Activities worth talking about

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How a day dedicated to verbal communication helped schools rethink their approach to SLCN.

On one seemingly ordinary day in October, something exciting took place in schools up and down the country. Science students created human graphs, maths students recorded and shared their mathematical reasoning with fellow pupils, and students developed literacy skills through working with a performance poet. Pupils developed and shaped spatial awareness in design technology through model-building, and videoing new drama productions became a way for pupils to develop their interaction, sequencing, negotiation and ICT skills.

Just another day of exciting learning in special and mainstream schools up and down the country, you might say. But these pupils all had one thing in common: not a single one was writing anything down. Instead, they were learning through spoken language.
This year, more schools than ever responded to the challenge to “put down their pens and pick up their language” by joining in with The Communication Trust’s national initiative, No Pens Day Wednesday. What’s more, the number of special schools who registered to get involved almost doubled from last year.

Why focus on speech, language and communication?

Language skills continue to have a relatively low profile in our schools and education policy; they are the least taught and trained for, yet the most used. Language skills are important for all children but especially for those with SEN, the majority of whom will have some degree of communication difficulty.

However, teachers are rarely given training on typical language development, so it is difficult to see where children may need support, to scaffold children’s spoken language in the classroom and to identify those children who may be struggling.

Despite internationally accepted prevalence figures of between five and seven per cent, only three per cent of the school population is ever identified as having SLCN. Children with SLCN often have academic, emotional and behavioural difficulties that are easier to see than underlying language deficits. SLCN can be difficult to spot and the nature of the difficulties can change over time, often becoming more complex.

However, the impact of SLCN is far reaching; the attainment gap between these pupils and their counterparts continues to grow and with the imminent changes to the SEN landscape in the 2014 reforms, it is more important than ever to build our understanding and focus on communication in order to achieve better outcomes for these children.

Committed to communication

A focus on verbal learning offers us a creative way to consider teaching, learning, assessment and recording, and also to highlight the links between spoken language and the quality of teaching and learning. It enables us to understand more clearly exactly how some children struggle with learning. By engaging pupils and parents explicitly in talking about talk – whether that be via spoken language, sign or alternative and augmentative means of communication – we can find out the best ways to differentiate language to enable all children to be included and independent in their learning.

Many special schools reported that classrooms were particularly energised on No Pens Day Wednesday, with inspired and engaged pupils reflecting on their learning, feeling included and being encouraged by the communication opportunities the activities provided. Indeed, in 2012, one school reported that the quality of its teaching was rated more highly by Ofsted on No Pens Day Wednesday than on the other day of their inspection.

Verbal communication in action

Speech and language therapist Rebecca Dixon explains what I CAN’s Dawn House School, a specialist school for children and young people aged five to 19 years with a severe or complex communication difficulty or Asperger’s syndrome, got up to on the Day.

Pupils at the School have varying difficulties with speech, language and communication skills. Some children have difficulties understanding long and complex information; others have difficulty formulating sentences, while some have difficulty with social communication skills. Many of our children have severe and complex difficulties across a variety of areas, so it’s vital we provide opportunities for them to develop their skills, whilst having fun.

In primary, pupils worked in pairs, creating and sharing stories in a variety of materials including Play-Doh, puppets, stickers and stop-motion photography. The storytelling encouraged the development of narrative, imagination and attention and listening skills, whilst also developing important social skills, such as turn taking, listening to other people’s contributions and sharing.

In science, Year 10 children carried out experiments about conduction in metals. They had to think of ways to record their results other than by writing, so everyone typed their results into the table on the interactive whiteboard. These activities encouraged development of social skills, the ability to follow directions, and attention and listening skills. They also did cut and stick activities to demonstrate how convection works, using symbolised sentences and pictures.

At lunchtime, pupils played lots of games that involved following directions and instructions, turn-taking, attention and listening, developing friendships and social skills – all activities focused on important speech and language skills.
All children were visibly engaged and enjoying their lessons. For those children who find writing and spelling difficult, it was good for them to see that the focus wasn’t on writing and that they could still learn.

Though we implement many of these activities on a daily basis anyway, No Pens Day Wednesday reminded us all of why we do these things, and the positive impact it can have on the children.

Building on the legacy

Many schools are already well aware of and committed to communication, and embed these types of activities in everyday practice. However, the Day helped schools to re-assert this focus and get pupils and staff excited about communicating. This year, nearly 90 per cent of schools reported that taking part had raised awareness in their school of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) and over two-thirds of schools stated that they will change their practice around SLCN as a result.
Blackfriars special school is one of a number of organisations working together to develop simple and practical approaches to supporting those with SLCN that improve outcomes for pupils. Ricky Porter, the Literacy Co-ordinator in the school’s FE department, says: “Independence and equality are key for our students, which is why communication skills are so important for them… Students take part in the full range of subjects, but all lessons have the underpinning element of applying communication skills to prepare them for the ‘real-world’.” Such a commitment to placing communication skills at the centre of school life can make a big difference to students with SLCN and can really help to ease the transition once they leave education.

Further information

Anne Fox is Director at The Communication Trust, a coalition of nearly 50 voluntary and community organisations with expertise in speech, language and communication:
www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/commitment

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