20th October 2000 at 01:00

What is the common ground between autism, sensory impairment and learning difficulties? This book, written by a speech and language therapist, argues that a language-based educational approach provides the key to overcoming many children's learning and social difficulties.

The promise of this strategy is intriguing - a language focus that provides access to learning for all children with special needs. I was expecting a functional approach that puts the quality of children's social experience and language interactions, rather than their "conditions", to the fore.

Disappointingly, much of the early part of the text is taken up with issues of definition and the slippery bases on which children are diagnosed as belonging to one category of language disorder or another. Teachers might find these classification issues sterile, presented as they are without detailed reference to real children. Whether a semantic-pragmatic disorder is better viewed as a form of autism, or vice versa, prompts me to ask: "So what?" I wish this text , with its misleading title, was less pedantic. There has to be more to educational intervention than deciding on the language skil to be taught ("Which grammatical marker? Which pragmatic skill?") and deconstructing this into the component steps which may be delivered in particular subject areas.

Undoubtedly, there are some useful ideas. But the complex realities of school contexts are unacknowledged.

Importing individual pupil programmes into any classroom is never easy, less so when teachers have a prescribed curriculum, including a literacy and numeracy hour (neither is mentioned).

Most mainstream teachers will baulk at the idea of "reorganising and restructuring the curriculum" to achieve an inclusive setting, although they would surely welcome "optimum class sizes of 12-15, with a minimum of two staff".

Moving beyond the "concept status" of the inclusion blueprint for children with language difficulties, the final chapter is a useful contribution from an IT specialist who identifies a wide range of software to promote language learning and the creation of communicative contexts around the computer. As to the language-based approach presented and its promise of more effective interventions for all, back to the drawing board.

Alec Webster is professor of educational psychology at the University of Bristol graduate school of education

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