360 degrees of Speech and Language - Alison Mann The Voice 360 degrees of Speech and Language - Alison Mann

Communication is at the core of just about everything we do in life at home, in school and in work.  It is something that many of us often take for granted until we encounter challenges, often with our loved ones.  I know that it wasn’t really something I thought much about until my children had language delays. Then I began to see just how crucial communication development is.  

According to the Communication Trust “good communication skills are essential for learning and making friends, with strong language and communication skills linked to better outcomes in school and beyond, for children and young people”.  Communication skills impact widely across all areas of development, on learning, behaviour, and social and emotional development.”  

Of course you would expect me to say that communication is important… I’m a speech and language therapist and it is something that I am passionate about, but why are communication skills so important? Language skills are associated with: academic success and attainment, literacy, numeracy, positive relationships, friendships, behaviour, emotional development, self-esteem, identity and employability.  We know from research that the impact of poor communication is significant.  

  • According to 2014 Department for Education statistics, only 51% of pupils with SLCN achieve the expected standard in reading at the end of KS1, compared with 96% of students without any special educational needs.
  • 50-90% of children with persistent speech, language and communication difficulties go on to have reading difficulties.
  • The ‘attainment gap’ between children with communication difficulties and their peers at the end of KS4 is also marked. Just 13.8% of children with SLCN achieve the expected standard in GSCEs, compared with 70.4% of pupils with no special educational needs.
  • Two thirds of 7-14 year olds with serious behaviour problems have language impairment.
  • Those with a history of early language impairment are at higher risk of mental health problems e.g. 2.7 times more likely of having a social phobia by age 19.
  • At least 60% of young people in young offender institutions have communication difficulties.
  • When language difficulties are resolved by the age of 5 and a half, students are more likely to go on to develop good reading and spelling skills. This good performance continues throughout their school careers.

Good communication skills underpin all learning and this is reflected in the fact that Ofsted has now placed a strong emphasis in their inspection framework on how children are developing their communication skills within a school and whether teachers are able to support them with this.  Inspectors (from 2012) must now consider how well :

  1. pupils develop a range of skills, including reading, writing, communication and mathematical skills and how well they apply these across the curriculum  
  2. disabled pupils and those who have special educational needs have achieved since joining the school •
  3. gaps are narrowing between the performance of different groups of pupils, both in the school and in comparison to those of all pupils nationally
  4. • pupils who are eligible for the Pupil Premium have achieved since joining the school • pupils are prepared for the next stage of their education, training and/or employment

Communication skills have an important role across all four areas of judgement – the achievement of pupils, quality of teaching, behaviour and safety and leadership and management. Additionally, inspections also look at the extent to which the education provided by the school meets the needs of the range of pupils there, in particular pupils with SEN or disabilities, which includes the 10% of pupils with long-term and persistent speech, language and communication needs.  Because language and communication skills are both the foundation and fundamental building blocks for learning, the links between communication and attainment are clear.  Language and communication are the vehicle for teaching and learning in schools. High-quality teaching is underpinned by understanding effective communication in the classroom.  The Teachers’ Standards, set by the Department for Education, states that all teachers should take responsibility for promoting high standards of speaking and listening skills regardless of the subject they teach.  Fiona Barry a speech and language therapist, stated in an article for The Telegraph newspaper that “not all teachers feel confident doing this”.  (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationadvice/11485166/Creating-communication-friendly-schools.html)

This doesn’t really surprise me.  Speech and language therapy is a highly complex field. We devote anywhere from 3 – 6 years training for our profession and study a wide range of subjects from child development, linguistics, acoustics, phonetics, anatomy, and biology.  We study every aspect of communication in depth, complete clinical placements and come out qualified with a number of skills and expertise.  As speech and language therapists we have a tool kit that makes us perfect partners to help schools and nurseries.  This toolkit comprises of our professional knowledge, clinical skills, expertise and a number of resources that we utilise to assess and develop speech and language skills.  There is a continuing drive within our profession to deliver evidence based practice and use interventions which are known to have been successful in promoting speech and language development.  Although many of these tools are used successfully with individuals, many are designed for group use in schools with positive outcomes for everyone.  Not only do the interventions help the children participating in those groups, but they also skill school staff and help towards creating communication friendly environments that are cohesive and effective, and in turn benefit all of the children within a school.  I’d like to talk you through some of the interventions that we use and how they can help promote communication develop:

Early Talk

EarlyTalk is a programme developed by iCan and designed to improve the knowledge and skills of early years’ practitioners in order to improve speech language and communication (SLC) outcomes for children 0-5 years.  It involves training early years practitioners to deliver the intervention to small groups of children with delayed language skills.  The programme involves detailed session plans, group activities, work sheets, picture books and colourful language cards.  It also has a tracking tool to measure progress.

The Early Talk programme has been evaluated by the UK government and it reported that EarlyTalk had the following benefits:

  • There were indications of a professional learning community forming around speech, language and communication as EarlyTalk and other initiatives were embedded. The formation of these communities supported a much deeper understanding of, and reflection on, Speech Language and Communication by practitioners.
  • EarlyTalk played a valuable role in integrating personal understanding of SLC with centres’ institutionalisation of good practice in Speech Language and Communication
  • EarlyTalk had made staff more confident in making earlier identification of speech language and communication needs and developing strategies to support children in the centre.
  • EarlyTalk identified greater improvement in children’s communicative behaviour.
  • Local Authorities stated that ET had improved practitioners’ ability to develop in-house strategies to support children with additional/special needs and had a positive impact on the referral rate for speech language and communication needs (SLCN).


Talk Boost KS1 is a structured and robustly evidence-based intervention programme, that can boost a child’s communication by an average of 18 months after a ten week intervention.  It supports language delayed children in Reception and Key Stage One (KS1) to make progress with their language and communication skills. The programme is delivered in primary schools by classroom teachers and assistants and provides a structured programme that accelerates children’s progress in language and communication.  Talk boost builds the quality of teaching by providing classroom staff with practical activities that children enjoy. Since launch over 58,000 children have benefited from the programme.  There are a range of benefits to using this approach, including (but not limited to):

  • Supporting the language skills that lead to phonics
  • Improving language and communication
  • Improving confidence and skills in listening, vocabulary, narrative, sentence building and conversation.

In total 120 activities are delivered during the 10-week intervention period. Children are taught in small groups three times a week by teachers, assistants and volunteers but this is supplemented by whole-class activities so a focus on language permeates the wider classroom.  Each session draws on four activities that cover the key components of language – Listening and Attention, Vocabulary, Sentence Building, Storytelling and Conversations.  Talk boost can be delivered by a range of individuals, including teachers, training assistants and volunteers once they have received training in how to implement the approach by a Speech and Language Therapist.

Talk Boost KS2 has just been recently launched (June 2016).  It is designed to target children aged 7-10 who have delayed language development. Talk Boost KS2 aims to boost children’s language skills to help them catch up with their peers and reduce the impact of language difficulties on academic attainment and social development.  Using an eight week small group intervention delivered by a teaching assistant (TA), along with classroom activities and homework tasks delivered by class teachers, children focus on various aspects of language that support both  learning and social interaction and evaluation showed that children participating made significant progress in language and communication.

Word Aware

Word Aware is a whole school vocabulary approach to promote vocabulary development in children. This method of developing spoken and written vocabulary in all children is evidence-based following extensive research by Anna Branagan and Stephen Parsons.  It is of particular value for children with special education needs and for those learning English as an additional language.  It is a known fact that children with good vocabulary go on to become good readers.  Orally tested vocabulary at the end of first grade is a significant prediction of reading comprehension 10 years later (Cunningham and Stanovich 1997).  However, children do not always come into schools with a basic vocabulary.  Although vocabulary development is crucial for school success, it has not received the attention and interest that work on identifying printed words and spellings have received (Biemiller and Slonim, 2001). The evidence is clear – we can make a difference by providing consistent attention to vocabulary growth, which in turn would improve literacy growth. It has a four pronged approach that involves:

  1. Teaching vocabulary (STAR)
  2. Word detective: Making phonological and semantic associations
  3. Make words count: Word learning strategies, identifying whole words
  4. Fun with words: Big Brain (I think with my big brain something that is (meaning clue) and it starts with a (letter clue)

Colourful semantics

Colourful semantics is an approach created by Alison Bryan (1997). It is aimed at helping children to develop their grammar, but it is rooted in the meaning of words (semantics).  Colourful semantics reassembles sentences by cutting them up into their thematic roles and then colour codes them.  The approach has 4 key colour coded stages, although there are further stages for adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions and negatives.  Using colourful semantics entails focusing on the WHO, WHAT DOING, WHAT AND WHERE elements of any given sentence, which are colour coded for emphasis. As children focus on these, they begin to learn the grammatical structures of English and also about word meaning.  The approach helps children to organise their sentences into key levels. It is used in stages and helps children develop language and vocabulary, in addition to grammatical structure. It can be used to help children who are starting to develop language and have limited vocabulary to confident talkers who struggle to organise the grammatical content of their sentences.

There are a range of benefits to using this approach, including but not limited to;

  • Encouraging wider vocabulary
  • Making sentences longer
  • Helps children to answer questions or generate responses to questions
  • Developing use of nouns, verbs, prepositions and adjectives
  • Improves story telling skills
  • Can be transferred to written sentences and written language comprehension
  • Can be carried out individually or in small groups

  • It is widely used in the UK and in Australia by speech and language therapists but has not formally been published as a programme. However, a number of descriptive case studies have shown the approach has good face validity.  It has recently been the subject of an independent evaluation, suggesting clinically interesting findings (Bolderson, Dosanjh, Milligan, Pring & Chiat, 2011). The colourful semantics approach is a useful approach to consider when working with children with Specific Language Impairment, developmental delay or disorder, Autistic Spectrum Condition, Down Syndrome and Literacy difficulties.

These are just a few of the tools that we have available to use and as you can see many of them have a promising evidence base behind them.  If you would like to discuss any of these approaches further or find out how we can work in partnership with you to help improve communication skills within your school or nursery, then please don’t hesitate to contact us.


Bryan, A., Bolderson, S., Coelho, C. & Dosanjih, C. (2007). Colourful Semantics: Application in school settings. Afasic 4th International Symposium: Unlocking speech and language. University of Warwick, UK http:www.afasic.org.uk/sympsite/AbstractsWedAm.htm699157.ch10

Cunningham A.E.  & Stanovich K.E. (1997) What reading does for the mind?  Journal of Direct Instruction Vol 1, No 2 pp 137 – 149.

Department for Education (2014). Children with special educational needs in England. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/statistics-special-educational-needs-sen

Department for Education (2010) ICAN’s Early Talk Programme: independent evaluation of the impact of EarlyTAlk on addressing speech, communication and language needs in Sure Start children’s centres. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/182242/DFE-RR077.pdf

Hartshorne, M (2006). The cost to the nation of children’s poor communication. ICAN Talk Series- Issue 2: http://www.ican.org.uk/~/media/Ican2/Whats%20the%20Issue/Evidence/2%20The%20Cost%20to%20the%20N ation%20of%20Children%20s%20Poor%20Communication%20pdf.ashx

Hartshorne, M (2006). Speech, language and communication needs and literacy difficulties. ICAN Talk Series Issue 1: http://www.ican.org.uk/~/media/Ican2/Whats%20the%20Issue/Evidence/1%20Communication%20Disability% 20and%20Literacy%20Difficulties%20pdf.ashx

Lindsay, G & Dockrell, J (2012) The relationship between speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD).

The Better Communication Research Programme. Department for Education: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/219632/DFE-RR247- BCRP6.pdf

Snowling, M.J et al (2011) Language and literacy attainment of pupils during Early Years and through KS2: Does teacher assessment at 5 provide a valid measure of children’s current and future educational attainment?

The Better Communication Research Programme. Department for Education: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/183539/DFE-RR172a.pdf

Snow, P.C. & Powell, M.B. (2011) Oral language competence in incarcerated young offenders: Links with offending severity. International Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 13(6), 480-489: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21682546

Written by Alison Mann on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services