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Mum of five, Sara Shah, 42, had thought everything was okay with her youngest son's language development until she completed a routine questionnaire as part of the Talking Together assessment for two-year olds focusing on his speech and language development.

Her young son was surrounded by lots of conversation by being part of a large family, but instead of helping his speech it was having the opposite effect. Here we look at how the Better Start Bradford’s Talking Together project helped before and during COVID-19.

Sara’s story

I have five children, two girls and three boys. My eldest four are aged from 22 to 12 and my youngest son, Musa is two. It wasn’t until I completed a routine questionnaire from the Talking Together team that I realised that in terms of language development, Musa wasn’t where he should be.

The Talking Together team rang me to ask if I wanted them to do some work with Musa as he had scored low on the word count and I agreed that we needed a bit of extra help. They said that they would visit us at home once a week for an hour and show us different techniques to help develop Musa’s language through play.

I learned as much as Musa did!

As the weeks went on, I realised that I had learned as much as Musa did. You think that as a mum of five children you know everything about parenting, but I certainly didn’t. As a family, we realised that we did a lot of Musa’s communicating for him. He would start trying to tell us something and one of us would talk for him and not give him that extra time to get his point across.

We all learned that we had to adapt our communication to help Musa develop his. We stopped just giving him things when he pointed to them. If he pointed to an apple, I would have normally just given it to him, but I now give him a chance to say the word. Or, I will pick the apple up and an orange and say, ‘would you like the apple or the orange?’ to reinforce the words.

We didn't realise that 'turn-taking' was something that Musa had to learn

One session focused on ‘turn-taking’, this was something that as a family came naturally to us, but for Musa this was something that he needed to learn. It’s just something that you don’t think about – you just take it for granted. We were shown techniques that focused on Musa when it was his turn and how the importance of patience plays a key role in language development – not only from Musa’s perspective, but more importantly ours.

It was important to turn everything distracting in the background off

Before our sessions with Talking Together, Musa would get very frustrated when trying to answer our questions because he simply did not have the language skills to be able to reply. We were encouraged to start from the beginning with questions that only need a response in the form of ‘yes or ‘no’ so he could pick up the vocabulary slowly. It was also important for Musa to have my focused attention, this meant me turning everything distracting off in the background such as the television and getting down on the floor and communicating at his level.

I loved that each week the team focused on something different. I couldn’t wait to put everything I was learning into place and share it with the family. It was quite comical and really lovely listening to my other children adapting how they changed the way they spoke to Musa into ‘sing-song’ tones, and it had such a positive impact on his development.

Musa now sings nursery rhymes all of the time

The last two sessions had to be delivered over the phone because of COVID-19, but they were still really helpful and I took on board the advice I was given and put it into practice immediately after the phone session finished. It was really beneficial to continue the sessions during this worrying time and it was easy to do over the phone. One of the sessions was all about how as humans we naturally comment on negative behaviour more than positive behaviour. Now, every little thing that Musa now does is commented on by us all in such a positive way and you can see how happily Musa responds to this.

Musa now sings nursery rhymes all the time. He was awake the other morning at three singing one of his nursery rhymes, which was a joy to hear despite the early hour!

Every new word Musa learns is simply wonderful

We all learned so much through the Talking Together project as a family and I would fully recommend the project to other families. We thought with all of the conversation going on in the house Musa would have come on a lot more, but it had the opposite effect. It was suppressing his speech. Musa’s speech is not still where he needs to be, but he has made massive progress from where he was. Little steps are like big steps for us – every new word is wonderful to hear from him.

About Talking Together

Talking Together provides language assessments to all two-year-olds in the Better Start Bradford area. Following these assessments, families with two-year-olds who are shown to potentially benefit from extra support are then offered one-to-one sessions at home over a six-week period. These sessions aim to help parents and carers engage their children on an ongoing basis in activities, play and conversation that helps communication and language development.

The types of activities promoted through these sessions are shown to help improve children’s language skills and ability to interact positively with people around them. This can help children be better prepared for starting school and have a long-term impact on their literacy skills.