The card cues

2nd September 2011 at 01:00
A primary school in Kidderminster is using visual prompts to increase interaction and help pupils communicate

This article was originally published in Talk, Listen, Take Part - a special supplement produced by the TES to a brief agreed with The Communication Trust. Thesupplement was paid for by The Communication Champion and BT.

See the full supplement as a digital edition.

Matthew's "board" shows he needs a pencil and ruler for today's maths lesson. Having this on his desk in front of him reminds him of his task and helps to keep him focused.

Visual images are part and parcel of speech and language learning at Foley Park Primary School in Kidderminster (above). Every child, regardless of any special need, benefits from a whole-school system of prompts, pictures and even sign language.

"We noticed about three years ago that pupils were increasingly arriving at school with little vocabulary, even for words you would expect them to know such as `cow' or `horse'," says Kathryn Sugars, headteacher at the Worcestershire school. "Families are not interacting at home in the way we might expect."

Foley Park had already been working with Worcestershire's speech and language team, which was increasingly struggling to cope with the level of intervention required.

"They were only able to see about 20 of our pupils a year, which simply wasn't enough. So when we suggested we work with them, they jumped at the chance," Ms Sugars adds.

The team trained staff at the primary on procedures for early diagnosis of speech and language problems and other interventions. A scheme called Language Link allows staff to assess every child entering the school for the first time, to put in place appropriate programmes. Those who require very specialist support are still referred to the speech and language therapy team but the school's own staff can now help most pupils.

The Communication Project is now embedded in the school. Every member of staff carries a belt-clip containing visual cue cards with instructions and praise, such as "good listening" and "good sitting", which act as a prompt and are used to communicate with pupils.

Classrooms all have a visual timetable of that day's activities, and individual task management boards - such as the one used by Matthew - set out in pictures and words what is expected in class.

"The system was painstaking to set up, requiring hundreds of laminated cards with photographs of children, pictures and prompts," Ms Sugars says. "But it works. Visual timetables mean no surprises during the day for pupils who might be unsettled by changes to their routine." Governors made pound;10,000 available to help pay for staff and developing resources.

The visual prompts have been accompanied by the "10-second rule", which gives pupils time to listen to, digest and react to questions from teachers, rather than becoming stressed by not being able to answer immediately. "Often when a child doesn't answer quickly, the teacher rephrases the question, when what the pupil actually needs is more time to think about the answer," Ms Sugars adds.

Linda Davis, Foley Park's Senco, runs the "nurture room" for children who need constant support with language development. Here, visual prompts are supplemented with sign language for pupils who have difficulty communicating and understanding.

"The benefit of visual prompts is that the teacher and pupil have to engage with each other," she says. "No one can just sit quietly at the back hoping not to be noticed. It also helps to stop them being distracted. The project has had a huge impact and it is lovely to see the children's confidence increasing."

It is too early to attribute the programme to any improvement in key stage 2 results, which can be affected by cohorts. But Ms Sugars says: "The impact in terms of behaviour has been tremendous and has eliminated a lot of the low-level disruption that can make teaching and learning difficult. Attendance has also improved and exceeds the school's target of 94.6 per cent."

At Watercliffe Meadow Community Primary in Sheffield, only two pupils arrived at the school last year with the appropriate level of speech and language proficiency.

Three years ago, the school reviewed its teaching after it emerged that working with many different speech therapists created a lack of consistency in provision, says Claire Bradley, the assistant headteacher.

"We were working with different therapists and getting mixed responses about what we needed to do with these pupils. Now all the pupils are seen by the same person, who has trained our school staff to deliver the same provision."

Watercliffe's speech and language programme was devised through the eyes of the children, says Ian Read, the deputy headteacher. "We looked at what a pupil's day looks like and there is a lot of playtime when the children interact socially.

"Just as the teacher would structure conversation and debate in the classroom, we have a team of `play leaders', mainly TAs, who initiate games in the playground that encourage children to talk and interact."

The dining room has also been designed as a cafe, where children can sit in small groups and chat to each other.

In the classroom, questions are more open-ended to discourage one-word answers. Teachers lead discussions that allow pupils to express themselves, offer an opinion and take part in discussion. Circle time is also used to promote conversation.

Parents are an important part of the process. "We organise workshops for parents and call these `food for thought'," Ms Bradley says. "They are based on discussions raised in the book Toxic Childhood by Sue Palmer and centre on issues such as healthy eating.

"We talk about the importance of play at home, not just on the computer, but how they can interact with their children in a fun way." The first workshop is called `It's good to talk' and includes the experience of trying to talk with a spoon in your mouth, to bring across the message about the use of dummies.

From September, Watercliffe will introduce a family-based project exploring 101 things parents should do with their children before they leave the school, to encourage good relationships and communication.

Mr Read says: "We don't think we have cracked it yet, but speaking and listening has improved and we have gone some way towards improving the communication skills of our pupils."


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