Supporting Children with Speech Sound Difficulties in the Classroom

"I know she wants to tell me something, but I just don't know what she's saying", "He always gets upset when I can't understand what he's telling me", "He's just being lazy; he can say it when I remind him".
Have you ever said that to a colleague, or heard that said, about a child?

I've mentioned this fact before, but I'll mention it again because it's so important...

In the UK, it is estimated that around 10% of school age children have some form of Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN). This can include difficulties with speech sounds, using and understanding words and sentences and social communication skills, as well as associated conditions such as autism or ADHD. That's approximately 2-3 children in every classroom! (Afasic. (January 2017)).  
SLCN comes in many forms; in this post we are going to focus on speech sound difficulties and how you can help.

What are Speech Sound Difficulties?
Speech Sound difficulties can present in a variety of ways in different children; I'm not going to go into specifics in this post, however generally a child's speech may be delayed for their age, or it may be disordered.

  • Delayed speech: this means that the child may be following typical developmental patterns with the errors they make, but they're making them past an age we'd typically expect.
  • Disordered speech: this means that the child is making errors that aren't following a typical developmental pattern, or they're using a wide range of errors that make them difficult to understand.
Deciding whether the child's speech is delayed or disordered is the job of a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) or a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP). However as teachers/educators it is important for you to consider whether the child is difficult to understand, particularly when talking out of context or to less familiar listeners, and whether you need to refer them for additional support.

What's the impact?
Put simply, the classroom environment can be a difficult place for a child with speech sound difficulties; there's lots of new vocabulary to learn and lots of people to talk to. There are negotiations to make during play, and explanations to give when things go wrong.  The child can have difficulty communicating their needs and wants, and difficulty with spelling and writing skills. All this can impact on their educational attainment and confidence. 

A child with speech sound difficulties may be accessing support/have previously accessed support from a Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) (also known as a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) in the US). It is important to follow any advice that you've been given by the SLT/SLP previously, and if you have concerns about a child's speech or language skills, you should discuss this with their caregivers and refer them to your local Speech and Language Therapy service for an assessment.  However this post provides some simple strategies you can use to help a child with speech sound difficulties in your classroom!

How You Can Help:

1. Repeat words back as they should sound, but avoid telling the child they have said it wrong. Give the child a clear repetition of how the word/sentence should sound; this is called modelling. Modelling is most effective when you repeat the target word a few times:

When you're modelling the word to the child, there is no expectation for them to repeat it (as they're likely to make the same mistake again). So the focus is for them to listen to you saying the words clearly.

2. Cue the child in to listen to particular sounds in words.  For example, if a child says '"tar" instead of 'car', you could say: "Yes, it's a 'car', 'car' has a 'c' sound at the start, can you hear it? Car". 
If you're using this strategy, remember to use the letter sound, rather than the letter name, for example it's a "k" sound, not "kay", or "sssss", rather than "ess".  There's also no need for them to repeat the word/sound after you've said it; they just need to listen to you say it clearly.

3. Have conversations with the child where you know the topic: It is often easier to understand a child when you know the context. By giving them opportunities to communicate and be understood, you will be boosting their confidence to communicate. Setting up these conversations also provides a useful opportunity for you to model the target words clearly to the child. 

4. Encourage other means: If you are struggling to understand the child, reassure them that it is OK, and encourage them to show you, point, draw, and/or take you to the thing they are talking about. 

5. Ask their peers: Generally, children can be better at understanding each other than adults. If you're unsure what the child is telling you, see if a peer can help you to understand. When you've worked out the message, be sure to model the words clearly back to the child, for example:
Child: "I want my but bad".
Peer: "He wants his book bag".
Adult: "oh you want your book bag! Yes you can have your book bag. Let's get your book bag".

6. Ask questions about what they're telling you: If you can't understand the child's message, ask them simple questions such as "are you telling me something about this room?", "are you telling me about your work?".  Once you've understood what the child has said, repeat back the main points so they know they have been understood, and they hear the words said clearly. 

7. Develop listening skills:  Encourage the child to listen to sounds around them in their environment. Play listening games where they identify environmental noises (such as a telephone ringing, the doorbell etc.) and games where they identify noisy vs quiet sounds, long and short sounds etc. Encourage the child to listen to letter sounds in words if they are at an age where they can do this with relative ease. 

8. Do sound awareness activities. For example you could:
Go on a sound hunt: If you know the sound errors the child is making, (for example they replace 'k' with 't', so they say "tar" instead of 'car') you could go around your classroom/school and look for things that begin with the 'k' sound.
Or you could make a speech sound scrapbook, which I've talked more about in our post here.

9. Clap out syllables: Encourage the child to clap/stamp/beat out the number of syllables in a word. It is often more engaging for a child to start with familiar word/names, such as their own name, or family/pet names. It is also useful to begin with words of 2-3 syllables, and then to practise clapping out 1 syllable words.  Clapping out syllables is helpful because the child hears the separate parts of the word said clearly, and it can be easier for them to try repeat the word when it is segmented.

10. Blame yourself: If you haven't understood a child, blame your "old ears" for not hearing properly, or tell them that you didn't have your "listening ears" switched on.  When you take the blame for not understanding them it can help preserve their confidence and can make a child more willing to repeat themselves.

I hope you find that these practical strategies can be easily applied in your classroom; hopefully they will help you to support a child with speech sound difficulties. However as I have said before, if you have concerns about a child's speech, language or communication skills, it is important to discuss with their caregivers and refer to your local SLT/SLP service. 

Have you got any other strategies that you use in your classroom to help children with speech sound difficulties?  I'd love to hear about them, drop me a comment below!

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