Early Communication strategies: using video analysis to support teachers working with preverbal pupils

Anderson, C. (2006) British Journal of Special Education, 33(3), 114-120.

This article examined interactions between teachers and pupils, and looked to see if the communication strategies employed impact on interactions. Beveridge & Hurrell (1980) found that teachers could maintain an interaction by immediately responding either verbally or non-verbally or could discourage pupils by ignoring or not responding to an initiation. Nind, Kellett & Hopkins (2001) observed that teachers with a wider range of ‘motherese’ techniques tended to be more successful in engaging students.

Aims and Objectives: The purpose of the research was to identify strategies teachers and pupils used during interaction across three aspects:

1. The number of turns pupils and teachers took during interactions.

2. The language function strategies used most frequently to initiate and respond.

3. Average words & average information carrying words used by teachers and pupils.

Methodology: 8 teachers and 12 pupils participated in the study. The teachers experience in working with pupils with learning difficulties ranged from under a year to over 18 years. The pupils ranged in age from 5 to 16 years old, and were at the earliest stages of communication development, functioning at or below the ‘two-words together’ level of language. 28 video-taped sessions were sampled purposively with 36% of the videos were by the author’s supervisor; giving an inter-observer reliability of over 0.9.

The videos were transcribed for both verbal and non-verbal behaviours and then coded using qualitative analysis for:

  1. Turns – a verbal element or utterance and non-verbal elements, or both.
  2. Initiations – a conversation or causing a change in topic or subject shift.
  3. Responses and strategies – these are turns where a reply is made to an initiation which relates to the shared subject or slightly extends it, or checks that the turn was understood by the listener.


Turns – Teachers took the lowest number of turns when Adopting Intensive Interaction principles than when using the “traditional” teacher-dominant approach. When looking at the same pupil with different teachers the results indicate that the teacher’s interaction styles determine how much of the conversation is shared between the two partners.

Strategies – The strategies used most frequently by the teachers to initiate an interaction were questioning, commenting, or gaining the pupil’s attention.  Teachers used commenting, gaining attention or repeating/simplifying most to respond in an interaction.  The pupils initiated interaction most frequently by showing interest, commenting, and vocalising.  Their most frequent responses were by showing interest, making an affective response, or by comments.

Word counts – For the teachers the number of words used ranged from 0 (teacher adopting Intensive Interaction principles) to an average of 4 words. However the number of words used varied based on the individual abilities of the child, e.g. for an easily distractible child the teacher used less words and relied more on Makaton signs with verbal cues.


The results indicate that the manner in which a teacher communicates with someone with a learning disability does affect how the interaction progresses and the level of engagement from the individual.  Adopting teaching styles to match the pupil’s level of understanding and idiosyncrasies allows for greater participation from the pupil and perhaps a more rewarding experience for them.

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