Totally tongue-tied

25th January 2008 at 00:00
Half a million pupils in the UK struggle with basic verbal communication.

Someone shows you a picture of a chicken. You immediately recognise it: you know it is a farm animal that clucks and produces eggs.

"I know!" you say. "It's a sheep."

For more than half a million pupils in the UK, that is what every conversation is like.

Between 4 and 7 per cent of children have specific language impairment, a condition that prevents them from expressing themselves, according to Emma Knox of Manchester University. This is four times the number with autistic-spectrum disorders.

Specific language impairment affects children's ability to process language. For some, it means they are unable to understand spoken instructions. Others struggle to express their thoughts: words do not come automatically and they must hunt around for the right one whenever they want to speak. Searching for one word may bring up another, related word.

Dr Knox, who has conducted long-term research into the condition, says this can cause particular problems in school.

"These children might know the answer to a question but can't say it out loud," she says. "They cannot follow instructions, so they are unable to identify what is being asked of them. They are interpreted as being slow, not listening or not participating properly."

Language difficulty can affect the entire curriculum. Few maths problems, for example, are presented purely in the form of numbers, so frustrated pupils can become distracted and resort to misbehaviour.

Language-impaired pupils also have problems relating to classmates, a problem faced by nine-year-old Lauren Griffiths. She has had speech therapy since she was two, but the Surrey pupil still struggles.

Nanette, her mother, says: "She's a very sociable child, but when she's excited she just can't get her words out. She could have clammed up and stopped talking. But she's so desperate to be a part of things, she keeps trying.

Dr Knox agrees. "Small-talk doesn't come easily for these pupils. Their conversations are stilted and they often just stop talking because it becomes too difficult."

These pupils are likely to be bullied for being different and lack the language to be able to report such incidents. "Teachers need to look for symptoms of depression or anxiety but also make sure bullying is spoken about," said Dr Knox. "If they use the language regularly, it becomes familiar."

Mrs Griffiths hopes Lauren will eventually be able to sustain basic adult conversations. "Language is such a vital life skill," she said. "People gauge your education through the way you speak. So these children have no voice. They're trapped in a box."

- emma.l.knox@manchester.ac.uk

HOW TO SUPPORT THE SPEECH-IMPAIRED

- Pair pupils with a "buddy" who will help if they are unable to follow instructions or write homework quickly enough.

- Create a "communication book" filled with pictures of topics they like talking about. This can help them to start conversations.

- Older children can have a vocabulary book, which they can illustrate in ways that help them remember specific words.

- Indicate a specific adult who should be approached for help so that initial contact can be made even without language.

- Give children a "help card" illustrating various problems that could occur.

- Give children strategies to communicate their needs. For example, teach them to say "too complicated", "too fast" or "too many difficult words". This helps others to phrase sentences in a way they can understand.

Source: Pam Cosh, senior teacher at Meath Special School in Surrey

For more details see www.ican.org.uk.

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