Equally important as listening and concentration skills is the development of expressive language, and this issue Linda Evans looks at some strategies for helping children to communicate verbally

Support for SENCOs
Children who have difficulties in communicating with others can find school, and the world at large, very frustrating and frightening. If you have access to very young children, you will be familiar with the odd tantrum and tears when they are trying their very best to tell you something, but you just can’t understand exactly what they are trying to say. How much worse must it be for older learners who find it impossible to convey their thoughts and needs? The processes involved in language development are also essential for supporting ‘thinking’ in general, and this is another reason why the development of communication and interaction skills is so important.

Roughly a quarter of a million children under the age of five, and a similar number in the 5-16 age range, have a speech and language impairment. For some, this is a delay; the child’s language is developing, but more slowly than usual. This may be connected with having ‘glue ear’ in early childhood, poor parenting or a consequence of poor listening and attention skills. With appropriate intervention, these children can make good progress and catch up with their peers. For others, the difficulty is more complex.

Pupils in this category may have difficulties in the following areas:

  • The production of speech – some children understand what is said to them, but are unable to use words to make themselves understood. They may have difficulty in making the movements which produce speech, or suffer from dysfluency, or stammering.
  • Finding words and joining them together, in the right order (sequencing) to make complex sentences. This may indicate a problem with short-term memory.
  • Understanding and responding to the verbal communication of others.
  • Being able to put thoughts and ideas into words.

Many pupils with these difficulties respond well to intervention and there are various published programmes to try out (see the ICAN website). If you can harness the expertise of a speech and language therapist, s/he can offer valuable advice and guidance.

Schools often set up small nurture groups to give extra support to children with communication difficulties, spending time on a regular (ideally daily) basis to provide opportunities for practising speaking (which may be difficult to do in a busy classroom) . Activities can include:

  • Chanting nursery rhymes and (action) songs: for older children, use age-appropriate limericks and funny rhymes, play reading and short poems.
  • Structured talk using sentence completion: ‘My name is…’, ‘ I like to…’, ‘My favourite xxx is…’, ‘I’m good at…’, ‘I can see…’
  • Passing a ‘feely bag’: children describe what they can feel inside the bag and others have to guess what it is; or two pupils sit back to back and one describes a picture which the other has to draw.
  • Games: such as ‘I went to the shop and I bought…’or ‘I spy’.
  • Re-telling a story: using puppets can be a good idea and sequence cards can help children to sort out an appropriate order of events. Older children may enjoy recounting key moments from a TV soap.
  • Discussion: use a story to prompt discussion of issues such as bullying, encouraging pupils to share their experiences, offer each other support and develop problem solving strategies.
  • Drama techniques: using puppets or simple props to suggest a ‘character’ can give children the confidence to speak as that character, rather than themselves.

Consider whether a particular child might benefit from learning a signing system such as Makaton (teachers and peers will also need to learn). The use of symbols to augment spoken language can also reduce a child’s anxiety and enable him to progress at his own rate (eg PECS – Picture Exchange Communication System). The child can have his own communication book and simply point to the appropriate symbol or set of symbols to let the teacher or TA know that he needs the toilet, or wants to join a different activity, etc.

Support for teachers
There are a number of general strategies that teachers can use to support pupils with communication difficulties (as SENCO, make sure that all adults working in school are aware of children’s needs and the approaches being used to help them):

  • Use visual prompts, gestures and/or a signing system (eg Makaton) to reinforce spoken and written language.
  • Ensure that children know you are addressing them, not someone else (say their name before asking the question).
  • Avoid figurative language; idioms like ‘pull your socks up’ may be taken literally – these will need to be taught explicitly.
  • Tell a child what to do rather than what not to do.
  • Reinforce all attempts to communicate.
  • Avoid correcting a child’s spoken language, but provide a good model and opportunities to practise.
  • Use a child’s specific interests to expand use of language and social skills.
  • Phrase questions carefully. Closed questions require a simple answer which may be right or wrong, or may indicate a preference (‘Do you want orange squash or milk?’); they provide a safer situation than open questions, (eg ‘What would you like to drink?’).
  • Allow extra time for the child to respond; don’t hurry him to give an answer.
  • Teach new vocabulary (including subject-specific words). Have a ‘word of the day/week’ for the whole class.
  • Practise sentence building and sequencing; allow time for children to practise their contribution to a plenary beforehand (with a TA or talking partner).
  • Introduce ‘talking partners’ and use speaking frames (eg Sue Palmer’s Speaking Frames, David Fulton Publishers).
  • Ask the child to explain to someone else what they have to do, to check their understanding.
  • Teach a routine phrase that the child can use when he doesn’t understand (make sure all adults know about it!) or use a card for the child to hold up when help is needed.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2009

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.