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More than words: Supporting children using alternative forms of communication

Imagine yourself in a destination where you don't speak the language (let's say it's somewhere warm and sunny!) You want something to eat and drink and need to find the nearest toilet. What do you do to solve this? How do you feel?

As adults with good problem-solving skills, we will find ways round this - we can try to learn some phrases, find out what to say, use our smartphones. Finding our way around often involves trying to pick up clues from our environment (is there a picture of the toilet and a sign?) and use gestures to get our message across.

Children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) are still learning how to solve these problems and work out what's going on and how to join in. They often need to use more than words to do this; this includes gestures, signs and pictures. Together these approaches are known as alternative and augmentative communication (AAC). Find out more about different approaches.

Actions, gestures and signs

Using gestures and actions is a really important way of communicating with young children who may not have the words to express themselves yet and for children who have speech, language and communication needs. Gestures, signs and actions (or mimes)  can help because:

  • They give an extra clue about what we're saying so it gives the same information as a word in a more visual way.
  • Signs and gestures last longer - a word disappears really quickly and if you missed it, or didn't understand it, then you don't know what's going on. A sign or gesture is longer and draws a picture of what we're saying.
  • Children often need  to copy gestures and actions to help them to learn and practise new words. Many of us learn by doing and watching. Gestures and signs can help us learn about words and build up a picture in our minds.
  • Sometimes by using gestures or signs while we speak to reinforce our message it helps us to slow down and this can give a child more time to take in what you're saying.
  • They can help a child to get their message across if they are struggling to find the right word or if their speech is very unclear.

Using pictures and symbols

The benefits of using pictures (these can be photographs and symbols) are:

  • They last even longer than a gesture or sign so children can come back to a picture to remind themselves.
  • It is a more concrete way of sharing information. For example, if a child isn't sure what your gesture or sign means they can be lost but if you have a photo of the object, person or activity it is more accessible. Find out more in I CAN's  factsheet.
  • Pictures don't rely on everyone knowing signs or gestures so they are more easily understood by everyone.
  • You can personalise it - using pictures of children's worlds help to make it meaningful to them and you can visual support together with them and their families.

Reflecting on practice

Children with speech, language and communication needs rely on a communication supportive environment. Some aspects to think about are:

  • How do you tune into a child's communication skills? Every child is different and has a different response to the world. We need to work out how they respond, what they like and don't like and how they let us know this. How does a child communicate with you? Let you know that they want something or ask for something? How much time do they need to respond to something?
  • What opportunities can you create for children to join in? Help them to join in during songs - you may need to make the actions with them by holding their hands.
  • How do you use visual support in your setting?

There is much more to communication than the words we hear and say. We can support children's language and communication needs by incorporating these approaches into our practice and making the most of the communication opportunities.

About the Author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 

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