Saturday 31 December 2011

How can I help my Toddler Talk?

Surprising research tells us that in some areas of the UK, over half of the children going into school don’t have the communication skills they need to learn, make friends and succeed. There are many theories why this is the case. One thing is for sure, toddlers need help to learn to talk. Much of this help comes from a close, trusted adult who responds to their attempts to communicate and who provides a stimulating environment for them to learn in. Our Smart Talkers Pre-School communication groups are designed to help by using games, puppets, stories and songs to work on the essential pre-requisites for healthy communication. We offer advice for activities to do at home and how the child's everyday activities can be excellent opportunities for language development. But what if there isn't a group near you? Check out this excellent publication from ICAN priced at £12.99

Revised and bolder than before, Toddler Talk is a beautifully illustrated activity pack to promote communication development of toddlers from 18 months to 3 years old that now comes in a paperback and hardback edition.
Toddler Talk includes 35 inspiring activities on durable cards for parents and other adults to play with the toddler to develop the toddler's communication skills. The activities have been developed by practitioners with specialist experience in developing communication with under threes. The activities are focused on the following five areas:
  1. Attention and Listening
  2. Understanding what is said
  3. Learning and using new words
  4. Building sentences
  5. Talking socially
Toddlers need the space and time to process sounds and to learn what they mean. Eventually, words build into sentences, into mini-conversations and this means that children will be able to get the best of their new learning environments.ISBN: (978-1-908173-02-7)

Saturday 24 December 2011

Communication consortium expresses concern about Phonics Screening Check

The Communication Trust, a consortium of nearly 50 leading voluntary sector organisations specialising in speech, language and communication in children and young people, has expressed its concern over plans to roll out the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check. The results from the first round of screening were published recently   by the Department for  Education.  The Phonics Screening Check is a short, light-touch assessment to confirm whether pupils have learned phonic decoding to an appropriate standard. It also identifies children who need extra help so they can receive extra support to improve their reading skills. They can then retake the check so schools can track them until they can decode. But independent evaluation undertaken by Sheffield Hallam University showed most teachers still had difficulties in judging whether a word was read correctly, including in children who were good readers but had speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Anita Kerwin-Nye, director of The Communication Trust, said: “We fully support the Government’s ambition to improve literacy standards in English schools, and welcome the Department for Education’s support for communication, language and literacy in the Early 
Years Foundation stage. “However we are very concerned about the impact the Year 1 Phonics Screen, and the wider emphasis on phonics, on children with speech, language and communication needs. 

This concern is backed up by the findings of the evaluation carried out by Sheffield Hallam University. This showed that nearly 29 per cent of schools felt the experience of the Phonics Screening Check was negative for children with SLCN and that only 35 per cent felt the check accurately assessed the decoding abilities of children with speech difficulties. “These figures alone suggest significant changes need to be made to the way the Screen is implemented and I have urgently requested a meeting with Nick Gibb MP, Minister of State 
for Education to discuss the precise details. Phonics is a valid approach to teaching reading but it is essential that it is delivered as part of a well-rounded approach to communication and literacy skills.”  

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Will there be a book in your child's Christmas stocking?

My own children don't enjoy reading at all as they are not natural readers. They would choose almost anything over reading to occupy their time. However, there will be several books in each of their stockings as they are important for so many reasons. One of which is the special time we share as I read to them with my arms around them. I treasure this time as it's great for cementing the bond we have. We discuss the story, chat about our day and unwind ready for bed.
However, the proportion of children without books is increasing according to the National Literacy Trust. It is now one in three, compared with one in 10 in 2005. Children with their own books were more likely to be above-average readers and do better at school, the study of 18,000 children suggested. Poorer children and boys were less likely to have books, it added. The survey was carried out in September with school-aged children from 111 schools across the UK. It suggested that a third (33.2%) did not have books of their own. That translates to 3.8m children UK-wide.

Is this important? Yes!!!! books are important for so many reasons see for more details.

They are an important vehicle for parent-child interaction. A great tool for sharing!

Will there be any books in your child's Christmas stocking?

Saturday 17 December 2011

Happy Christmas from everyone at Small Talk and Smart Talkers

We have made a donation to Cancer Research UK again this year so please accept this as our Christmas greeting to you

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Please don't teach your child to say please and thank you....

....  until their language level is ready!

There is no-one who likes children to say 'please and  thank you' more than me. My own children are very polite and know that they are unlikely to get what they want without these important social niceties BUT I do not advocate parents of children with delayed language or early language to expect their child to use them until much later. 'Please' and 'thank you' are NOT communicatively functional. It will not help a child to express himself if he is struggling to use single words or put 2 together, to make him say 'please' and 'thank you'.

If a child is saying single words it means that they are at an early stage of language acquisition. If, therefore, you ask them to say 'Please' or 'Ta' before you hand over the required toy, piece of food, drink or whatever, they will be very confused. Much better to name the item or say something related and relevant to the moment, so they can learn the appropriate vocabulary.

If I am trying to encourage a child to put 2 words together such as 'more + biscuit', they won't be able to say 'more+biscuit+please' until much later because this is actually 3 words together. I am not aiming for 'biscuit please' because that is not as functional. It's much better to encourage them to say 'more biscuit'. This shows also the child the idea of combining words. 'More' is an excellent pivot word because you can have more of anything e.g. 'more cuddles, 'more ticking', 'more jumping', 'more juice', 'more bubbles'.... anything.

I don't even teach the signs for 'please' and 'thank you' until a much later, more sophisticated level. I have worked with too many children with special needs  in the past who constantly tap their hand to their mouth to ask for something.. anything.. with a generic sign for 'please'. Much, much better to teach the vocabulary (signed or spoken) for the item they might want.

Giving the good example is very important and is sufficient at this stage of development. I would welcome your comments though!

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Friday 9 December 2011

How to interact with pre-schoolers

I have seen some really good nursery worker-child interaction this week and some awful examples too. I won't  name and shame the bad ones but the good ones need mentioning. Jayne from Little people Nursery in Burntwood and Kelly, Lynne and Sara from Little Springs in Rugeley are all natural communicators. They have a skill for interacting with pre-schoolers which really brings out the best in the children. I mentioned it to one of them and she dismissed it by saying it was instinctive but in reality, nowadays it isn't. Our natural talents as communicators are diminishing. 

So what makes them so good, why are they able to bring out the best in the little ones? The Hanen course I went on last week was all about showing parents how small changes to their own behaviour can have a dramatic effect on their child's communication. According to Hanen, the following techniques help to engage a young child in conversation:
  • Accept anything the child says as meaningful and try to interpret it for them. For example, a non-verbal child took a coat to Sara and lifted his arms, she said, 'Oh, you want your coat on? I'll put your coat on'. 'Coat on' is exactly what he would have said if he could talk. I also saw a TA just take a coat from a child who handed it to her and put it on while carrying on a conversation with another adult. This was a missed opportunity for interaction.
  • When interacting with a child always have eye contact. Kelly was giving instructions to a child about a whole group activity so she crouched down to his level. Always be on their level with your face turned to the child's to face. The same TA mentioned above gave a very long and complex instruction 30 reception children while facing  away from them and trying to talk over her shoulder. Out of the 30, it looked as if just 2 little girls actually understood the task. Then to add insult to injury they were all told off for 'not listening'!
  • Use lots of different tones of voice, facial expressions and gestures. These help children to interpret the meaning of what is being said. All the staff mentioned are very expressive which helps keep their attention too. Imagine if you were in a  foreign country where you didn't understand everything that was said to you,  it would be really helpful if people used facial expression and gesture to supplement what they said to you. A quiet, flat affect is also the easiest way to switch off a child. Life is exciting to a two and three year old, working with them gives an opportunity for adults to be excited about it too!
  • Follow the child’s lead in playing even if the child plays with a toy in a different way than would be expected. It's only adults who stick to rigid rules while playing, who says the jigsaw pieces can't be spun or stacked or become chips?
  • Keep the conversation going by using the right type of questions. Try to avoid closed questions like “What is this?” or questions that answer themselves like “You want a biscuit, don’t you?”. Rather, use choice questions like “Do you want juice or tea?” or open-ended questions like “What happened?”
  • Wait for a child to say something, don't step in and anticipate. As with the coat example earlier, if a child who can talk, just hands the coat, wait for him to ask you to put it on. Hanen have what they call 'owling': observe, wait and listen. 
  • Add onto what the child says, so if the child says blue car, say 'yes a big blue car'. Jayne is excellent at doing this in a really natural way.
If you want to read more these very simple but powerful tips there are two Hanen publications which are well worth the effort to read. They are clear, simplistic and very, very sensible.


Small Talk SLT are able to offer Hanen 'It takes Two to Talk' programme for parents and from July 'Learning language and loving it' for early years professionals.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

What does 'pragmatics'mean?

By Vanessa King, Smart Talkers, Surrey

Baby Sale – lots of bargains! 

What is meant by this sign? We know without asking that it means items related to baby care are for sale, not that the shop is not literally selling babies. We know this because we have a context for the sign, a society in which we don’t sell babies in shops.

Pragmatics is a branch of linguistics concerned with the ways context contributes to meaning. It studies how meaning doesn’t just depend on understanding grammar and vocabulary, but also the situation of the speaker and the listener. It explains how language users are able to overcome apparent ambiguity in meaning, because meaning is transmitted by more than just the words the person is saying. The ability to understand another person’s intended meaning is called pragmatic competence and is regarded as one of the most challenging aspects of language learning because it comes only through experience.

We can divide pragmatics into three main sections:

  • Using language for different purposes
  • Modifying language according to the needs of the listener or the situation
  • Following rules for conversation and storytelling
To understand the importance of pragmatics, you might find it helpful to think about conversations you may have had with people from other cultures. If you have ever felt offended, confused or misunderstood, it’s probably due to a difference in pragmatics.

Using Language
We use language for many different purposes. Consider a typical conversation between me and my children regarding dinner in one evening.
“I’m hungry.” “I will make dinner in a minute.” “Get me an apple!” “I want doesn’t get!” “Mummy, will you make my dinner please?” “I’m making dinner now.”

All of that makes me sound like a really bad parent, but each of those phrases represents a different purpose to language. Language is used for informing, promising, demanding, instructing, requesting and many more. Eventually my children are fed so the language fulfils its purpose in each instance and my children are learning to communicate meaningfully.

Modifying Language
We frequently modify our language according to the needs of a listener or a situation. Even though we both speak English, my partner and I sometimes have difficulty understanding each other. He will say something and even though I understand the words I have to hesitate before replying. This is because in my mind I’m thinking ‘he can’t possibly mean what I think he means, so what does he actually mean?’ An example of this that happened recently – the computer was switched on and my Facebook account was displayed on the screen. My partner said ‘are you on the computer?’ I thought he was asking if I’m logged into the computer, which clearly I was so he must have meant something else. I didn’t know what he meant so he had to modify his question to ‘Can I use the computer?’ For me these are quite different questions but for him they mean the same thing. A similar thing occurred less than ten minutes later when I picked up a sample of my son’s artwork and he said ‘Oh have you seen that?’ Well, of course I’ve just seen it, it’s in my hand so what does he mean?!

Rules of conversation and storytelling
The ability to abide by rules of conversation and storytelling is of particular importance and crucial to success at school. Such rules are often learned through example and having an explicit understanding of just some of these rules will help you become a better communicator. Examples of the rules I’m talking about might include:
Taking turns. A conversation is at its most rewarding when it occurs between two or more people. If you listen to others as they speak, you’re taking the opportunity to think about their contribution which in turn enriches your own. If you dominate a conversation then you might as well be talking to yourself.

Introducing a new topic of conversation can be tricky too. I’ve been so tempted to interrupt someone (not taking turns!) with something that may or may not be related to what they’ve been saying because what they’ve said has triggered a memory or a thought I’m just desperate to share. I’m sure you’ve met people who do this habitually and they can be quite tiresome because they’re not following those unspoken rules of conversation.

Staying on topic is related to the above example. How can you be sure that what you want to say contributes to the conversation? There are verbal and non-verbal signals that we need to learn to recognise and some adults find them difficult to identify, how much harder it must be for young children who are quite ego-centric in their view of the world.

Apart from the words we use, being able to recognise the meaning of and using non-verbal signals is very important to communication. I know someone who frequently misses the shuffling feet, moving eyes and fiddling hands of the person they’re talking to, so they don’t recognise that the person has lost interest in what they’re saying. This is related to the use of facial expression and eye contact. Put simply, eye contact indicates interest while wandering eyes might indicate boredom, disinterest or lack of understanding.

Personal space

In conclusion, pragmatics is the study of the complex ways in which we use language and how context creates meaning. Pragmatics is learned by example by most people, but sometimes, for whatever reason, some people miss some of the lessons and they find it difficult to communicate and are frustrated when they can’t identify why. An understanding of pragmatics can help to diagnose communication issues and provide a framework for addressing those needs.

Frequently, in may areas NHS therapists cannot provide input for this type of difficulty but fortunately, Small Talk can help

Friday 2 December 2011

How can I help my child with 'show and tell'?

Thank you for this post from the excellent Talking Matters team from Australia

“Show and tell” or “news time” is a regular part of the school routine and a valuable opportunity to develop language skills but it can be a difficult task for children with speech, language, learning or social difficulties and can result in anxiety for children with low confidence. There are however things that can be done to support your child both at home and at school to make it a more enjoyable and educational experience.       
Each teacher has a different way of running their show and tell sessions. If you are not familiar with how sessions are run in your child’s class discuss it with the teacher. Some questions to ask include:
When is your child expected to do show and tell? Some classes have a set timetable, in others students choose to speak when they wish to.  If there is a timetable make sure you know when your child’s time is so you can help them prepare. If the child is able to choose ask the teacher how often would be reasonable for your child to speak. If your child prepares something make sure the teacher knows so they can ensure your child has a chance to speak.     
Is there a set topic? If there a list of topics ask for a copy, or for the topic to be put in your child’s diary or communication book ahead of time so you can help your child plan ahead. If children choose their own topics ask what types of topics the other children often choose. This will help your child choose something that interests the rest of the class. 
How long is each child expected to speak for? If the expected time is unrealistic for your child’s abilities discuss with the teacher what might be reasonable for your child to be expected to do.    
Is it a whole class activity? Some classes speak in small groups, others address the whole class at once.   
Do the other children ask questions?  If so how many and what type of questions do they typically ask?  Is the teacher happy for you to prepare for some questions that can then be asked by some supportive children.  
Are there any other rules or things you need to know?  Some teachers have rules around “no toys” or other topics that children are not permitted to discuss during show and tell.   
Once you have a clear idea what is expected you can more effectively prepare your child.  Help your child to prepare for show and tell by:
Preparing for the topic. Choose a suitable topic that your child is interested in and will feel confident and comfortable discussing. Help your child research the topic. Gather some hands on resources.  
Planning the presentation. Work out with your child what they want to say and how they will say it. 
Practice the presentation. Be your child’s audience and watch and listen as they present.  The more times they can practice the more confident they will be. Make it as much like the way your child will do it at school as possible.  Sit your child on a chair and sit yourself on the floor. Put your hand up and allow your child to ask you for a question.  If there are specific greetings used practice these too.  
Some other things to try include: 
Use visual supports: These might be a real object to talk about, some photos of your child if they are talking about an outing or activity they have done, some pictures that your child has drawn about the topic or that you have printed from the internet.  
Use a planner to plan out what your child is going to say: This is like a story map and you can use it to help your child plan what they will say.  You can use pictures for children who can’t read.  Your child’s teacher may have one that they can give you or you can download them from this site  (scroll right down the page for the planner).      
Once you have planned it on the planner help your child use the plan to practice presenting and then take it to school to help them do the real thing.
Use your child’s communication book to support the teacher.  If your child has limited communication skills or their speech is difficult to understand, write in your child’s communication book what your child’s topic is and some background information. This might include who gave them the item, where they got it, where they went and what they did there.  If your child will need to answer questions include answers to the questions kids might commonly ask. This will help the teacher understand your child’s presentation and the teacher can then help supportive children ask suitable questions and fill in any unknown information that your child is not able to provide.   
Try an alternative method of presenting.  If your child has very limited communication skills or is very shy discuss with the teacher whether they could present in a different way such as through a power point or slide show display, or a short video they could record at home.
Use a social story to help your child prepare for show and tell. Social stories prepare your child for what will happen and help them to know in advance what they have to do, reducing anxiety and increasing the chances of success. For more information about social stories visit  
Help your child be involved in other children’s presentations. If your child has very limited communication skills help them to ask questions of other children by practising questions in advance.  You could also write some questions on a card, using pictures or symbols if your child needs them and sending them to school with your child. During show and tell your child could use the card as a cue to ask a question or raise their hand and give the card to the teacher or another child to ask. Children with communication devices could have some common questions programmed into their device so they could ask them. Make sure you discuss these options with your child’s teacher so your child can be supported in their efforts.  
We hope show and tell becomes a valued way to develop your child’s communication and confidence.
The Talking Matters website has information on supporting children’s communication and learning with regular newsletters, facebook and twitter. The extra’s section has free downloadable information and activities for parents and teachers on a range of topics.    
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