Meet Jonothan Wright
Jonothan Wright, I CAN’s Communication Advisor for Primary Years, talks about his passion for supporting children’s speech, language and communication and how schools can make small changes to support their pupils’.
Q. What inspired you to get involved in the speech, language and communication field as a career?
A. Two things mainly – a fascination with languages and the way language (any language) works; and working with children with special educational needs (SEN) and feeling that what you’re doing is directly beneficial to others. Early in my teaching career I was fortunate to work in a primary special school for children with a wide variety of needs.
That’s where I first really became aware of the range of difficulties that children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) can experience and finding ways of supporting their learning was an interesting challenge! I also found that, with slight adaptations to my teaching style, I could include specific therapy targets in my teaching to support the children in more ‘everyday’ therapy situations – which helped them to transfer learning from their 1:1 therapy sessions with Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs).
Q. What do you think is the biggest SLC/N issue facing primary schools today?
A. It’s great that schools are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of speech, language and communication (SLC) and the impact of SLCN on children’s learning and social / emotional development. Recent reports show that schools are getting better at identifying children with SLCN and Ofsted are now looking at how teachers are developing children’s communication skills.
However the issue is knowing what to do and how to support these skills, particularly in the face of other school development priorities and ever-tightening budgets. By its nature, SLC/N is an all-pervasive issue for schools – children don’t just use language for making speeches or debating. From my own experience, as well as recent school-based projects and research, a whole school approach is what’s needed.
This means school staff understanding what SLC is all about, providing the right kind of learning environment for children so that more children get the support they need through the way the curriculum is delivered. This is everyone’s responsibility and should mean that valuable resources (i.e. targeted or specialist level support) are used more efficiently for the children that need it most.
Q. What simple things can schools put in place to support communication?
A. Primary schools already do much to support communication so it’s about building on what’s currently in place. Very often staff members are not aware of the importance of a number of small strategies that can have a big impact. So things like a whole-staff discussion about strategies they use now can be a good starting point.
This will probably cover using visual resources to support learning, including vocabulary when planning activities and using talking partners. Staff may also think about their own use of language – how do they use questions, more tricky non-literal language or model language for children?
Q. Do you have any tips for schools that are considering how to meet their pupils’ communication needs further?
A. Start small – changes are easier to make when you only have to do one or two things. Work together – organise the staff into “buddies” – pairs who can agree on what change they might make and support / monitor each other in doing so.
Build it in – for any given strategy or approach, think about where and how it might fit into what you are already doing. For example with a new topic vocabulary, start your lesson with a 5 minute class sharing of what you already know about the word – including information about what the word sounds like, or what sounds are noticeable in the word, as well as words linking to its meaning. Not only does this help your assessment, it helps children to learn and remember new words.
Find out more about whole school development packages – I CAN’s Primary Talk offers training and / or accreditation to help schools develop further.
Q. What do you think are the most common mistakes made regarding communication in the primary years?
A. I know it’s a bit of a generalisation, but often SLC/N is just seen as the domain of the SENCO or speech and language therapist. Given the range of SLCN and the importance of communication skills, strategies as well as more specific individual targets need to be practised and embedded in class activities and other ‘real-life’ situations.
This means everyone needs to be involved. Equally, there’s no single ‘box of speech and language resources’ – any activity can be a language-based activity with the right support, focus and knowledge.
Q. What has been the highlight of your career so far?
A. As a teacher, I think I have been very fortunate to work collaboratively with many talented speech and language therapists, especially while I was based at I CAN’s Dawn House School – I know not every teacher can, and I have learnt a lot from them.
There have been many occasions when things have just ‘clicked’ for the children I’ve been working with – that ‘light bulb’ moment when all that hard work pays off.
I’ve also had many comments from parents who appreciate what you do for their child, and just how big an impact it has on that child’s (and the family’s) life. For example the mother who told me about her son with Autistic Spectrum Disorder; shortly after starting in our school, he no longer had to change into his pyjamas the second he got home each afternoon as his anxiety levels dramatically dropped when he realised he was at a school with people who understood him.