So, Noah knows best

What do a pig, a cat and a frog have in common? They're all helping children with communication difficulties to get a better grip of words, Diana Hinds discovers

The Bible does not record if all the animals on Noah's Ark had names, but the likes of Freddie the Frog are helping young children with communication difficulties master simple words by playing with sounds.

These Year 1 and 2 children are in the language department at Elmtree School, an infants school in Chesham, Buckinghamshire. They have a range of communication difficulties such as phonological and autistic spectrum disorders and problems with expressive language and comprehension.

Today, they are using the story of Noah's Ark, and puppets, to work on cued articulation signs, a part of synthetic phonics. With the help of Nikki Dutfield, senior speech and language therapist, and Lizzie Thoume, language department teacher, they are learning to blend sounds (just two at this stage) to make words - eg "p - ig".

The next child must find the toy pig in the room and hold it up. C - ats, f - ish and other toy creatures are lying on the floor, waiting to be identified and rescued. Freddie the Frog is on hand too, but with three blended sounds ("f - r -og") that might be a bit much at this early stage.

In January, Elmtree's language department celebrated its 10th birthday, when more than 200 parents and former pupils came into school for cakes and magic tricks.

Many of these children have gone on to make a success of their education: one girl with a speech disorder had barely uttered a word in her nursery year; now aged nine, she is flourishing in a mainstream junior school and no longer needs a statement of special needs. A boy with autistic spectrum disorder, whose communication difficulties when he arrived at Elmtree were such that he screamed all day, has now gained a place at a Buckinghamshire grammar school.

Elmtree's approach is to give these children as inclusive a school experience as possible, and they spend the greater part of the day in a mainstream classroom. But this is supplemented by regular sessions in the language department to give them the specialist back-up they need.

When the local authority approached the school 10 years ago about establishing a specialist facility, Liz Seddon was appointed the department's head. She was determined that it should be as integrated as possible with the rest of the school, not a bolt-on unit.

The language department began life in a small room off the dining room, with only two pupils. "It was a steep learning curve because I hadn't worked with children with communication difficulties before," says Liz, who became the school's headteacher in January. "But it was exciting to resource and staff a new department."

The department quickly grew to 20 children and moved at the first opportunity into a larger room in the centre of the school, which helped to make it feel more inclusive. It is stocked with an array of resources for multi-sensory teaching and learning, from big coloured shapes that the children can jump on, Lego and toy figures, to music-therapy-based programmes to develop the children's listening skills.

The multi-sensory approach is used with other children, including those with English as a second language. Members of the language department have trained all Elmtree staff in techniques such as the Makaton signing system and cued articulation.

"It's important for us to be working collaboratively with class teachers and support assistants," says Nikki. "Often parents feel that speech and language therapists hold a magic wand and are the only professionals who can provide what their child needs. But in an inclusive setting like this, teachers, assistants and therapists are working together."

Elmtree has also developed an outreach service for other mainstream schools without a language department. Two Elmtree speech and language therapists now work in 25 other schools in the area. In time, the Elmtree department could evolve into a resource base, but for now Liz is determined that it should continue on its current lines.

The county council, though, is steering more children with communication difficulties towards more mainstream schools, and presently there are only 15 children in the language department.

But Liz, who was awarded an OBE for services to special needs teaching in 2000, believes it is worth fighting for. "Early intervention for these children is crucial. We have had success because they come to us at four or five. Ideally we'd like to have a language department nursery and start working with them when they're even younger."

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