Many children with literacy difficulties or a diagnosis of dyslexia have associated speech and language difficulties. These speech and language needs can be overlooked, though, as literacy skills are more noticeable and tend to become more of a priority, so that children are able to keep up with learning to spell and read. In fact, speech and language problems, such as word retrieval difficulties, limited sentence construction skills, difficulties producing sounds and overall reduced speech intelligibility, can sometimes be an indicator of dyslexia amongst younger children before they are diagnosed.
So how can speech and language therapy help a child who has weak literacy skills or who has a dyslexia diagnosis? There are several areas to consider, and language needs to be addressed directly, in addition to developing alternative, multisensory strategies that can be used to support overall language and literacy development.
The ideas summarised in this article draw from my own experiences of working with school aged children in a variety of settings. While there is no empirical data to support the methods of therapy suggested, these strategies have proved to be effective through regular progress reviews following therapy input.
Supporting vocabulary and language skills
Children with literacy difficulties often have associated word retrieval difficulties, which present as a weakness in finding/retrieving words from memory and then saying the word. As a consequence, children may misname words and stumble while talking, as they try to retrieve a word. This therefore affects their sentence organisation and clarity.
Improving word retrieval skills will help to develop sentence organisation and, therefore, expressive language skills. This will also help to encourage confidence in communication, and language skills will, as a result, be addressed and developed alongside classroom literacy skills. There are several strategies that can be used to support word retrieval skills:
- teaching children vocabulary within word groups, such as transport, animals and clothing. These word groups can be divided further into their individual subdivisions for older children in KS 2 and upwards. For example, land transport, sea animals and winter clothing
- describing vocabulary to help a child learn all the different features and parts of a word. Think of this as making a map of a word. When a child recalls one part of their selected word map, it may help them to recall the connecting parts of the map. When practising descriptions, it is helpful for the child to follow a given structure; for example: 1) name the group/category, 2) where you see it, 3) what it does, 4) what you use it for, 5) the size, 6) the colour and 7) the initial sound of the word. This structure can be adapted as necessary
- helping children visualise words as an aid to focusing on a vocabulary topic. This process accesses and uses visual memory as a primary source of recall. You can support this visualisation for vocabulary naming as follows: “I’m at the supermarket; I see some oranges. What do you see next to the oranges?”
- using a kinaesthetic approach to learning (employing lots of gesture and movement when talking about words). This can be particularly useful as movement helps to support memory. For example, if you are playing a describing game, you can use gesture or movement to discuss how you use an object, the size of an object and its shape. Often when a child cannot immediately recall a word, acting out the word triggers their verbal memory of that word.
It is essential to mix up strategies so therapy remains fresh and interesting. It is also important for a child to have a variety of different strategies to rely on.
Visualisation is an amazingly powerful and useful therapy tool. It can be used to support auditory processing skills, visual memory (for example, for shapes, patterns, and scenes), visual sequencing skills (remembering patterns) and expressive language skills. For a child with literacy difficulties or dyslexia, visualisation can help them to learn letter shapes and how to spell words, and it can also help with their vocabulary, as discussed above. Several different methods can be used to discover and develop visualisation skills, and for each child the process will be different.
Developing basic visualisation skills:
- ensure the child is able to visualise. This can be difficult as visualisation, despite the name, is not so visual to start with. I often ask a child to draw a picture of him/herself with a thought bubble picturing something we have just spoken about. This can work well alongside the use of language such as “I see....” or “I picture...”, “What do you see?”
- when you talk about what you are visualising, the image can be made clearer, and therefore easier to recall, if you talk about its size, smell and colour, how it feels and what is going on around the image
- once the child has understood visualisation, start at the basic level, which is to visualise single objects. For example, “Let’s picture a dog. I see a black dog...he is black...he is big...he is barking. Can you see a dog? What colour is he? What is he doing?”
- you can then move onto visualising pictures in a row, picturing objects in specific patterns and visualising stories. When reading stories, act out the events with the child, whilst continuously talking about what s/he is seeing and imagining (such as smells, movement and colour). This will help secure the visual images and sequences and therefore the overall recall of the story. To test the use of visualisation after you have read the story a few times, you can ask the child to act out the story and talk about what they saw. For example, “First I saw... then I saw...” Provide models of what you have pictured in the story as well
- you can also use visualisation to support storytelling and expressive language skills, by discussing what you see happening.
Once a child can visualise, you can then move on to using visualisation to support letter learning and learning words.
Supporting letter learning and learning words
Go through the alphabet and visualise the letters by writing them in the air. This technique also uses a kinaesthetic approach in its use of air writing. Therefore, the process of visualisation and movement will strengthen the overall learning process.
You can then move on to visualising easy, phonetic CVC (consonant/vowel/consonant) words, such as, “cat”, “hat” or “pig”, using the same process of seeing the letters in the air while air writing. Discuss what colour you see the letters as, or if there is a background, and always ensure that the child is picturing the object they are spelling as they spell.
Visualisation is extremely beneficial for learning how to spell complex, non-phonetic words, such as, “little” or “friend”. When visualising these complex words, the process is slightly different and also creative, as, essentially, a short story is made to help recall the letters of the word. Here is an example of how to spell the word “friend”: “Fat Richard is eating nine donuts.” You can have a lot of fun with this. Discuss what Richard looks like, such as the size of his stomach, and act out his story. He may be walking into a shop or eating nine donuts at home. Once the story is recalled, check the spelling of the target word by air writing and also writing the word on paper.
When working on spelling stories, support your student by allowing him/her to create their own visualised story spellings, as this will foster their independence in learning to spell. It will also be much easier for him/her to recall their own creations. Facilitate this by asking “what” and “where” questions, for example: “What does X look like?” “What does he want?” “Where do you see him?”
Helping children with literacy
As a professional, if you are concerned about a child who has literacy difficulties, ensure that you also assess and observe the child’s language skills. Here are some key areas to look out for:
• does the child appear to forget words or mix up words?
• do sentences seem disorganised? Are ideas expressed poorly?
• do sentences lack clarity?
• does the child produce short sentences?
• does the child appear to lack confidence in communication?
If you observe any of these difficulties, it will be important to consider speech and language therapy intervention and commence with additional language support. By doing so, you will ensure that language skills are supported alongside developing literacy skills. Hence, both skills can develop and strengthen together.
I hope that the strategies highlighted here prove to be practical, engaging and functional. They should also be fun for both the student and the professional. Used in combination, I’m convinced they can make a beneficial addition to classroom based auditory and visual methods of developing literacy skills for all involved.
Priya Desai is a speech and language therapist working in schools. She has also self-published two motivational storybooks for young children aimed at instilling confidence in children who find handwriting and spelling challenging: