Bridging the communication gap in the classroom: Part 1

Written by: Carmen De Pablo López & Maria Breed | Published:
Image: iStock

In this three-part series, experts Carmen De Pablo and Marina Breed advise on speech, language and communication needs, and how we can identify and support students who need it

“Schools which ‘turn the dial’ on language and communication are able to turn the dial on a number of key school improvement priorities, from raising attainment to narrowing the gap and improving behaviour.” Jean Gross, Communication Champion, 2011

It is now 10 years since the government published The Bercow Report: A review of services for children and young people (0-19) with speech, language and communication needs.

The last 10 years have seen major changes: an overhaul of the education system, widespread reforms to the SEND system and changes to the health system.

Statistics from the Department for Education’s (DfE) January 2017 School Census show that SLCN is the second most prevalent primary need across all pupils who are on SEN support or with Statements or Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs).

In England, 21 per cent of pupils with SEN were identified as having SLCN as their primary need. Our local Plymouth context shows this percentage as high as 26 per cent. This figure establishes a professional commitment to ensuring that knowledge and interventions regarding SLCN are an active mission at Tor Bridge High, where we are based.

The Communication Trust and I CAN among others offer first-class support to education in the identification of SLCN and guiding with intervention strategies.

Research shows that poor communication has a negative impact on educational achievement: between 50 and 90 per cent of children with persistent SLCN go on to have literacy difficulties, and only a very small proportion reach expected levels of English and maths at the end of their primary education.

Two-thirds of students with deep speech, language or communication needs have serious behavioural problems and mental health needs.

Year-on-year employers rate communication as the top skill they look for when employing school-leavers, but research has consistently shown that they find these skills lacking in new recruits. We must remember that those students who go through education with their SLCN unidentified will suffer most – more than half of young people in young offender institutions have SLCN.

Although poverty, economic deprivation and narrow chances of social mobility do have a big impact on the development of communication skills (acquisition of vocabulary, development of expressive and receptive skills), SLCN are not exclusive to certain geographical or socio-economic areas.

So, let’s analyse the three components under the umbrella of SLCN: oracy, language and communication.


Oracy has been around since ancient Greek and Roman times. Politicians, philosophers and even charlatans have appreciated the need to learn to expose arguments in a clear, interesting and engaging way in order to enrol followers and supporters.

Speech is about transmitting meaning without a minimum of hesitation and repetition; it is about speaking clearly so that others can understand what you say.

“Speech refers to speaking with a clear voice, in a way that makes speech sound interesting and meaningful.” (The Communication Trust, 2011).


Language is the next step. When we put words into the correct order in order to transmit messages or hold conversations that make sense. Language employs those individual speech units into a working machine that produces meaningful oral exchanges.


Finally, communication takes these exchanges into understanding and being understood, it is an emotional exchange where non-verbal codes help and enrich those exchanges: facial expressions, double meanings, gestures, etc. Being Mediterranean, I (Carmen) am used to using gestures to accompany my words – even when I am on the phone and the listener can’t see me! Having English as an additional language, I must make sure that what and how I communicate is correct, that I understand and I am understood, otherwise communication breaks down.
SEND and other challenges

SLCNs are usually found in combination with other difficulties, such as autism spectrum conditions, dyslexia, ADHD, developmental language disorder, and other specific learning difficulties.

Establishing the links between SLCN and other learning difficulties is like looking at a spider web: children and young people find reading and writing difficult; find it difficult to speak clearly; cannot always understand what people say; cannot say what they want to, as they cannot explain or describe; they suffer social, emotional and behavioural problems as they end up frustrated, withdrawing and giving up. It is often a vicious circle, but one which can be unlocked.

There are other challenges too. A few years ago I attended a meeting to quality-assure the Personal Education Plans of looked-after children in Plymouth. Another attendee had a key-ring with pictures of faces showing emotions and the word for the emotion underneath. Coming from a secondary background, I found this funny, so I asked her – her response astonished me and opened a whole new world of needs: “Many of our Reception children can’t talk, so we carry these cards to show the emotions and their names. It is easier for their parents to stick them in front of the television, rather than talk to them.”

The digital world has opened and also closed some very valuable doors to skills development. That day was heart breaking.

Identifying SLCN

Early help is crucial, but it is a general misconception that early help means in the early years. In fact it means to be able to identify any issues as early as possible, no matter when in the development of the child or young person these may arise, and engaging effective support (the sooner the better).

Some universal pointers for identifying students with SLCNs can be found in the 2011 report Let’s Talk About It from the Communication Trust. Its analysis of speech, language and communication is a good starter to help you identify these needs. It says that children or young people with SLCN may:

  • Have immature social skills.
  • Behave or sound like a younger child.
  • Know and use fewer words.
  • Talk in shorter sentences.
  • Struggle to listen well.
  • Miss what is said to them.
  • Do the wrong thing.
  • Show very literal understanding (jokes, idioms, sarcasm, double meanings, unsaid logical sequences are all missed on them).
  • Have limited eye contact.
  • Have poor turn-taking skills and difficulty with starting and ending conversations.
  • Have difficulty staying on topic in conversation
  • Have problems using language to negotiate in discussions or arguments.
  • Have difficulty sequencing sentences to make a meaningful narrative, such as explanations and stories.
  • Have problems learning new words.
  • Have problems finding the right words at the right time, also known as word-finding difficulties.
  • Have difficulty understanding complex sentences.

Language development and acquisition matches the “steps” or “milestones” of speech, language and communication. Indeed if children and young people have difficulty understanding language, then communication is a big problem.

Blank, Rose and Berlin (1978) developed levels of questioning, known as the Blank Levels. The approach encourages us to simplify and restructure our language to a level at which the child can understand.

Blank Levels are another method to ascertain the stage of language development and they also give you a chronological guide for the language stage – a child may be 12, but may have a language development stage of a three-year-old.

Blank Level 1

The child is looking at the object and answering very simple questions – What is this? Where did you go? Who is that? What are you doing? At this level, the child responds to things in their immediate environment. Use short questions that require them to respond to key items and events (The Blank Language Approach, Communication Interaction Team, Plymouth). This is the equivalent to the “speech” stage, and it is where 18-month to three-year-olds should be.

Blank Level 2

Thinking about the groups that words belong to, describing things and explaining what we use objects for. When looking at a picture, placing objects (between, next to) and answering questions such as “show me something that keeps us warm”, “show me something we find in the living room”. This is still in the “speech” stage, with language emerging, and in general it is where four-year-olds should be. Often, children and young people with SLCN can find it hard to work out the groups words belong to: for example, a cat is a cat, why are you calling it an animal?

Blank Level 3

Language becomes more complex, and four to five-year-olds should fall within this stage. This requires the child to use their own knowledge to make basic predictions, assume the role of another, or make generalisations. They begin to understand higher-order thinking skills – What will happen next? How do you think he feels? How do I make a sandwich? How are these the same?

Blank Level 4

This is where full communication takes place and where we would usually find five-year-olds and older. This stage involves problem-solving, predictions, solutions and explanations. At this level, language is used to justify, to find the cause of events. I am sure you can already surmise that this level is going to be extra hard for children and young people with SLCN, because they cannot explain their answer, predict or because they lack the imagination to predict and problem solve.

However, there are a myriad of strategies and support to help professionals (not just teachers) to unlock the language and communication intricacies for these children and young people. In the next two articles in this series, we will explore these further.

  • Carmen De Pablo López is head of inclusion and Maria Breed is language support centre manager at Tor Bridge High School in Plymouth. The second and third articles in this series will publish in SecEd on February 1 and February 8 ,2018.

Practical workshop

Carmen and Marina will be presenting a practical workshop at SecEd’s Ninth National Pupil Premium Conference on March 23 in Birmingham. The workshop is entitled “Identifying and tackling speech, language and communication needs to raise Pupil Premium outcomes”. Visit


  • Let’s Talk About It, The Communication Trust, 2011:
  • The Bercow Report – A Review of Services for Children and Young People (0-19) with Speech, Language and Communication Needs, DCSF, 2008 (no archived):
  • The Language of Learning: The Preschool Years, Marion Blank, Susan Rose & Laura Berlin, Grune & Stratton, 1978.
  • Special Educational Needs in England, January 2017, Department for Education statistical bulletin, July 2017:

Further information


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