Mandy Grist

It is what you do, AND the way that you do it! Ensuring a communication supportive environment

I CAN’s speech and language specialist, Mandy Grist, details the significance of creating environments that are conducive to the development of children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

With the summer holidays now upon us many people will find themselves heading outside for adventure and activities. As well as providing the possibility of some much longed for sunshine (fingers crossed!), this also presents us with the chance to take a look at our environment and ask ourselves ‘what opportunities does this provide for supporting children’s language skills?’. This is what we mean when we talk about a ‘communication supportive environment’ – the ways that we can make sure our surroundings help to develop children’s language skills. This isn’t just limited to what goes on when you’re indoors… the principle of taking an idea or strategy for supporting communication and applying it in any situation means that actually the opportunities are endless.

Why is it that ensuring a communication supportive is so important? Well, it’s robustly evidenced that the environment that a child is in can make a significant difference to the ways that they develop language. Research tells us that there are strong links between a child’s communication environment and their later language skills. Things like the number of books available to children, the frequency of visits to places like the library, the range of activities they take part in, and the number of toys available are all important predictors of a child’s expressive vocabulary at two years. In fact, the evidence tells us that this is actually more important than the background they come from and does have an influence on how well they do at school. So, without a doubt, the communication supportive environment is crucial.

However the idea of communication supportive spaces can mean different things to different people, so what do we know about making sure environments work well for communication? This is something that was investigated as part of the Better Communication Research Programme, when they developed the Communication Supporting Classroom Observation Tool. The research concluded that a communication enabling environment in schools covers three aspects:

  • The environment – the physical environment and learning context such as how tables are grouped, whether there are good displays that children can talk about
  • The role of the adult supporting language interactions – the way that adults talk to children
  • Opportunities for supporting language interactions – the structured opportunities to support children’s language development

The tool draws together the themes of a communication supportive environment and the key elements of effective practice for supporting communication. So, bearing this in mind it’s worth asking yourself, are there any opportunities that I’ve missed that I could be using? Is there anything in my environment I could adapt so that there is more opportunity for communication: chatting, listening, storytelling?

 Anyway, back to the idea of the outdoor fun in the summer holidays… Outdoor activities provide brilliant opportunities for learning, interaction and language development. The Forest Schools approach, for example, gives children the opportunity to explore the natural environment and really is great for promoting language. You don’t however need to follow a set programme to create an exciting language, learning opportunity – after all any activity can be a communication activity. Whether it be a treasure hunt, following clues (‘search under the flower pot’) to find the ultimate treasure, a listening walk around the local area, noting down all the interesting things you hear or building a den in the woods and re-enacting ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ the main thing is to have fun and use the communication supportive strategies that we know are so important. Just don’t forget, a communication supportive environment is not just about the physical changes you can make, but also about the way you use language and interact. So, our summer challenge to you is…seize every opportunity and make every environment a good communication environment!

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