The world of words, signs and symbols

5th April 1996 at 01:00
Ann Miles and Clare Latham explain a home-grown approach to assessment of communication skills for pupils with severe learning difficulties

The Redway School in Milton Keynes is putting the finishing touches to its own assessment of communication skills, a key part of the English curriculum at this school for pupils with severe learning difficulties. After much thought and debate about the specific needs of the pupils who attend this all-age school, we decided to adopt a "functional" or "pragmatic" approach to language development. This view of communication places social interaction at the centre of communication skills development, encouraging pupils to make the best use of any skills they already possess.

Having clarified our approach to language development, we began the process of developing an assessment procedure. We needed an assessment which would: * Focus our thoughts on the pupil's ability to control or affect their environment through communication

* Look at the overall development of the pupil, relating cognitive ability to language development

* Acknowledge development across a range of language skills, (ie not focusing on one or two specific areas of language development)

* Assist with planning for future activities, including highlighting problems

* Ensure continuity throughout the school beginning with the earliest possible developmental level through to the national curriculum English level 1

* Encompass our total communication approach.

The assessment was created over a period of years by a multi-disciplinary team of teachers and speech therapists. This means that English and speech therapy are now fully integrated in the school with both professions working within the same framework. There are four broad bands of development: * Pre-verbal Communication Skills. At the earliest levels the pupil does not intend to communicate, but the adult interprets behaviours such as body movements. The assessment then looks at the processes by which the pupil becomes an intentional communicator

* First Meanings. This level covers the development of the first words from the time the student has something definite to communicate until he has a significant vocabulary. It is called "first meanings" because the first communications are not clear words but ideas or meanings. The early communications can be through facial expression, body language, gesture and vocalisation. Eventually these develop into clear words or signs

* Using Words, Signs and Symbols. Most pupils are beginning to link words, signs, symbols or electronically aided speech into sentences as they enter band three. But more importantly the pupil must begin to use whatever language he has for a range of different uses

* Expanding Communication. This band is for pupils who can link their ideas into complex sentences, and are becoming ready to approach a wider range of creative language activities in the national curriculum English at level 1. The language for life skills is included in this band.

Each band has its own booklet, containing guidelines for use and a section to complete with information about the pupil's communication skills. A complete manual with a detailed description supports the booklets. (This package is available from the school.)

Assessment is through observation, communication with parents and carers (a crucial input), some formal testing and then applying the gathered information to a booklet asking specific question relating to language use. The final page asks the assessor to make future plans for the pupil using the insights gained through the assessment. This section is used to identify targets for the annual review statement.

Several themes run through all four bands. The key point is functional communication. This means that success is judged by the pupil's ability to convey his information. For example, at band one, this means clearly indicating a liking for favourite foods, whereas at band four, the ability to deal with misunderstandings is important.

Cognitive ability is taken into consideration through free play which often indicates the level at which the pupil is functioning. The future planning sections at bands one and two recommended that teaching activities should take place in play as this is how children learn to understand and use language.

Functional communication is truly cross-curricular, since language must be learned and practiced in meaningful ways. The policy at the Redway School is to put a communication skills element in all lessons. But the advantages of this view of language is evident out of school as families report on the increasing skills of their children.

The assessment has become thoroughly established, and has been introduced in another local school. We now find it difficult to think of language in any other way than whether the pupil can communicate effectively in day to day living skills. The open ended nature of the assessment and future planning sections enables it to suit the needs of all of our pupils.

The final document was influenced by 'Teaching First Meanings', by J Coupe, L Barton and S Walker in Communication Before Speech edited by J Coupe and J Goldbart. Croom Helm 1988

Ann Miles is a teacher and Clare Latham a speech therapist at The Redway School, Whalley Drive, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, Bucks MK3 6EN. Tel: 01908 370000

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