SEND – Speech and Language
Speech and Language Difficulties
Many conditions can result in speech and language delays. Global Development Delay, Autism, Cleft Palates and Hearing impairments can all lead to issues with speech. Some disorders can be more noticeable than others, with speech being non-existent; other cases can be more subtle, displayed by mispronunciations, lisps, or some words being indistinguishable. No matter the cause for speech and language difficulties, there are effective ways practitioners can adapt their teaching methods to assist and support children with their development of speech and communication.
Being educated on how to recognise speech delays must come first. The earlier delays are recognised, the sooner children can start getting the support they need. Holding regular training for all team members will ensure they are familiar with the signs to look out for. Using suitable assessments, practitioners can identify any delays a child may develop and can take necessary steps to support their progress. In more severe cases, external agencies will need to be involved. SENCOs should be putting referrals through at the correct time, following them up, feeding back to staff and parents and giving support for all throughout the process.
Children attempt to communicate from a young age and will do so in many different ways. While they are physically unable to respond verbally they will use gurgles, facial expressions, crying and gestures to convey their needs. Adults should observe how children are trying to communicate and consider whether they are meeting expected levels of learning.
Setting the Foundations
There are many ways practitioners can encourage speech in the early stages. Being close to children allows them to follow your facial cues and watch mouth movements. Babies need time for eyesight to develop; being close enough to let them see and observe your face helps to create positive relationships and supports early speech development.
Giving young babies time to respond is important. Practitioners should wait for children to make a noise or gesture and acknowledge these simple forms of communication by reciprocating the sound or expression. This also reinforces the way conversations flow back and forth between participants.
Making silly noises such as cooing and blowing raspberries motivates young babies to mimic these sounds. This helps them to explore what sounds they can make with their mouths, building up essential muscles in the face, mouth and tongue to speak coherently later on. The prolonged use of dummies can have a detrimental effect on children’s mouths, causing weaker tongue movements and gaps in teeth when they come through, often leading to speech difficulties. Practitioners can educate parents on this topic, providing advice for parents about useful ways to gradually wean children away from dummies.
Practitioners should continuously engage verbally with young babies. Singing songs and nursery rhymes is an enjoyable experience for children which helps to build up their vocabulary. Hearing familiar and non-familiar words in songs helps them to become embedded, eventually leading to children being able to repeat them back when they get older.
Hearing impairments can be identified by a lack of response from a child. A child that cannot hear has no auditory cues to respond to and can therefore develop delays with communication and speech. If they do not appear to hear their name, react to noises, or respond accordingly when spoken to, a hearing test should be advised. In many cases speech will follow soon after help with hearing has been given (such as hearing aids).
Children should be exposed to all kinds of noises, allowing them to recognise where and who sounds come from. Listening to others talk is essentially how they will learn to use language, so the ability to focus their attention on noises in the environment leads to effective listening skills in the future. Practitioners should be confident in narrating children’s play; associating items to words and helping children better understand the world around them.
Methods to Implement
Makaton and basic sign language are effective tools for early communication, which can also be extended for use with older children. It is important that practitioners recognise it should be used as a resource for supporting language, not as a replacement for speech. To ensure this, adults should always use signing alongside speech, demonstrating the sign and its verbal equivalent simultaneously; for example, using the sign for ‘drink’ while saying the word “drink”. Children can start using these signs as a means for early communication, developing language at the same time. Many Makaton or Sign Language tutorials are available online.
While official Makaton is a recognised method, practitioners can use their initiative and create their own simple signs for different words. Children will also come up with their own gestures which should be acknowledged by adults, rather than trying to replace them with ‘correct’ ones. Trying to rectify misused signs can be confusing and may deter children from trying to communicate further. Any attempts to communicate should be recognised and praised.
Visual picture cards can be used alongside speech, providing another form of communication for children with speech delays. Examples can be found online, or practitioners can create their own. These should be readily available for the children to access them when they need to communicate a need, such as going to the toilet, needing a drink or requesting a particular resource. Ideally, they should be about the size of a child’s palm and laminated for durability. They can be kept either on a lanyard or with Velcro (or another adhesive, but easy to remove, material on the back) and can be displayed on a board or in a book. For an example, see these Special Needs Communication Cards.
Words should be displayed around classrooms, helping children recognise words associated with items. Children will not necessarily be able to read words and labels, but adults can use them as another visual aid for them. Once children make the connection between the item and a word, they can gesture towards the word, knowing what it is associated with; for example, a car box might be labelled with the word “Cars”, so if a child wanted to play with a car, they would be able to point to this word.
Books should also be read to children in large groups and on a one-to-one basis. Stories are a fantastic way to introduce new words to children that they may not hear in everyday occurrences. Letting children freely explore books invites them to create their own narratives for the stories, further promoting their speech and language skills. Children can follow the images, making up their own representation of what they think is happening, rather than literally reading the words.
Setting an Example
Follow the children’s lead and do not force them to interact in false or unproductive ways. Children with Selective Mutism, for example, should never be ridiculed or treated differently for not engaging verbally. Practitioners need to demonstrate patience, consistency and empathy when working with children who have speech delays. Adults should wait for children to instigate activities or attempted conversations, responding sensitively to their cues and setting examples of suitable reactions.
Practitioners should be using appropriate language at all times, correctly pronouncing words, using proper contexts and teaching more advanced vocabulary as children grow. Staff who are not confident in their own verbal abilities should be encouraged to take part in training or lessons that can improve their speech, both beneficial for them and building their confidence for working with children. Staff who speak multiple languages may struggle with some aspects of the English language and should be continuously supported by management and other practitioners.
Staff should be aware of how to use open-ended, meaningful questions which naturally coax more verbal interactions from children. Using “how, what, why” questions are good examples, whereas “do, is, are” questions often promote one-word responses from children, abruptly ending conversations and interactions.
Children need to be encouraged to repeat words over and over, helping them to become ingrained and ensuring correct pronunciations and contexts are being used. If a child says a word incorrectly, practitioners should know not to point out the mistake, but rather repeat the word back in the proper manner. So if a child said “I wan read a boo” the adult would respond with “Do you want to read a book?”, providing the corrected suggestion.
Practitioners should also know how to comment on children’s play, recognising when it is better to narrate instead of asking a question. Sometimes interrupting a child’s interaction to ask a question causes it to end, whereas commenting on a situation encourages children to continue. A good example would be “I like how you are using the big blue bowl to carry more tasty fruits to the wooden table”. Narrating for children in this way exposes them to descriptive words which they can go on to use in their play, further developing their language skills.
When children are able to use a new word or sign, lots of praise should be given. This positive reinforcement encourages children to learn new ways to communicate and helps them feel proud of their accomplishments. The more children successfully communicate, the sooner their frustrations will lessen as their ability to convey their needs becomes easier. This then becomes a natural form of motivation for them, but adults should still reinforce this with small celebrations and positivity.
Children learn best when they are engaged and having fun. Trying to to talk and communicate effectively can be frustrating and tiring for both children and the adults around them, so practitioners should be mindful of how to make learning fun. Sharing these ideas with parents can also make for a more enjoyable atmosphere at home. Working closely with parents and offering reassurance and advice not only eases the pressure for them, but creates a holistic learning experience for the children, helping them to progress more swiftly.
EAL (English as an Additional Language)
English is not a first language for many children, which can seemingly result in speech delays. In reality, they can recognise and respond appropriately in their native language, but their lesser understanding of English makes communication difficult. It can be incredibly daunting for children to enter a brand-new environment that’s full of strangers, in any instance, but when they cannot understand what is being said by those around them it can make it even more intimidating.
Working with their parents to establish familiar words in their first language for practitioners to learn and use will help with transitions. Having words in other languages displayed around the setting can be a welcoming experience for families as well as providing visual reminders for staff. Using all the same techniques listed above (sign and gestures, visual aids, books, songs, patience, repetition) encourages children to pick up the English language, eventually leading to successful communication.