCO and The Teacher’s Guide to SEN publications, and contributor to the Blog.
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