The alien concept that gets kids talking

16th April 2010 at 01:00
A primary school uses the resource `Planet Mouth' to help pupils overcome language impairments

There is no magic to what goes on at West Mains School, say the teachers: "It's just teaching." But the five-year-olds who go there struggling with speech and language, and enter the mainstream two or three years later, might not agree with this modest message.

"When I came to school, I wasn't good at speaking," says Lucy (P2), perfectly understandably. "I didn't know my sounds."

She indicates an image of large red lips on the wall, with strange coloured figures inside them. "Planet Mouth helped me. It shows you the sounds and where you make them - the right bit of your mouth."

She points to her throat and explains: "Yellow you do at the back, like `K'. Red is for your lips, like `M'. The blue ones you make with your tongue, like `L'."

One of 24 pupils currently at the East Kilbride school, which shares a campus with Halfmerke Primary, Lucy is fairly typical, says headteacher Rosemary Payne. "If there is such a thing - every child is different. We take them with a specific language impairment, but the cognitive ability to access a mainstream curriculum.

"They have a difficulty with expressive language or comprehension or the intelligibility of their speech. These can be hard to identify when they're young. Sometimes language problems mask more global communication difficulties. So a few of our children end up with a diagnosis of Asperger's or autism, but they could stay here, depending where they are on the spectrum."

West Mains is a specialist provider with classes of eight or fewer, says Mrs Payne.

"But the way our teachers work with children can be replicated in a small- group mainstream setting - and so can the strategies we use and the children take with them when they move to mainstream, as most of them do," she adds.

There must be many children in mainstream schools with undiagnosed speech and language difficulties, says Elaine Simmons, who teaches P2 at West Mains. "When I was teaching mainstream, I felt bad about the children in the middle - the ones who are neither high-flyers nor poor at their work, and who don't have behaviour problems.

"No matter how hard you'd try, days would go by when you'd hardly talk to some of them. I first heard of West Mains when its outreach teacher helped me with a wee girl who didn't understand a lot of language spoken to her. She had a particular problem with `before' and `after'."

The idea that a child might not grasp such a basic concept had not occurred to Ms Simmons. "The outreach teacher suggested a wall display to help the girl, which I could easily do," she says. "She was the only one in class with that particular difficulty and she was so quiet."

Which is precisely why, Ms Simmons explains, there are undoubtedly children with undiagnosed speech and language difficulties in mainstream.

"They don't stand out," she says. "They tend to be nice wee kids and they plod on in big classes. Then the teacher suddenly discovers they haven't been getting it. But they don't know what the problem is."

At this point, an outburst of loud drumming from the P1 classroom fills the school, as children bash drums as tall as they are - and communication problems momentarily afflict everyone.

"We won Awards for All (lottery) funding," explains Mrs Payne, in a brief lull. "So we have brought in a drumming instructor."

The rest of the curriculum does need to be pushed forward in this way, while working on speech and language difficulties, says P1 teacher Gerardine McMahon.

"There's a lot of language in maths, so you have to work at that. You're teaching them reading, phonics, key words, as you would in the mainstream. It's smaller classes and more of a team approach - teachers, therapists, psychologists, parents. You're using specific strategies more."

These include over-learning, computer and board games and hand signals. "A timetable on the wall is great, especially for kids on the autistic spectrum, who need structure and like to know what they're doing at any time."

There have been many changes in her 20 years at West Mains, says Mrs McMahon - the most significant being inclusion. "At first we shared a campus with Halfmerke Primary, but nothing else," she explains. "As a special school, our pupils learned, ate and played separately. That's the way it was."

Inclusion has come slowly but has been worth it, she says. "It has been a matter of chipping away over time. Three of our classes now do expressive arts and PE with the Halfmerke pupils, while the fourth class only does language here."

Janice Gourlay teaches that class, a P12 composite. "My children `only' have phonology difficulties," she says. "These might be caused by motor difficulties, or the children might perceive they're saying the right words, but they're not."

Making best use of the time available for these pupils is what led Mrs Gourlay to produce the Planet Mouth resource, now used throughout West Mains and beyond. "I started with the Sunnybank speech-sound colour coding from Jennifer Reid (formerly of Edinburgh University), and designed the aliens for each letter to make it memorable and fun," she says.

"At that stage, we only had wee boys. But the girls love it as well. Each letter has a hand-sign that goes with it and an object that starts with that sound. So you are bringing in all the learning styles."

The resource enables teachers to focus on the particular speech production problem a child has. "He might be bringing back sounds to the front - saying `T' instead of `G', for instance," she explains. "So when I was doing outreach, I'd leave that child with a wee alien desk-prompt to remind him and the teacher what to work on."

Every child's speech production difficulty is different, she says, but all can be tackled with the help of the aliens and their unusual planet. "We had one wee boy who had no consonants, only vowels, when he came here. He goes to mainstream next year.

"Then there's Lucy. She used to run all her words together. Her speech was so disordered. We showed her mum a video recently, taken when she first came here, and she got very emotional. She has done so well - haven't you, Lucy?"

Lucy nods, then gives her explanation of Planet Mouth and where each sound is made. "I like talking now," she adds. "I talk a lot. I have a big sister and a wee sister who are a bit annoying. My wee sister messes up the playroom. But I would like to be a mum when I grow up."

Lucy is like a mum already with the P1s, says Mrs Gourlay. "She looks after them. She also taught them something for our Burns Supper. Didn't you, Lucy?"

"I taught them to do the Gay Gordons," Lucy says, with a delighted smile.


Siobhan Beckett was a mainstream primary teacher for 15 years before joining West Mains, she says. So when she delivers continuing professional development sessions to mainstream teachers, she is very conscious of the constraints on them - the biggest, of course, being time.

"Inclusion means there are more children in mainstream with difficulties, and teachers sometimes feel they don't have the necessary expertise," she says. "But they do. What we do here can be done with all children. It is just teaching."

Strategies and resources for working with children who have speech and language difficulties include Planet Mouth ("an incredibly useful tool"), desk prompts for difficult sounds, computer games, home-school diaries and getting lots of background information about a child and his or her difficulties.

"We use the colour-coding from Planet Mouth when reading to highlight letters within words. We use clapping to break words into syllables. Giving clear models of good speech is important. So if a child says `ders di tat', we would say, `that's right, there's the cat'. We use lots of praise when they make progress.

"Getting into more specialised techniques, there is cued articulation - which matches a gesture to each sound - and is very useful."

Outreach is another effective way of sharing West Mains' expertise, says Helen Troop, who combines non-class-contact cover with going out to pupils in any of South Lanarkshire's primary schools.

"I know where I'm going from one day to the next - but not from one year to the next," she says. "It's wherever the need is for the children.

"We work with one child in a class - usually within a small group of classmates to get the social interaction, rather than just one-to- one."

Besides sharing West Mains' techniques, an outreach teacher can also leave resources behind with the mainstream teacher, she says. "We make three different sizes of Planet Mouth and the aliens, and will often give out the smaller ones. We can also give packs to parents.

Then there are the educationally valuable board games.

"They are the new technology," Mrs Troop laughs. "Children used to playing computer games love them. They're a novelty and they're sociable. It has come full circle."

Being an outreach teacher is not too difficult, she says. "The hardest part is probably co-ordinating myself, the speech therapist, the mainstream and learning support teachers and sometimes social work to draw up a really good, collaborative individual education plan. Getting people's time is never easy."

But making time for a child who has speech and language problems is, in the end, what makes the difference, says Mrs Beckett

"It's not rocket science. It is remembering to include these children - and include little bits of teaching throughout the day that are going to help them. It's the responsibility of all of us to help a child with difficulties."

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