• Dr Chris Moore

Supporting Unclear Speech in the Classroom

Every child’s speech develops at a different pace. Some may be understood by people outside the family relatively quickly during their early years. Others may produce less clear speech for a longer period of time. The frequency and consistency of their sound productions can be variable. There are many possible factors which can influence speech clarity. These include glue ear, cleft lip and palate and more significant developmental delay. In a preschool or early years classroom setting, we may see children who:

- Find it difficult to articulate a range of speech sounds.

- Produce words or phrases which are unintelligible outside of a defined context.

- Show frustration when others do not understand what they are saying.

- Rely on gesture to indicate their needs.

- Become reluctant to communicate verbally.

If you have a concern about a child’s speech, you should seek a referral to a Speech and Language Therapist. While it may be easy for people to use terms such as “delayed” or “disordered”, only a Speech and Language Therapy assessment can determine whether the child’s sound substitutions are common or unusual. Similarly, only a Speech and Language Therapist can provide guidance on which sounds to practise and how to do so at home and in school.

The following are just some simple strategies and ideas to keep in mind as you try to make the classroom communication-friendly for children with unclear speech.

Promote a calm atmosphere

Some children may be very aware that their speech is not easily understood and we need to actively minimise the pressure they may feel. Instead of asking lots of questions which puts the onus on the child to speak, we can engage with them by commenting on their play and being really animated about what they are doing. We can let them volunteer an answer to a question in a group activity, rather than suddenly directing a question to them with little warning. They may need to have extra time to practise what to say in a discussion, by talking with a friend or a member of staff first, before they are expected to give their answer in front of the class.

Be accepting and honest

We all have moments where we say the wrong thing, use the wrong word or find it difficult to make ourselves understood. Drawing attention to and making light of our own mistakes and times when we need to repeat ourselves can help to convey that miscommunication is normal. You can model this with a fellow member of staff, where one initially has difficulty understanding what the other said. You can also give a silly response in a group activity, so that the children get to see you say “Oops, I’ll try again!” This can take the emotion out of occasions where the child with unclear speech has to say something more than once. It’s important to be up front about times when we don’t know what the child is saying. We can do this in a fun way by saying “Oh dear it’s very noisy in here” or “I need to switch my ears on. Can you tell me again?”. Repeating back what we do understand will be important in showing the child that we are listening intently.

Use alternative methods of communication

At its simplest, this is about encouraging the child to show us what they mean. We can demonstrate how to point or lead us to a place or object of interest. It could involve using photographs, symbols and other visual labels within the classroom – this is particularly important for enabling the child to indicate basic needs such as asking to use the toilet. If they respond to questions with phrases and longer sentences which are hard to understand, consider giving the child a choice of modelled words. Some may benefit from a signing system such as Makaton or you could make up your own personalised signs and gestures to accompany certain key words. For any type of system, start with items or routines which truly motivate the child (thereby making them more likely to copy the sign and eventually the word over time). It will be essential for all adults to use gestures in a consistent manner.

Adapt your own style of communication

Even if we don’t fully understand what the child is attempting to communicate, we can use our eyes and mouth to show genuine enthusiasm about what they are saying. We may need to consciously slow down our rate of speech and produce words at a slow and steady pace. This can provide an effective model for their own speech. Make sure that your mouth and face are clearly visible, by getting down to the child’s level or bringing toys and objects close to your face. However, we should be mindful of children with social communication needs who may find eye contact very uncomfortable. When replying to what the child says, resist the urge to overtly correct their speech – simply repeat back what they say with the speech sound errors corrected so that they have lots of exposure to effective production. So “It’s a big tar!” is repeated as “Yes, it’s a big car!”.

Play games

As with most difficulties, we can reduce stress by injecting a sense of fun and humour into situations. Imitation games are a great way to do this. Whether it’s face-to-face or in a mirror, we can encourage the child to copy different faces and sounds. It will be important to help them to become aware of sounds associated with different activities and environments. We can make animal and vehicle noises during their play or go listening for sounds in the playground. Nursery rhymes offer lots of opportunities to model sounds. We can also use claps or jumps to break down trickier words into clear syllables.

Look for context

The more we know about the child’s strengths, interests and motivators, the easier it will be to decipher what they are communicating. Consider spending time observing the child’s play and their social interactions. Identify which toys and activities they gravitate towards and any words or phrases which they consistently use. We’ll be more likely to “tune in” to this language if we recognise the patterns within the child’s communication. Liaising with parents is vital for children with unclear speech, as they spend so much time with the child that they have often learnt what certain words and phrases mean in certain contexts. Establish a home-school communication book, as a means of learning about the child’s family, pets, favourite toys and TV shows, recent outings, etc. All of this information can be helpful in making show-and-tell and circle time activities more inclusive and engaging.

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