Speak up: how to help young students to overcome communication needs

Communication plays a huge role in many areas of our lives, from being able to speak to others and enjoy good relationships, to understanding changes in tone of voice over the telephone. According to communication charity I CAN, over one million children in the UK have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). These students often need additional help with improving their communication skills before they move on to the next stage in their lives.


A common complaint of employers is that young people lack the communication skills they need when entering the world of work. According to a survey by I CAN in 2015, more than half of the employers surveyed agreed that young employees’ communication skills were a problem within their organisation. Being able to listen, work well in a team and ask for help or further instruction if they haven’t understood something are just some of the skills organisations are looking for in their young employees.

If that’s the case for the majority of young people, what’s the situation like for those who have SLCN? A lot of emphasis is placed on communication development in early years settings, but it’s vital that provision and support are adapted in order to aid transition into adulthood.


Julie Anstey has more than 30 years’ experience as a speech and language therapist (SLT). She explains: “We
work with students and their families to identify functional and meaningful communication goals – ones that will
improve life chances and the quality of relationships. This could be something like having the communication skills to be able to travel independently, make friends, or follow instructions in the workplace.”

It’s recommended that the process of discussing future options begins before age 11 for most students. For young people with SLCN or learning needs, concepts like “growing up” and “becoming an adult” can be hard to grasp, so it’s vital to work with the child to focus on their aspirations and needs in a way they’ll understand. Avoiding jargon and acronyms, and going over phrases and words they may encounter in the workplace or in education are great starting points.


Schools and colleges can benefit from working with SLTs to devise programmes providing tailored support for each young person, such as working with feeder schools to assess upcoming students’ needs, upskilling staff in dealing with Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC), and liaising with day centre, housing and social care staff when it comes to moving on after college. As Julie says: “This work cannot be carried out in isolation. Our best successes have been where we’re able to work in collaboration with everyone involved.”

Ensuring teaching staff have specialist training in communication skills can have a huge impact on their ability to support students as they transition. There are lots of useful resources available on The Communication Trust’s website, such as videos, guidance, toolkits and research, which provide a good starting point.

A vital part of the work carried out by Julie’s practice – The Talking House – is ensuring that people around the young person understand the implications of having a communication disorder, raising awareness of the difficulties that person faces daily and how best they can support them.

“This may include providing strategies such as how to teach word learning skills or use visual support techniques to break down tasks so that the young person doesn’t have to rely on their memory,” explains Julie. She recommends that people involved in the young person’s life use clear, unambiguous instructions and set clear expectations, and ensure that the young person’s interests are included.TRAINING UP

I CAN has devised an assessment and training programme which practitioners can undertake and deliver within their schools. Talk for Work Profile helps staff assess the communication level that young people are at, while Talk about Talk Secondary is an intervention programme for students aged 13 to 16 to help them develop the communication skills they’ll need in the workplace.

Maxine Burns, I CAN’s speech and language adviser, explains: “In terms of the 12 communication skills we look at within Talk about Talk, including listening carefully, speaking clearly and changing the style of talking dependent upon audience, the students on our pilot trials made statistically significant progress. It was particularly encouraging that group skills and checking in when you don’t understand were key areas of progress, because those were issues that employers were concerned about.” As part of the course, students work together to devise and deliver workshops about communication to their peers and to local businesses, leading to better understanding of communication issues by employers and improved skills amongst the young people.

And finally, never underestimate the power a positive role model can have on a young person at this pivotal stage in their development. A few choice words from someone who’s been in the same situation, and the chance to ask questions and find out what worked for them, can make a huge difference in the young person’s confidence and ability to see what they could be capable of. Successful employment is possible with the right support, as Julie highlights: “One of our clients in particular stands out – a young man with complex needs (hearing impaired, learning difficulties and autistic). He went from virtually no functional language at all in year eight, to working in a café at the age of 19.” Now that really is something to shout about!