Useful language

14th July 2000 at 01:00


TEACHING CHILDREN WITH PRAGMATIC DIFFICULTIES OF COMMUNICATION: Classroom Approaches. Edited by Gilbert MacKay and Carolyn Anderson. David Fulton. pound;13.

Teachers are aware how easy it is to talk of inclusive classroom contexts, and how difficult it may be to achieve them in practice. This is acutely the case for children with communication difficulties, since language is such an integral part of every social and intellectual experience that it is hard to imagine any teaching or learning experience which is not closely enmeshed, in some shape or form, with aspects of language.

These two slim volumes, taken from a burgeoning Fulton portfolio of books on SEN "conditions", address the practical demands of supporting children with a range of communication needs to access the curriculum.

Deirdre Martin's book is pitched at new or trainee teachers who, presumably, need to be told very basic things such as: "Understanding spoken or written language is called verbal comprehension" or "dyslexia is a difficulty with reading...".

There are helpful sections on appraising classroom environments, constructing learner profiles, organising and differentiating learning, and a few nuggets (rich scripting: targeting words and phrases central to a topic).

However, teachers will have to look elsewhere for the underpinning research, the role of ICT, what happens to communication difficulties beyond the primary school ears (where, arguably, even greater obstacles are encountered) and detailed classroom strategies. In leaving out all but the bare essentials, I wonder whether new teachers can respond effectively to advice such as: "Consider collaborative group work, guided questioning, scaffolding, mediation, as well as stimulating interaction", without saying precisely how each can be done?

Teaching Children with Pragmatic Difficulties of Communication is much more thorough, is grounded in research, and provides the kind of insights which help teachers make a difference in their work. Focused on pragmatics - use of language to get things done in the world - the chapters in this text provide a very illuminating account of this recently explored field.

Using analogies (communication as "dance"), case studies and copious examples of conversational interactions, this complex field is made accessible and, more importantly, leaves the reader feeling they could change the way they respond, for example, to a stammering child.

Essentially, the book examines what language is used for, how some children get things wrong, and what teachers can do to help children be more pragmatic. Of the two books, I would recommend Mackay and Anderson's for utility value to teachers new and experienced. There is an important language lesson here: oversimplifying does not always make things easier to understand or to implement.

ALEC WEBSTER Alec Webster is professor of educational psychology at the University of Bristol, Graduate School of Education

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