“When I posted the video to my Twitter page, I honestly didn’t think about the reaction it might have,” recalls Kirsty Murrell, a specialist speech and language therapist (SLT) working for the NHS. “I just hoped it might be useful.”
The video (below), built using free software Murrell stumbled across on the internet, is a fun summary of the key messages she has been delivering to parents and teachers about the importance of modelling language.
The fact that it went viral with teachers almost instantly, despite her only having 137 followers, was a shock to her.
“It has come as a really pleasant surprise to see that it has been viewed several thousand times, and really nice to read all of the positive feedback about it,” she says.
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The video is perfectly timed. There is intense focus currently on language development in schools, particularly in early years foundation stage and key stage 1, with research consistently finding that language is the master key for unlocking learning.
Quite how you develop language effectively, however, is sometimes less clear, and the expertise of speech and language professionals is too often overlooked.
Murrell’s video brings that expertise to schools in a very accessible format.
“I tried to include as many key messages as possible – without making the video too long or ‘preachy’,” she explains.
The advice is based on 11 years’ experience of working with young people in schools.
“One of the key pieces of advice that we frequently give to parents and practitioners is the importance of modelling language to help develop children’s vocabulary and sentences," says Murrell. "As adults, we instinctively ask young children a lot of questions, such as ‘What’s that?’, ‘What colour is it?’, ‘Did you have a good day today?’, ‘What did you do?’ etc.
“However, this doesn’t always add anything and doesn’t help to ‘feed’ little ones' new words. We also ask a lot of questions that we already know the answers to.
“A strategy that can make a real difference is turning most of those questions into comments; particularly comments about whatever a child is focused on at that particular moment.”
Murrell feels that a lot of the referrals that speech and language therapists get from schools are for issues that can be supported within the classroom without specialist intervention.
“A large percentage of children with speech, language and communication needs don’t need specialist SLT input and can catch up with their peers with support in their everyday environments,” she explains.
“An increasing area of work for SLTs involves helping early years settings and schools to develop communication-friendly classrooms. A major part of that involves making sure that every adult knows how to use strategies such as modelling, commenting and expanding children’s sentences.
“SLTs also work with settings to look at their physical set up; ideas such as using visual support consistently (eg, visual timetables and signing), making the most of every communication opportunity (eg, at snack time, outdoor playtime) and small things such as reducing background noise (eg, only having music on for specific activities).
“Sometimes all things speech-and-language can end up being allocated to a designated teaching assistant, but it makes such a difference when whole settings prioritise communication and every adult understands the positive impact they can make on a child’s communication development – starting with headteachers, senior leaders or nursery managers.”
More training needed
She says that watching her video and doing occasional continuing professional development alone will not be enough to help this happen; instead, she would like to see proper training on this, as part of initial teacher training.
“It would make a huge impact if education staff and early years practitioners received communication training as part of their initial training – embedding strategies, including those highlighted in my video, at the same time that they are learning more traditional teaching or childcare skills,” she says.
In the meantime, schools are rushing to show her video to staff and parents alike.