A teacher and a therapist have joined forces to produce a set of resources to promote communication. Hilary Wilce reports
A small group of nine and 10-year-olds sits around a table playing a kind of insect hangman. At the roll of a big, picture-covered dice they get wings, or a head, or a body for their large plastic insect card.
"B-b-b-ody. Body," says Heather Bovingdon, a speech and language therapist at St Nicholas Special School in Canterbury. "Body, Harry. Body. That's right! Oh, Harry, really good talking!"
Harry, overcome, cuffs his neighbour Selma about the head, who brushes him away, rather as if he himself is a large, annoying insect.
These children face huge obstacles in acquiring language. The school caters for children with profound, severe and complex learning difficulties.
Whether they are autistic, have Down syndrome, or other conditions, most pupils find talking and listening an enormous challenge.
To help them, Heather, a therapist who has worked at the school for 20 years, has teamed up with her colleague Sarah Wheeler, a therapy assistant who has trained in graphic design, to create communication resources for children with special needs, tailored to the national curriculum, which teachers can easily use wholesale or adapt as they think fit.
"I am a passionate believer that communication is at the core of everything. But I also believe there is no point to speech and language therapists working on their own. They have to work in the classroom with the teacher," she says.
In doing that, she came to realise that the same study topics came round again and again, so she and Sarah started to devise materials for children who are below the performance levels of the national curriculum, with attainable goals such as using plural nouns, or being able to say what is needed to complete a task.
"We provide group programmes for five topics so far, and at three levels of ability. There's Emerging Communication, Developing Communication and Expanding Communication."
The topics developed are food and shopping, colours, seaside, minibeasts, and homes and families. More are to follow. And the materials include games, programme sheets, recording sheets, and hints and tips.
"For example we have lollipop characters which children hold up when they listen to a story and hear their character mentioned. They may only be listening for one thing, but at least they are listening. And they get better as the term progresses."
The brightly-coloured materials feature adorable starfish, cute crabs and appealing children. But the real joy of FLIC (Framework for Language and Interaction in the Curriculum) for busy teachers is that it offers an easy assessment tool so that anyone running the programme can quickly work out which level of work is right for any pupil. The three levels tie in directly to the speaking and listening curriculum, from the early P levels to level 2, and pre-existing information is used to decide where a child should begin.
"I do a lot of outreach work, and the more I visit primary schools, the more I realise how busy Sencos are," says Heather. "But this is a framework, not a programme. People can use their own initiative in how they use it."
According to Heather, children who used the FLIC materials for a year at her school showed improved listening and attention, improved turn-taking, a greater understanding of vocabulary, improved social interaction and were more able to use it in their lives. The framework helped children with autistic spectrum disorders to work in group settings, and parents reported that their children were more confident communicators who were using longer and more complex phrases, and that they were retaining vocabulary better.
"We trialled it here and in mainstream schools and all the feedback we got was really positive. And quite a lot of London schools are now using it to teach English as a second language. Now I'd love to have someone do some proper, structured research," she says.
Deputy head of St Nicholas, Angela Pike, says: "Children, whatever their level, can engage with these materials. Teachers say they're easy to handle, easy to understand and they don't have to do much themselves.
Everyone is so busy, they want something they can pull off the shelf. And they work for people who are supporting children in mainstream schools."
Linda Flower, inclusion manager at the 480-strong Reculver Primary School, Herne Bay, where 26 children have statements and many others have special needs, agrees. "We have lots of children at P levels and we really like these materials.
"They are so easy, particularly when you are assessing children and working out the next thing to do with them. And you can develop and expand the levels to the side, you don't have to go up through them. And while the speech and language therapist can keep an eye on what's going on, a teaching assistant can run it.
"The other great thing is that it fits in with the national curriculum, so you don't have to keep re-inventing the wheel. We have about a dozen children on the programme at the moment, but we use the ideas with lots of others."
FLIC is clearly getting off to a flying start. "But I wouldn't want to give up the day job, even though the balance may change," says Heather.
lFLIC costs pound;195 for a CD Rom www.flic.co.uk