Transitioning to secondary school, Part 1

At this time of the year, preparations for school or onwards begin. This month, I’m writing about the move to secondary school for a child with speech, language, literacy and/or learning difficulties. I’ll focus specifically on children who fall into the category of specific speech and language impairment (SSLI), but the information could be applied to children who don’t fall into this category but experience difficulties with aspects of language, literacy and/or learning.

Moving to secondary school is a big transition for any child, but for a child with SSLI, it can be quite a hurdle. So, what sort of challenges can a child with language or literacy difficulties experience? I have listed some below, but first it’s important to acknowledge that every child is different, and it is important to have up to date information from key people, including the parents, class teacher, speech and language therapist, educational psychologist, and/or occupational therapist, and most importantly the student him/herself. I think that sometimes we neglect to give enough importance to a child’s insight into their own strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately the child is their own expert…we just need to find ways to listen to them, and help them to express themselves. I find that this requires time, empathy, trust and an ability to ask the right questions.

But, back to the list. Below I have listed some challenges which may be experienced by children with SSLI as they embark on secondary school.

 Attention & Listening

Short attention on span

Difficulties listening in background noise

Difficulties with working memory


Understanding language

Difficulty with abstract language, a tendency to take things literally

Difficulty with jokes, humour, sarcasm

Misinterprets information, ‘gets the wrong end of the stick’

Gaps in vocabulary knowledge


Expressive language

Language may be simpler than would be expected

Difficulty retelling events, giving explanations.

Frequently uses ‘empty’ words, such as “that” or “thing”

Grammatical errors


Reading comprehension

Reading comprehension affected by reduced vocabulary knowledge

Difficulty getting the overall gist of the story/narrative

Difficulty making connection between ideas in the text and/or drawing inferences

Comprehension affected by slow or weak decoding skills


Social interaction

May experience difficulty making or maintain friends

May experience difficulty with conversations, such as staying on topic.

May misinterpret social cues, from body language or facial expression

May experience difficulty in using language to meet more sophisticated communication needs such as to argue, persuade, gossip, or assert oneself.


Organisational difficulties

May experience difficulty working independently.

May experience difficulty organising him/herself, for example, following timetables.


So what can help?


Well, there is no quick and easy fix, but here are some things to think about.

Use the Individual Education Plan (IEP) process: It is best practice for child with language and or learning needs to have an IEP. An IEP isn’t just a meeting which is followed by a piece of paper. It is a process which enables all members of the team supporting the student (And the student themselves) to set goals and identify effective strategies. More information is available here.

Work to strengths: At school, sometimes a child’s academic difficulties can overshadow the strengths and creativity that they have. It is important to nourish the child’s strengths and set goals which make it more likely that the child can be successful in what they want to do. For example, a child who enjoys cookery, needs to be able to read and follow recipes, understand units of measurement, etc. It is important that these underlying skills are addressed in order to support the student in being successful both at school and in the future. Also, using this interest can  be a way to motivate the student to work on areas which they find difficult or tedious, as it can be directly related to something relevant.

Build vocabulary skills:  Strong vocabulary skills are crucial both academically and socially. Children with SLLI need specfic support in building vocabulary knowledge and making connections between words. It is important to pre-teach vocabulary which is related to subjects or specific topic.

A useful resource is the Vocabulary Enrichment Programme, available from

It targets vocabulary from age 8-18 and includes vocabulary relevant to secondary school.


Some links:

The role of the Individualised Education Plan (IEP) 

Article about special education in Irish secondary schools

An invisible disability: Language disorders in highschool students and the implications for classroom teachers.

Language support programme for children 

Information about the challenges experienced by children with language difficulties at secondary school and strategies which can help. 


Children are resilient and can be successful at secondary school despite having language or literacy difficulties, BUT, it requires preparation, and a supportive environment.

Next month: I’ll write more about what can make these students lives easier.




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