How many times have you been lost in a conversation, or not heard what someone is saying, because they speak too quietly, because a loud motorbike has just driven past the window or because you were focussing on something else?
Do you admit that you haven’t got a clue what the person speaking to you is on about? Or ask them to repeat the question? Or do you ask them to wait until the noise outside has died down? Or do you feel that, as you understand very little of what is said to you, this is ‘par for the course’?
The latter is what many children and young people with speech, language, and communication needs (SLCN) or developmental language disorder (DLD) do: they are so used to not knowing what people are saying that they have either given up trying or, worse, don’t even know that what is coming out of someone else’s mouth should make sense to them.
When my middle son had hearing difficulties as a young child, I once asked him if he could hear the television. He responded “No” with a clear subtext that read “Am I supposed to?”.
There are at least two children with DLD in every classroom and it is highly likely that there are several more with some aspect of SLCN. It is important, when working with these children that we use sentences that are short enough that they can access them. We also need to be aware of the vocabulary that we use and the level of distraction (visual or auditory) in the environment.
We can support children to develop the skills for ‘good listening’ and encourage them to focus on what is being said to them, rather than getting lost in their own thoughts, or other distractions around them. In fact, this is usually the first step in any speech and language therapy programme. Infant and Junior Language Link(1) packages include group listening activities to focus on this key skill. In the secondary aged Talk Fitness programme, which is part of Secondary Language Link(2), two of the seven sessions focus on the importance of active listening. Like with speech and language therapy sessions, the therapists at Speech Link Multimedia Ltd know the value of developing strong listening skills and the impact that teaching these important skills has on the child’s communication development.
As well as supporting children’s own skills for listening, it is also important that the children we are working with know that they should expect to understand what is being said and that there are things that they can do to help make that happen. You will have heard the proverb about the fishing rod and the fish – enabling someone to do something for themselves is likely to have longer term benefits, as well as providing support in the short term.
What gets in the way of understanding?
It is important for us all to be aware of what makes communication difficult to understand so that we can deliver spoken information more usefully. Having this awareness will also help children to know why they may struggle to access the spoken language that they hear.
How we are able to understand what people are saying to us is affected by:
- The length and/or complexity of the sentence
- The words that are being used
- Distractions – external (noise, visual distractions) or internal (how we are feeling, what we are thinking about)
- Volume (either too loud or too quiet)
- Speed of delivery (usually too fast, but possibly also too slow)
- Incomplete information being given, or a topic not introduced
- Too much information being delivered at the same time.
I’m sure you can recognise a time or times when any of these aspects got in the way of following a conversation or being given information.
How can we support children to become more active in their response to these barriers?
In her paper on this very subject, Elspeth McCartney(3) states: “What is important for the child is not that they understand everything they hear but that they are able to recognise times they do not understand and learn to do something about it.”
It is also key that children know that these breakdowns in communication occur in all contexts, even with very skilled communicators (How many personal, business and international relationships have broken down because of a misunderstanding?). Whole class discussions can take place around the result of communication breakdowns – ranging from the most mild to the more significant.
There has been a good deal of research on programmes which can support children to recognise what others do that makes it difficult to understand what is said, and to help them learn how to seek clarification. In addition to the Talk Fitness programme, described above, The Active Listening for Active Learning programme(4) uses ‘comprehension monitoring’ techniques to support children in group environments. It has been rigorously analysed by the Communication Trust’s What Works panel(5) and now features on their database of programmes with a good amount of evidence of impact.
The designer of the programme, Maggie Johnson, describes how important it is to create a “safe environment’ for children - a culture where it is seen as OK to make mistakes and not understand, and where children are rewarded for asking questions”. Unless this is in place first, children will be reluctant to seek clarification when they don’t understand. Many of us know how difficult it is to ask for help, and children seeking clarification are no different.
Comprehension monitoring programmes then go on to discuss what impacts whether a spoken signal is received and understood: the different aspects that get in the way of being able to understand what is being said (described above) are discussed with children and examples are given. In order to help children experience this in a safe way, the adult/s can model what happens when an instruction is given too quietly, or not enough information is provided. Ideally, another adult can demonstrate how they might be trying unsuccessfully to complete the task.
Many programmes give examples of how to model this in activities such as ‘barrier games’. These are where someone has to complete a task, such as copying a simple drawing, or building an identical tower without being able to see what it is they should be copying. Instead, they have to rely solely on the spoken communication. Children are enabled to see the benefits of seeking clarification, This supports the situations where the communication has broken down in some way. Children are given examples of how to do this: statements like “I couldn’t hear you?”, “Can you say that again a bit slower?”, or “I don’t know what that word means,” can be demonstrated.
The final phase of the programme is to set up situations with the children, letting them know that you might be deliberately making it difficult for them to understand what is being said. Then carry out activities with the children, giving information or instructions which deliberately can’t be understood. Examples might be “Pass me the thingy” or talking at the same time as shaking a noisemaker. Children can then be rewarded and praised for identifying what made the communication difficult to understand and seeking clarification.
Research on the implementation of this type of programme shows that it has an impact on the likelihood of the child requesting more information and seeking clarity(6), so that they are more able to manage the situation that they find themselves in. The providers of the information then are also likely to become much more aware of how clear they are being (or not being) when speaking to individual children.
The two crucial aspects of this whole process are a) the speaker knowing what gets in the way of understanding, and trying to reduce the likelihood of this happening and b) the receiver of information feeling able to ask for clarification.
So, it is worth making sure that your environment is set up to reward the asking of questions and the seeking of more or easier to understand information. This is a thread that needs to be carried throughout our work - we may be surprised what words children don’t understand if we give them the chance to ask!
- Kate Freeman, Education Consultant.
(4) Johnson M. and Player C. (2009). Active Listening for Active Learning. QED Publications