| by Wendy Lee |
I recently had a discussion with a fellow speech and language therapist about Oracy. They were worried that a focus on Oracy is hugely challenging for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). And on those grounds, they felt a focus on Oracy disadvantaged children with SLCN.
Food for thought…
Clearly, children with SLCN struggle with the underlying skills needed for Oracy – they may have unclear speech, an inability to construct a sentence, poor vocabulary or difficulties understanding language. They may struggle to verbally structure a narrative or understand inference. They may have a stammer, or maybe social interaction difficulties. The list goes on.
On the surface, I guess it does seem that children with SLCN could be excluded from activities if there is a focus on Oracy, maybe it would make their lives more difficult – but, here’s the thing!
Their lives are already difficult.
For some children, just listening to the amount of language used in the school day can be exhausting, never mind processing it, understanding it and responding to it. I genuinely don’t know how some children get through the day…
Often, they are surrounded by a sea of words overwhelmingly difficult for them to follow. And of course, if they struggle to talk and understand, reading and writing is often even more challenging. Recent research has found the most important factor in reaching the expected levels in English and maths at age seven was children’s language skills at age five, greater than the link to poverty or parental education. (1) Still, the current education system doesn’t prioritise these crucial skills… baffling!
So, can a focus on Oracy help?
Lots of children with SLCN are being missed or misinterpreted. (2) The focus in schools on reading and writing means when children struggle, the perceived solution is often more literacy – phonics, reading intervention, writing practice – rather than a focus on the spoken language that sits beneath.
I’ve worked in an awful lot of schools – probably thousands if I were to add them all up. It’s very rare to work with a school that is accurately identifying all children with SLCN. These children are difficult to spot – even more so because most teachers don’t have the necessary training in typical language development – how are they expected to identify difficulties when they have no training on what typical development looks like.
If there was a systematic focus on spoken language, with teachers being supported and trained to understand language development, we would be identifying SLCN more accurately.
If Oracy was part of the curriculum, with equal status to the written word, used every day to support learning, we would immediately see the children who were struggling with these skills.
We wouldn’t need to wait for their behaviour to deteriorate or their mental health to suffer. We wouldn’t need to wait until their reading and writing was years behind – we’d see them. A focus on Oracy (with appropriately trained teachers), could therefore mean better identification!
So Oracy can help us identify children with SLCN – but how can it help support them? There’s a pretty long list in my mind, but the top three would be…
- Children need to practise to get better – having no opportunity to talk really doesn’t help if you’re not good at talking. Children with SLCN often have lots to say – and often interesting, insightful things to say! They might need more time, careful interaction to ensure they can process information… we might need to make adaptations to give them a voice, but surely this is what we would want as an inclusive society…
- Some of the structured approaches of Oracy practice actually support all children, including those with SLCN; group roles for example – it’s much easier to take part in a discussion if you know exactly what your role is. Children with SLCN might need training to take specific roles, or to know how and when to join in, but this is a totally doable feast.
- The focus in Oracy on metalinguistic/metacognitive skills – these are also vital skills for pupils with SLCN to identify when they do and do not understand, to support skills in clarifying when they are unsure – explicitly teaching these skills can make a huge difference. Speech and language therapists call this comprehension monitoring – very important skills for children with difficulties understanding language.
Children with SLCN will need more – we need to fill them up with language as well as giving them the practice they can gain through giving Oracy a greater focus. Some will need specific specialist input or targeted approaches to support their acquisition and development of speech, language and communication skills. All will need adaptation of approaches to support their access to the curriculum. All need greater understanding of their needs… and a greater understanding of Oracy could go some way to supporting this.
(1) Finnegan, J., Telfer C., and Warren H. (2015) cited in http://www.eif.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/language-child-wellbeing-indicator_Sep2017.pdf.
(2) More than half when you compare DfE stats with research based prevalence data. See https://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/media/540327/tct_talkingaboutageneration_report_online.pdf for more details.