Better communication


How to support children with speech, language and communication needs

When the 2011 National Year of Communication was launched in Parliament, a parent spoke about the help provided for her twelve-year-old son James, who has speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Whilst there was much to praise, there were also some bad experiences. This parent had received comments from teachers like “I don’t have anything to do with his lesson planning or homework, I leave that to the support assistant”, “James doesn’t use his talker in class. He has a tendency to press the buttons and the noise it makes is a distraction so we keep it in the cloakroom during the day”, and “Yes, I know his chair is on its own at the back of the class but he really doesn’t spend any time in class now; he just doesn’t understand what we are learning about”.

Making it better for James

What can we do to make life better for James, one of at least 1.2 million children in this country who have SLCN? And how might the National Year help.

{pullquote}65 per cent of young offenders were found in one study to have SLCN{/pullquote}

Many settings have already undertaken substantial development work on SLCN, using the Inclusion Development Programme or other sources of professional development. Now, however, might be a good time to take stock. On these pages I have suggested some questions you might want to ask about your provision. Adapted from an excellent audit tool produced by Hillingdon’s learning support services, the questions do not claim to be comprehensive, but offer my own personal perspective on practice I have seen to be effective in the many settings and schools I have visited in my role as England’s Communication Champion. Below, I explore aspects of the questions in more detail.

Spotting the children

James used a communication aid so his needs were fairly obvious; Kyle’s (see the box on this page) are much less so. Research shows that many children with SLCN go unidentified. 65 per cent of young offenders, for example, were found in one study to have SLCN, but in only five per cent of cases had this been previously known.
Department for Education (DfE) PLASC (Pupil Level Annual School Census) data also suggest possible problems in identification. There is a declining proportion of children identified by their schools as having SLCN as their primary need, as they move from Key Stage 1 to Key Stages 2, 3 and 4. At the same time, the proportion of children with specific or moderate learning difficulties, or behaviour difficulties, identified as their primary need rises as we move up through the age groups. A speech and language problem in Key Stage 1 “becomes” a literacy problem in Key Stage 2, and a behaviour problem in Key Stage 3. The underlying SLCN is unlikely to have gone away, but it may no longer be obvious to the child’s teachers.

Because of this, it makes sense to have good screening procedures in place at all ages. In the Early Years Foundation Stage, the child monitoring profile from the Every Child a Talker programme enables practitioners to spot young children at risk of language delay.

As part of the Hello campaign, The Communication Trust are making available a free series of helpful “ages and stages” booklets and posters, tracking language development right up to the end of secondary school and making simple suggestions for checking out whether a child is reaching expected milestones. The Trust has also produced a checklist to identify SLCN, in its Don’t Get Me Wrong publication.

Developing a three-Wave approach

Most schools now have provision maps that describe interventions for children needing extra help with literacy, maths or social and emotional learning. Relatively few, in my experience, include school-based Wave 2 SLCN provision in their maps. Yet there are a growing number of small-group language interventions available, that can be delivered by teaching assistants (TAs) or teachers trained and supported by specialists. One of the tasks for Hello this year is to produce a compendium of interventions that have evidence of impact, and make this available via its website.”The most effective practice I have seen involves a partnership between schools, parents and SLTs”

A whole-school approach to teaching listening skills and vocabulary

I have been very impressed by work I have seen in a number of schools which have worked in partnership with SLTs to develop children’s listening skills and vocabulary.

In Worcestershire, therapists have worked with primary schools to help teachers choose important topic vocabulary and teach these words systematically on the basis of their sounds, their meaning, and the words they go with. Teaching is multisensory – with consistent gestures associated with each word (like mopping your brow for “weather”). Once words have been taught, they are blu-tacked onto the back of a door so children can pull them off to use in their writing. Evaluation proved that words taught using these strategies were recalled; children could later on explain what they meant. Words taught in the normal classroom way (introducing the word and explaining it just once) were recalled much less easily.

In the same schools, whole-class teaching of listening skills (using strategies described in the book Teaching Children to Listen, by Liz Spooner and Jacqui Woodcock) succeeded in reducing the numbers of children rated by their teachers as having severe listening and attention difficulties from 21 per cent to four per cent in just six weeks.

At Haverstock School, as part of a very successful project in a number of secondary schools in Camden and Islington, SLTs have worked with teachers to develop a structured approach to teaching listening skills. Posters set out the key themes of looking, taking turns to talk, thinking, focussing and checking understanding. These are actively taught – for example, students are given specific ways of saying that they have not heard or understood something. Feedback from students has been very positive. For example, responses have included: “I can work better in class because I have better understanding of what the teacher tells us” and “If the teacher says a word that you don’t know then you can ask and say ‘I don’t understand that word’.”

Communication-friendly classrooms

Did you know that the average noise level in classrooms is around 60 decibels, whereas recommended levels are no more than 35 decibels? One piece of research found that the background noise of children’s chatter, heating and lighting systems, fish tanks and computers meant that children were missing one word in six.

Findings like these remind us of the importance of checking that the physical environment supports communication – not only noise levels, but good light and the use of supports such as visual timetables, pictures, props, signs and symbols.

Equally, adults who can adapt their language so it is not a barrier to learning form a vital part of a communication-friendly environment. A number of useful tools are available to help you audit your setting, including the IDP and the Every Child a Talker audit (available from your local authority).

Working in partnership with specialists

A last key area to take stock of might be the way you work with speech and language therapists (SLTs). Best practice here, in my view, has them working at all three Waves – helping class teachers create the right classroom environments and plans for differentiation, training school-based staff to run intervention programmes, as well as working directly with the children who have the greatest difficulties.

Schools are increasingly buying in additional SLT time to help them build their own capacity. In Waltham Forest, for example, schools have commissioned an enhanced SLT service to all mainstream primary schools. The service includes:

  • training support staff to run language stimulation and language for thinking groups from Reception up to Year 6
  • working with class teachers to develop the listening and attention skills of the whole class
  • supporting schools to identify children with difficulties by offering classroom observations, screening assessments, and teacher/TA drop in sessions
  • providing teaching staff with strategies for supporting children within the classroom setting
  • running coffee mornings, drop in sessions and training workshops for parents.

External evaluation undertaken by a nearby university has shown significant improvements in children’s language skills, as rated by their teachers.

At Wave 3, the most effective practice I have seen involves a partnership between schools, parents and SLTs, rather than an expectation that therapists can see children for an hour a week and return them to the classroom “cured”. Research shows that what is learned in therapy needs to be practised in natural contexts, and supported by adults (parents, teachers and TAs) who are in regular contact with the child, if the child is to make progress.

All very well, you may say, but in our area SLTs are in short supply and mainly work in clinics, so liaison is difficult. While this scenario is becoming less common, if it is the case, why not approach your local SLT service to explore different ways of working? In many areas there is a local strategy that has developed a group of highly trained school-based SLT assistants, working under the direction of SLTs, to provide intervention programmes for children with less severe language difficulties. In another partnership model, SLTs deliver a block of therapy in school for a half term, with the school’s TA sitting in. The next block is then delivered by the TAs “Vocabulary at age five is one of the most significant predictors of the qualifications pupils achieve when they leave school”

The importance of attending to SLCN

The suggestions I have made here take time and energy. What will help colleagues engage? It is probably worth rehearsing a few key statistics that point to the importance of children’s communication skills as key to raising standards for all. Vocabulary at age five is one of the most significant predictors of the qualifications pupils achieve when they leave school, for example. Key Stage 2 children with poor reading comprehension have been shown to make greater literacy improvements when provided with an intervention to develop their oral language than when provided with an intervention directly targeting reading comprehension skills. In addition, SLCN are directly linked to behaviour problems in school; two thirds of seven- to fourteen-year-olds with serious behaviour problems have language impairment.

These are just some of the many reasons why it is vital to pay attention to SLCN, and this year, the National Year of Communication, offers us a once in a lifetime chance to give the issue the profile it deserves.

Kyle’s story

Kyle is seven and struggling academically. He often seems one step behind – he follows what the other children are doing, and quite often gets it wrong. He frequently finds himself outside the Headteacher’s office. Staff ask him: “why did you…?” or “what possessed you to…?” They don’t know that he doesn’t know what the word “why” or the phrase “what possessed you” means and are even more cross when he just shrugs.

He hates reading – he has learned how to read the words, but what he reads he doesn’t understand.  He can count and he liked doing maths last year, but now he has to do problems like “how many more than 6 is 8?” He doesn’t understand what “more than” means, so doesn’t know where to start.

Playtimes are good for Kyle if they involve football; he’s really good at that. But if children play Star Wars games, he doesn’t know what is going on – he can’t understand what his peers are talking about or the rules of the game.  They get mad with him and push him away, so he pushes back.  When the Headteacher asks what happened, he can’t explain.

Questions to ask about your SLCN provision

Are screening processes in place to identify children and young people with SLCN?
Do teachers choose knowledge, skills and understanding from earlier/later key stages in speaking and listening frameworks (including P scales) to plan differentiated lessons?
Are speaking and listening activities incorporated in all areas of the curriculum?
Is communication and language incorporated into school systems for setting targets and monitoring progress, including personal targets owned by children? Is children’s progress in speech, language and communication systematically recorded and tracked?
Is there a consistent approach across the setting/school to visual support systems – symbols, drawings, photos, real objects, signing?
Is there a whole-school approach to teaching listening skills and vocabulary in the classroom?
Is an information pack on SLCN made available to all new staff?
Have staff used the SLCN framework to map their own professional skills, and has appropriate CPD been provided?
Are parents of children with SLCN given contact details of useful organizations that can support them?
Do children with SLCN have a communication profile showing areas of strength, difficulties and the strategies that help?
Are settings/classrooms communication-supportive environments?
Does the setting have a three-Wave approach to SLCN, with Wave 2 group interventions included in its provision map?
Are Wave 3 interventions a partnership between speech and language therapists, parents and setting/school staff?

Say Hello to the National Year of Communication

The Hello campaign aims to make communication for all children and young people a priority in homes and schools across the country in 2011, so that they can live life to the full. On the Hello website you can register for regular updates, read about the campaign and find a host of free resources to download and order, including;

  • Don’t Get Me Wrong – for those who work with children and young people, who have some basic understanding of speech, language and communication needs, but would like to know more.
  • The SLI Handbook – an A4 booklet that explains what a specific language impairment is, gives advice and support and shows where to go for further information.
  • Misunderstood – an easy to understand guide to explaining speech, language and communication needs.
  • Different Voices – a guide to augmentative and alternative communication.

Further information

Jean Gross is England’s Communication Champion for children. Her role is to work across Government, delivery partners and other stakeholders to co-ordinate and build on initiatives to improve services for children and young people with speech, language and communication needs.

The Communication Trust campaigns to raise awareness of the importance of speech, language and communication across the children’s workforce and enable practitioners to access the best training and expertise:

For information about supporting children’s speech, language and communication, advice, resources and an interactive progress checker for anyone with concerns about a child, visit:


Jean Gross CBE
Author: Jean Gross CBE

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