Language Revelation

I was in a training session today that gave me such a revelation.
One of those I-see-the-world-in-a-different-way-now moments – that’s how much it rocked my world.

The trainer, Carly Biggam from ARK, set us up in groups of three: one speaker, one listener and one observer. The activity was very simple and perhaps it was because of the simplicity that I didn’t see Carly’s intentions coming.

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It’s probably best if I show you some videos.
Here are my colleagues, Miss Rhodes and Mr Lomas. All Lomas had to do was speak about where his family came from for 30 seconds to a minute. All Rhodes had to was listen. All I had to do was watch Lomas’ body language.

Press play.

Did you see what I saw?

Lomas had great hand gestures, his posture was open and he made a lot of eye contact.

So far nothing particularly light-bending.

Next they switched roles. Lomas was to listen to Rhodes talk about her family’s origins while I watch her body language. The only difference was that she couldn’t say ‘he’, ‘she’ or any word with ‘work’ in it. She also wasn’t allowed to pronounce an ‘s’ sound. Seaside, sausages and sensational were definitely off limits.

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Before you press play and watch what I saw, bear in mind that both Lomas and Rhodes have degrees from the top two universities in the country.

Did you see the difference?!

As I watched Rhodes talk about her family I noticed something very odd. She clearly couldn’t find the words to use and she wasn’t going long before I could see she was uncomfortable, anxious even. She wasn’t gesturing as usual, she moved backwards and forwards a bit and she couldn’t hold eye contact. What was going on?!

And that’s when Carly’s learning intention came and bowled me over. What I was seeing were physical manifestations of what was effectively a speech and language problem.

Suddenly my mind was racing through the faces of my pupils who do exactly the same – they find it hard to look you in the eye, their movements are pronounced and they look pained when stuck for words. Behaviours that had been easy, I once thought, to put down to an attitude or emotional problem turned out to be downstream of a speech and language difficulty.

In an instant I came to understand what so many of our pupils face all the time.

I kep thinking back to all the times I’d got it wrong with my pupils. They weren’t giving me attitude when I asked them to explain their maths answer but couldn’t. They weren’t being impersonal by looking away, they were ‘looking’ for the word to use. Their responses weren’t down to an anger problem, it was frustration at their struggle for expression.

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Now watch Rhodes talk about the experience. As well as seeing that she is back to her usual articulate self, you’ll see how it made her feel.

What was so clever about this innocent little exercise was that the same outcomes were replicated with 10 other groups of adults in the room. There was no doubting that speech and language problems, even forced ones as in this activity, have a profound impact both on the person trying to speak and on the person trying to make sense of them.

Carly went on to teach us many other useful things about the four main language difficulties that people have (pragmatic, grammatical, vocabulary and speech) and smart ways to adjust what we say and the way we say it to our SLCN pupils*. It was a particularly valuable training session, especially for a maths teacher.

Above all, I learned that I should do a better job of listening with my eyes and watching with my ears.

Disclaimer: I didn’t have a camera in the training session itself so the videos you see above were reshot later in the day. I should say that Rhodes’ difficulties were more pronounced the first time I saw her do the exercise but there was no acting the second time round in front of the camera.

* SLCN – Speech, Language and Communication Needs

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