Teachers’ talk styles: communicating with learners with severe and complex learning difficulties

Nind, M., Kellett, M. & Hopkins, V. (2001) Child Language and Therapy, 17 (2), 143-159.

Some Background: the authors of this paper argue that the communication difficulties experienced by those with severe or profound learning disabilities have been typically attributed entirely to the learning disabled person, and therefore interventions are usually aimed at enhancing their communicative abilities. In this paper, Intensive Interactionis conceptualised as ‘transactional’ in nature, and as such difficulties are seen as arising from both sides of the communication process.

The authors note that research studies indicate that parents of disabled children tend to adopt a more directive approach to communication, whereas in contrast, mothers of typically developing children adopt a less directive style of interaction labelled ‘Motherese’, which uses slow, simple language with an exaggerated use of pitch. It is suggested that ‘Motherese’ is designed to maximise the engagement level and understanding of the child. ‘Motherese’ is also noted to employ vocalisations in unison with the child, use imitations of vocal pitch, rhythm and duration and promote the use of turn-taking, techniques similar to those used in Intensive Interaction

The Method: this study examined the interactive talk of teachers engaging in Intensive Interaction, and the degree to which ‘Motherese’ was used to engage their learners. 4 teachers were each asked to submit 2 video clips of them practising Intensive Interactionwith a partner. These videos were rated for evidence of ‘Motherese’, with the authors also identifying if some particular features of ‘Motherese’ were more common than others.

The Results: the results showed that in all of the 8 videos ‘Motherese’ was demonstrated, although the amount used varied considerably between participants. No particular feature of ‘Motherese’ was found to be evident in all of the videos, suggesting that the use of the Motherese style is individual to each interactor.

The teachers who were identified as most successfully engaging their interactive partners were noted to employ a wide range of elements of ‘Motherese’ in their interactive repertoires (although these elements were not used on every occasion). ‘Contingent Vocalisation’ or ‘joining-in’ was identified as a core feature of ‘Motherese’, and it was indicated as being more naturally used than other aspects. 

Some Discussion: this research found that ‘Motherese’ was an important component in the more successful interactions observed between teachers and learners with severe or complex learning difficulties.

From this the authors concluded that the differentiated interactive styles highlighted were evidence that the teachers were influenced by their interactive partners, and modified their own interactive approaches accordingly. The authors believe that such a finding implies that the source of any identified communicative difficulty does not lie entirely with the learning disabled person. Instead they identify a shared or ‘transactional’ model as a more accurate representation of the communication difficulties experienced by people with severe or profound learning disabilities.   

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