Sal McKeown reports on Talk of the Town, a project looking at how schools can better support their pupils’ speech, language and communication needs

In the UK one child in five is eligible for free school meals and this has become the ‘poverty marker’. It is one of the criteria used to judge a school’s success, to measure improvement and is the basis of many research projects that focus on closing the attainment gap.

The outlook is grim according to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF):

  • Over 1.4 million (21%) children aged 4-15 are eligible for free school meals in this country. They will start primary school behind their better-off classmates — and this attainment gap will increase throughout their schooling.
  • The latest figures show just 37% of disadvantaged children achieved five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, compared to 63% of all other pupils. Children from poorer backgrounds do worse on average than their wealthier classmates whichever type of school they are in.
  • The attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is particularly stark compared with other OECD countries.
  • Young people with poor educational attainment are much more likely to end up not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Founded by the education charity the Sutton Trust, with a grant of £125m from the Department for Education, the EEF is often linked to the Pupil Premium. This is additional funding provided by government in the UK for disadvantaged children, encompassing those who are registered as eligible for free school meals or have been in local council care for six months or longer.

In fact, the EEF is more international than this would suggest. It accepts applications for funding from around the world and will test innovative ideas from different countries to see if they can raise attainment for the poorest children. The Visible Classroom 2015, a project run by the University of Melbourne and captioning company Ai-Media UK, is currently seeking teachers from Years 5 and 6 in 140 English primary schools to reflect on ‘teacher talk’ and develop their classroom practice.

While many of the projects look at literacy or mathematics — these being considered by governments and international organisations as reliable measures of school success — EEF programmes are now looking more at the role of spoken language and verbal interaction.

The Teaching and Learning Toolkit says:

Overall, studies of oral language interventions consistently show positive benefits on learning, including oral language skills and reading comprehension. On average, pupils who participate in oral language interventions make approximately five months’ additional progress over the course of a year.

Some studies undertaken with younger children and pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds show an improvement equal to six months’ teaching.

Working with The Communication Trust

The EEF has worked  on a number of projects focusing on speaking and listening. One of the most recent is Talk of the Town (ToTT). Following on from a pilot in 2012 funded by the Department for Education, the EEF agreed to fund The Communication Trust (TCT) to deliver a larger scale study in 64 primary schools in three local authorities with 20 schools in Wigan, 34 in Hull and 10 in Stevenage/North Hertfordshire.

A diagram to show the components of the ToTT model.

A diagram to show the components of the ToTT model.

Supporting early identification

Every school in the ToTT project had a designated Speech and Language Therapist (SaLT) working in school one day a week, who took the lead on assessment, identification and in-service training.

Schools implemented a red, amber, green system, known as ‘RAG rating’; the purpose of this was to enable teachers to reflect on where they felt a child was at with their SLC skills in relation to their age. ‘Red’ was for those children with complex or severe difficulties, ‘Green’ was for children whose skills were perceived to be at an age-appropriate level, while ‘Amber’ was for children who were perceived to be below the expected levels for their age.

At first, staff were not as accurate in identifying children needing help and missed a significant number, but as time went on staff became more confident at recognising issues

Training and supporting staff


Teachers appreciated having a supportive and experienced professional in the classroom.

The SaLTs ran half-termly training sessions on topics that would be relevant to every teacher in every classroom such as children’s listening, teaching vocabulary, supporting talk in the classroom. They also worked alongside staff in the classroom to model strategies and approaches scaling down support as staff became more confident. This support was well received by staff:

If I’d had more intense training without the modelling, I don’t think that would’ve been so effective.

Said one Teaching Assistant (TA).

Teachers appreciated having a supportive and experienced professional in the classroom: She was very focused and because she’s a SaLT she really knows what she’s looking for and how to tell you in a positive way as well. I don’t feel when I’m being observed by the SaLT that she’s making a judgement on me. (Classroom teacher).

SaLTs were very positive about the impact of this method of working:

The turning point for me was being in class and demonstrating the universal activities and resources, and supporting teachers to implement them into their lesson plans. This was the light bulb moment for many teachers, as they suddenly became more aware of their students’ difficulties, for example which children struggled with group work, which students had poor vocabulary knowledge, and could see how the ToTT resources supported children’s learning of these key communication skills.

(SaLT, quoted in Communication Trust Case Study).

Embedding practice across the school 

Each school had a Communication Lead for the programme. Ideally they were also members of the senior leadership team (SLT) so they could drive change, but in some cases ToTT was only one of a number of initiatives in school and had to fight for its place. Some governing bodies had a lead governor for ToTT who monitored progress.

Senior leaders played a huge role in the success of ToTT. When talking about a head teacher one SaLT said:

When school management do not attend the training sessions, teachers can often see it as another INSET, rather than as a real opportunity to change school practice. In one school the head teacher was always present at each of the half‐term staff training sessions and, so staff looked as a team for ways to see how the strategies and advice given could be adapted to suit the school’s pedagogy.

Building on established approaches


SaLTs provided speech, language and communication resources for use with all children throughout the school.

This included resources to support the use of evidenced approaches in the classroom such as building vocabulary with ‘Word of the Week’ and ‘Word Webs’. They also implemented targeted interventions: Talking Time for early years, I CAN’s Talk Boost for KS1, a specifically designed KS2 Intervention and a Phonological Awareness intervention (which applied to all phases). Additionally, through the universal staff training programme, the SaLTs further supported topics such as classroom talk, working on explanations and narratives, helping children to listen and building vocabulary.



Senior leaders played a huge role in the success of ToTT.

Pupils with delayed language were profiled in six areas: understanding, vocabulary, sentences, narrative, speech and social interaction, using The Communication Trust Progression Tool. The pupils then participated in one of the four interventions as appropriate: Talking Time for Reception and EYFS, Talk Boost for KS1, the KS2 Spoken Language Intervention or the Phonological Awareness Intervention, before they were reassessed. Each child was given a raw score that was then converted to a mark out of fifteen in each of the six areas.

Following initial support from the SaLT, these assessments were generally carried out by TAs. Whilst the scores are non‐standardised, the process has helped schools take their first steps in establishing more systematic ways of monitoring speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

  • Amongst those involved in the Key Stage 2 intervention, ‘narrative’ was the area in which the most pupils made progress (70%); ‘vocabulary’ was the area in which the fewest increased their score (55%). Endpoint scores were significantly higher compared with baseline scores on each dimension.
  • Amongst those involved in Phonological Awareness, ‘narrative’ was also the area in which the most pupils made progress (77%). ‘Sentences’ was the area in which the fewest increased their score (55%).Understanding, vocabulary and speech were significantly higher at endpoint compared with baselines.
  • Amongst those involved in Talk Boost, ‘narrative’ was also the area in which the most pupils made progress (75%); ‘vocabulary’ was the area in which the fewest increased their score (61%). Endpoint scores were significantly higher than baseline scores in each area.
  • Amongst those involved in ‘Talking Time’, ‘Sentences’ was the area in which most pupils made progress (95%); ‘vocabulary’ was the area in which the fewest increased their score (51%). However, this still represents a significant increase.

(Taken from Talk of the Town: What can we learn from the way Talk of the Town implemented its whole school approach to Speech, Language and Communication?)

A separate independent evaluation of the project funded by the EEF, explored the impact of the Talk of the Town approach on attainment in reading. Although there was no overall impact on reading comprehension during the four terms of the project, teachers were clear that they hoped to see improvements in reading and writing in the longer term. Teachers and senior leaders also reported positively on the wider benefits of the programme, with 88% of staff confirming that ToTT was an important addition to the provision in their school.

The ToTT model was originally developed and delivered by The Communication Trust, hosted within I CAN — the children’s communication charity. I CAN will be sharing information on the ToTT model in the Autumn school term this year.


About Contributors

Sal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of several books, most recently Brilliant Ideas for using ICT in the Inclusive Classroom. Prior to this she was a lecturer and in the special needs team at Becta, the UK’s former government agency for technology in education.

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