Lessons in lingua franca

15th December 2000 at 00:00
John Prior gets to grips with the lingo of language-impaired children

It's a curious thing, teaching kids with speech and language impairments. Strange world indeed. Life with any children aged four to seven is, in turn, endearing, comic and maddening - but throw in a speech and language impairment and you really begin to view the world through bizarre-tinted spectacles.

Take a chat I had the other day. "This is an umbrella. What do you think an umbrella is used for?" "You put it under your head and it rains."

It is symptomatic of the way one re-evaluates progress and understanding that I was chuffed that his response included the words "head" and "rains". At least we were in the right ballpark - even if these children are playing rounders while everyone else is playing football.

The literacy strategy has brought a new dimension to language teaching for these children. The structure is beneficial. Focusing on the measurable and concrete gives kids a good chance to acquire reasonable literacy skills.

But the opportunities for speaking and listening across a variety of contexts at key stage 1 seem greatly reduced. Yet it is here that infants with language impairments show their weaknesses. Lieral thinking is prevalent. So when one of my children was asked what might happen "at the end" (having been given three clear, sequential context cues), the empty box in front of him inspired him to say: "the white one".

It gets to you. The curious nature of their thinking and speech, the limited vocabulary, and the empty nouns and verbs leave their mark. The other day I asked one of my learning support assistants, "What them there?" "What?" was the reply. "That one, upside down, next to the thingy." Learning the lingo of the language-impaired child is an arduous process. I can't think of a group of children who have more potential to make you feel so de-skilled on days like that.

But they are worth it. The drive for inclusion continues - and rightly so. Everyone will reap the benefits of diversity of need. But the reality is an exceptional challenge and I hope the decision-makers acknowledge the enormity of helping these children to achieve in an inclusive setting.

A final example: "What's this, Darren?" "Circle."

"And this?" "Square."

"What about this one?" "Blanka goes blumpart."

No further questions.

John Prior teaches at Muschamp Priory school, Carshalton, Surrey

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