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What aspects of communication do young people find most challenging?

A blog by Maxine Burns, Lead Communication Advisor

One feature of I CAN’s original Talk about Talk programme that helped it win this year’s Shine a Light Award for innovation from The Communication Trust and Pearson Assessment, is the way it involved young people right from the word go. Teenagers helped to design and then co-delivered a short course to explain to relevant organisations what it’s like to have a communication difficulty and simple things adults can do to help. The training proved very successful: organisations in the youth justice system (police, probation etc.) said it really helped them interact more effectively, and the young people involved made significant progress in their communication skills.

Now we’re adapting and piloting the programme in secondary schools and hoping for similar impact on young people’s communication skills. This time the training will be delivered to local employers and will focus on ways to ease the transition into the workplace for young people who have difficulties with communication. The short course delivery is again shared between school staff and students, and the tone is fast-paced and interactive with audience teams competing for points. We’ve updated a couple of the exercises to make them more relevant to the secondary school context. For one, we surveyed a group of over sixty students with a range of communication difficulties, asking them to rank the problems they experienced with ten features of communication such as ‘people talking too fast’ or ‘explaining something to a group’ . From this, we’ve crunched the data to produce a list ranging from what’s hardest to what most find relatively easy. During the training, audience teams will win points according to how accurately they guess this ranking order.

The result has been fascinating – and wide ranging. The outcome is short on academic rigour but this small straw poll still challenges some popular assumptions we have in the speech, language and communication community. For example, on the issue of ‘asking questions when you’re not sure’, classroom staff who feel like they’re always encouraging students to ask questions and never making headway may be surprised to hear that students with communication difficulties rated this the least problematic. Likewise, ‘people using big words’ should be a dead cert for a position amongst the three hardest aspects – but it languishes mid ranking. There are numerous studies (Stothard et al, 1998, Spencer, S. 2010) pointing to the significant problems young people with communication difficulties have with vocabulary knowledge – so why the difference in our student sample? Something that has intrigued us in our evaluations is the difficulty young people with poor communication have in rating their own performance accurately. In our recent evaluation of Secondary Talk, we found a strong negative correlation between language levels and confidence communicating – i.e. the weaker the language skills the more confident they are.

So our unexpected results in our survey ranking communication difficulties could possibly be explained by the fact that this information comes straight from source, with no adult mediation. So many of the students responding didn’t know what they didn’t know (the ‘unknown unknowns’ in Rumsfeld’s famous speech). For example, ‘talking to different people in different ways’ attempted to prompt thoughts about problems with language register – our ability to change our style of talking depending on who we’re talking to, and the situation. But many students’ responses rated this easy. It’s probably not even on their radar even though we know this is a problem in many schools. I imagined one young man casually shrugging his shoulders as he said it was not a problem and that he ‘talked to them all in the same way’!

As so many progress measures and evaluation tools involve self-rating, we’ve been keen to find a way of getting more accurate data from students themselves. We have developed prompts for both staff and students, clear descriptions of what a number 1 or 5 on a scale actually is, and scenario-based support. And a key part of Talk about Talk Secondary involves supporting young people to self reflect.

There are many more talking points in the final ranking from our survey but in case any readers of this blog are lucky enough to find yourselves attending one of our pilot schools’ Talk about Talk Secondary training workshops, I’ll resist the urge to commit any more spoilers!