It’s so tough for pupils who struggle to communicate

19th February 2016 at 00:00
If you find it difficult to speak, dialogue is exhausting

I am a stammerer. I had a slight stammer as a child, I have occasionally stammered as an adult, and I currently stammer on more than 70 per cent of words.

I was an experienced, articulate primary teacher. For the past eight years, I have also travelled overseas to attend conferences and deliver training and workshops. But on a long-haul flight in September, I had an “event” that left me with a significant stammer. Speaking, which I have always regarded as equivalent to breathing, has suddenly become effortful.

If you don’t stammer, you can’t imagine how exhausting it is. In addition to the normal conversational need to process information and respond to the other participant, I have to plan each speech sound, to scan ahead for tricky words and to breathe without hyperventilating. So if people finish sentences for me and get it wrong, it’s easier to accept their version; when people summarise what they think I’ve said, I don’t have the energy to disagree; when people leave me out of a decision, I feel sidelined but don’t say anything.

Imagine what it is like for students. We know that a disproportionate number of children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) feel angry and excluded. I understand why. We expect children to spend their days communicating. We offer strategies that we hope will work, but I think that we have missed the point. I know now that the children must be exhausted. Simply to participate, they have to make a big effort, often for little reward.

Change your approach

How many classroom-based strategies do you have to reduce the impact of SLCN? Do you plan to differentiate for these children in the same way that you differentiate for dyslexic children? Is your special educational needs and disability provision a weekly intervention group, or do you use class-based strategies? Would you avoid asking me questions because it is evidently such an effort for me to answer? If so, you would be unintentionally disenfranchising me – so what would be my incentive to continue to cooperate?

Here are five things I now realise would be helpful for these students:

Know who they are: identify those with receptive (comprehension) difficulties and those with expressive difficulties.

Give them time to answer questions and to think about what they want to say.

Implement some pre- and post-teaching opportunities in small groups, to consolidate key concepts and vocabulary.

Make learning “visible” using multimedia, images, signs and symbols, and use active learning techniques such as working walls, think-pair-share, response partners, learning triads, games and graphic organisers.

Understand how tired children become and create opportunities not to communicate.

For further help, the Communication Trust (; the Autism Trust ( and the Dyslexia-SpLD Trust ( all have free online resources. The original Inclusion Development Programme for SLCN is available ( and the TES Resources site is a mine of information and practical ideas.

First of all, though, you need to find out who those children are: statistically, you will teach at least one child in every class who will need some type of communication support, as well as many more who will benefit from it.

Kate Ruttle is a primary teacher and SEND specialist who works in Suffolk supporting Sendcos in eight partner schools

Stammering FAQ

The King’s Speech resource pack

What works: for students with speech, language and communication needs

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