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The helicopter launch pad

Karen Hayon and Evi Typadi find that turn taking, listening and concentration of children with communication needs, including those with English as an Additional Language, take off when the child-centred helicopter lands in their school.
When education practitioners can plan and create conversations containing sustained periods of shared thinking with their children, these lead to better language outcomes (Sylva et al., 2003). A classroom is rich in opportunities for developing communication skills through sharing and repeating rhymes and books, news time in small groups, show and tell, oral story telling, hot seating and role playing. We are keen to address the declining verbal skills of children starting school (Palmer, 2006) by building on what schools already offer. As part of an Early Years Advisory Team early intervention project, we investigated whether the whole class helicopter story telling and story acting technique could develop childrens confidence, curiosity, creativity and communication, particularly those with English as an Additional Language and those who were shy or withdrawn or who had language and communication needs. We also hoped the technique would enable practitioners to reflect on the quality of their interactions as, when adults use strategies such as observing carefully, waiting, listening and letting children take the lead, childrens self-esteem and language development are enhanced (Girolametto & Weitzman, 2002). The helicopter story telling and story acting technique was originally devised by the educationalist Vivian Gussin Paley. The ethos is completely child-centred and child initiated. Children dictate their stories to an adult or older child (buddy). Words are written down exactly as they are said. Pronunciation errors are corrected but grammatical errors are not. The scribe repeats the words of the child while writing them down. This ensures they have heard the child correctly, slows the pace of the childs dictation and makes explicit the link between the spoken and written words. The scribe then reads the story back to the child and confirms all characters /objects to be acted out. The child decides what character they want to play (if any), and how many children will form a house or a bus for example.

plore themes from different viewpoints for example, boys can be mummies and girls Action Men. The helicopter is an excellent way of including children with English as an Additional Language, speech, language and communication needs, or those who are selectively mute. Toys or objects can be set out for the children to manipulate and the adult can comment on what the children do with the toys and make this into a story. Stories can also be made of a childs single word utterances when they look at a book with an adult. Each part can be checked with the child who can nod or shake their head to indicate agreement. The story can then be read back at the end and characters underlined. One nursery and five reception classes in six schools were involved in our project. The schools were in inner city London, in areas of high deprivation and four had a proportion of 70-95 per cent of children learning English as an Additional Language. We worked with the whole class, with the practitioner as client, and had no caseload responsibilities for individual children. Parents were informed about our visits and video consent was obtained. Parents were otherwise not involved except through informal reporting of progress of targeted children. The input was provided over eighteen months for six weeks (two schools), four months (two schools) and five months (two schools). All practitioners in the target classes, including teachers, nursery nurses and Learning Support Assistants, attended an INSET training session at the beginning of each block of sessions. The speech and language therapist introduced the technique in the first session and the teacher in each class ran all subsequent sessions (a minimum of six). At the end of the first session we identified children whose Personal, Social and Emotional (PSE) skills and language development needed investigation and support. We targeted 24 children, between three and five in each setting. Nineteen were learning English as an Additional Language and of these 18 lacked confidence in using English at school. In addition one of these had a suspected communication disorder and one a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. Two other children had specific language impairment.

Figure 1 PSE Scores in Baseline and Final Story Acting Sessions

Figure 2 Language Scores in Baseline and Final Story Acting Sessions


Different viewpoints

For story acting the whole class comes together. The child who has dictated the story has already chosen their character and the other children are taken in turn from their place around the stage to act out the others. This means that children can ex-

In consultation with education colleagues, we devised a termly observation sheet to record the childrens progress through the Foundation Stage in the areas of confidence and imagination in acting, turn taking, attention and listening and in narrative skills such as providing a sequence of story events, statement of character, place and time and use of connective and book language. This form incorporated many Early Learning Goals from the areas of PSE, Communication, Language & Literacy, Creative Development and Physical Development. It was used as a baseline and final measure and completed by the teacher and therapist following the initial and final videoed story acting sessions. We introduced the adult interaction targets in three schools as the project evolved.

We set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time related) targets for children with language delay/disorder within the helicopter framework and noted progress in terms of achievement of targets. The children were awarded points: 1 for achieving the Beginning box, 2 for Developing, 3 for Consolidating and 4 for Achieved (figures 1 and 2). All 24 children made progress of at least 2 points over all PSE measures assessed, with an average progress of 5 points. Two children made substantial gains from 6 to 16 and 3 to 12.5 points respectively. Of the individual PSE measures children made most progress in turn taking, followed by confidence to participate and ability to listen and concentrate. All but three target children made progress on at least one of the language measures assessed. The average progress per child for language measures was 2.3 points. The results for children with English as an Additional Language show an average gain of 4.4 25


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Case example 1 Muna

Muna (5;3 years on 19/7/05) came into the reception class in late May 2005. Previously she had been at home as no reception place had been available. Her first language is Arabic. Her first story on 9/6 was a listing of objects around her and items in a dolls house she was playing with, with her teacher. She was very keen to dictate a story to her teacher after seeing how stories could be acted out earlier in the initial circle session. She became even more enthusiastic about story telling and story acting after seeing her own story coming to life as a play that afternoon. Muna told five stories: 09/06/05 Dad, mum. Brother, sister, baby tree, car, cat, dog, water sand, house, pen, table, chair bag, school, teacher, tea 28/06/05 Mum, brother, sister, ball, cat car eat. Look! Van, duck, rabbit, hand, ears, eat. Go to he! You bag. 05/07/05 Daddy, mummy, baby, sister, ball, cat, dog, television, van, custard when you eat daddy and mummy. Shes putting the baby in the chair and eat. And spider and Capri Sun what you drink. Book in a story watch. Talk, duck, snake, finish. 12/07/05 Daddy, mummy, big sister. Mummy and daddy morning in car. When you go morning go in swimming pool. Go in water. Sister go in splashing, splashing. Mummy and go and splash the sister. And baby crying and daddy play on him computer and the floor she play on floor baby. And splashing she go to sister to baby. Daddy laughed and sister and baby play. And look and mummy laughed and sister laughed to baby. 19/07/05 Daddy, baby, mummy, home. Baby play in water. And watch, look on TV. And sister play in game. Daddy play with sister, play in claps and in car. Me go in the water. When you go in water splash! Go in train and mummy and daddy and baby and sister go play in the fly. Listings gave way to a list plus short phrases with occasional verbs and moved to descriptions of a coherent sequence of events. Four of the five stories were acted and this may well have contributed to Munas rapid development in confidence and linguistic skills, as the teacher demonstrated excellent progress on her interaction targets which gave Muna the space and time to bring her story to life as she wanted it. By the final session Muna was so confident that the teacher would refer back to her and give her time to think how the words should be acted, that she was spontaneously showing her classmates how to stand as a TV, how to work on the computer or how a mummy would move. The acting-out would also have reinforced for Muna, via gestures, facial expression and body postures (children bending pretending to be a ball or a TV), the meanings of her words and this perhaps fed into her week on week rapid progress.

Case example 2 Patrick

Patrick (5;3 years) is statemented with full-time support. His first language is Lingala and he has a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder. He was observed using the weekly observation prompt sheet. Patrick was enthusiastic about the helicopter from the beginning. He got up willingly from the circle in the baseline videoed session in two separate stories and stood as a prince and princess for the duration of each story. Following the baseline session an initial target around story telling was agreed to develop Patricks use of spoken language. The target was to tell a story of at least 10 words in 90% of opportunities by the end of the block. He achieved his first target by week 3. In the third session (28/02/06) Patricks story, dictated to the teacher, was acted out: Dinner, reading, feel, sneeze, dinner, dinnertime, this going where? , cow, pigs, sheep, whats that dog, a lamb, finished. Patrick was on the stage by himself and smiled broadly throughout. He spontaneously acted reading, feeling and dinner and copied the audience when they were encouraged to show pigs. Patrick got up enthusiastically and acted in three other childrens stories in this session, as a dog, as one of some horses and as a tree-chopper, moving his hands in a chopping motion with no prompting. Patricks achieved target was changed to focus on his looking and listening skills in the acting sessions. From the fourth session on he sat in the circle next to his teacher, but without direct support from his Learning Support Assistant. His new target was to participate in actions as part of the audience in 90% of appropriate opportunities for 2 stories by the end of the block. In the fourth session (07/03/06) Ps second story was acted: Baby, Dinner, Dinnertime, What King? Fly, Whats that? Dancing, Finger, Scary, Sleeping, Wheres going? Going to [indistinct], Its wake up, House, Whats that? Finished. Patrick got up spontaneously and acted the story by himself with the teacher encouraging the audience to participate with we need to help Patrick out on this one. P spontaneously put his hands on his head to indicate a Kings crown and acted dancing. He followed the suggestions of the audience for the other actions. Patrick was also very enthusiastic about acting in four other stories, well exceeding the target set. He acted as a fish, showed walking, pricked his finger and acted as a prince (all following the lead of other children). He spontaneously made a scared face when acting as a fish having a shark swim towards him. When sitting in the circle at the end of the session however his attention waned and he participated only fleetingly. In the fifth session (14/03/06) Patricks third story was acted: Dragon, Bus, Cakes, Oh no! Sleeping Patrick again acted by himself on the stage. He spontaneously acted as a dragon, eating cakes and sleeping. The teacher explicitly highlighted how Patrick was in charge of how his story was acted with Watch Patrick and copy what he does, and, Look! Patricks showing us sleeping like thislets all do it like this. Patrick acted in one other story and came up to form a castle easily. He did not participate as part of the audience but he was unwell that day. In the final session (21/03/06) Patricks fourth story was acted: My name is dragon, [In acting Patrick wanted to change this to King] dinner, doggies, Natty and Amaro, Elena, Marion, Georgina, Alexander. Finished. Patrick spontaneously acted as King and showed dinner by eating from the floor like a dog. The teacher was careful to highlight for the other children how they should watch how Patrick wanted dinner to be acted and follow his idea. Again, Patrick beamed as his story was brought to life and for the first time his classmates joined him on the stage to act as themselves. Patrick also joined in spontaneously and acted in the story which came after his, pretending to be trees cutting themselves down. He also spontaneously acted as part of the audience, pretending to cut his finger, putting a plaster on it and sleeping. In the final three stories however he did not participate as part of the audience. Overall, Patrick achieved his second target of joining in as part of the audience in 90% of appropriate opportunities for the duration of two stories in the final three sessions. He had thoroughly enjoyed and been fully included in a whole-class activity and had had the meanings of words reinforced by acting out his own stories as well as from acting out others. Patricks confidence grew markedly, boosted by his teachers increasing skill in letting Patrick know he was in charge of how his story was acted out. By the end of the block he was listening attentively for the duration of at least two stories and his Learning Support Assistant no longer needed to sit with him to help him focus. In total Patrick acted on 33 occasions over the five weeks, 16 times spontaneously.



How i points (range 2 to 9.5) for PSE and an average gain of 2 points (range 2 to 4.5) for language (see case example 1). The technique makes explicit both the links between the spoken and written word for older children in story telling and the link between the action and spoken word for younger children in the story acting. Thus a child dictating a story using single words had much greater weight given to the acting-out of each word to aid reinforcement of meaning. Children in one school also gained a better understanding of the meanings of words describing feelings. Their teacher noted: The helicopter has definitely had a big impact on the childrens ability to understand and act out such themes. Before, I had to give them a script, eg. Reem, say: yes you can share. Now they spontaneously act. One teacher was very impressed by how the helicopter encouraged children with English as an Additional Language to talk. The length of stories increased in all classes and children who would speak very little in other situations, for example at a community clinic speech and language therapy appointment, regularly gave stories of one A4 page. The technique also provides a way in for many children who have been reluctant to write and read. One child, who had not wanted to make marks on paper through most of his reception year, pretended to scribe another childs story and then asked the therapist if she would tell him a story so he could scribe it. Children enjoyed writing their own name and the stories provided meaningful material to read. Eventually some children in reception classes attempted to write their own stories to be acted out. Practitioners also commented that the termly observation sheet provided strong evidence for, and links with, English as an Additional Language record keeping in the Early Years. The termly sheet allowed practitioners to track children at a glance and could be included in the childrens profiles. shifted our philosophy in fundamental ways. The helicopter gives us the means to be much more truly childcentred. We have learned that interventions that improve the communication skills of specific children can be embedded in a classroom technique which most practitioners find easy to incorporate into weekly planning. The children are more comfortable than they often are in a clinic setting yet we can still make rigorous observations and formulate SMART targets. We have been fortunate to work on a project without a clinical caseload and within a collaborative Local Education Authority Early Years Advisory Team, but learning from the project can apply to clinic working. The project has reinforced the vital importance of using positive interaction strategies to obtain a better picture of a childs strengths and needs which leads to higher quality samples of spontaneous and connected speech. Perhaps we could also consider the toys we use to reflect what children (especially boys) have at home such as superhero toys, remote control cars and pop-up-tents. We strongly feel the project findings underline that referred children attending Early Years settings need to be seen in their nursery context for valid and maximum information to be obtained, even if this means a restructuring of priorities and more time devoted to working in and with nurseries. A session introducing the helicopter into a nursery group, when applicable, would be an excellent use of speech and language therapy time and even an initial session may well yield an excellent language sample from an identified child. In addition the speech and language therapist will gain information about a childs ability to take turns and listen in a large group and their confidence and ability to act a role. In future we would like to involve parents more in the helicopter, perhaps via invitations to visit the sessions or via coffee mornings so that parents could be encouraged to tell stories to their children and write childrens stories down at home. A colleague has run story telling and story acting sessions in a library drop-in for parents and their children in which parents gradually become scribes for their childrens stories (Tyrwhitt, 2006). We continue to offer the helicopter to private and voluntary settings as well as schools as a tried, tested and successful option for joint working. It is appealing and effective because its many different facets can meet the needs of every child in the class. Telling stories is a very basic human drive and acting them out makes sense of them and rounds off the experience. This is particularly important for children with English as an Additional Language and speech, language and communication needs. Children feel (and are given) ownership within the broad framework provided by the helicopter and their home world of Spider-Man, motorbikes and fairy castles is thus allowed to enter the classroom. This freedom of expression for the children coupled with the ability for adults to record real progress makes the helicopter a potent tool. Karen Hayon and Evi Typadi are speech and language therapists with Westminster Primary Care Trust, email Karen.Hayon@westminster-pct.nhs.uk.


The two children with specific language impairment made gains of 4 and 5 respectively for PSE measures and 4 and 2 respectively for language. The children with suspected communication disorder and Autistic Spectrum Disorder (see case example 2) made gains of 5 and 5 for PSE measures and 2.5 and 0 for language respectively. Notably, these children made identifiable gains in PSE skills on a par with all the other targeted children using an inclusive, whole class technique. Language gains were more variable but in actual fact specific language areas are not targeted in the helicopter. This links back to its ethos as a medium for children to express themselves confidently and as a tool for adults to identify which areas of language to develop. We set adult interaction targets jointly with the teachers at the three schools visited later in the project. Each teacher identified two or three targets from: 1. Waiting for the child to act their role 2. Referring back to the child whose story it was for ideas about how to act a given role 3. Involving the audience. All teachers achieved their targets. Teachers reported increased confidence in taking stories from children in the classroom and were able to give children with English as an Additional Language and less confident children the time they needed to express themselves. They also attributed increased confidence in leading the story acting sessions to regular opportunities to discuss with the project therapists how to conduct the sessions and how to involve all children. All practitioners were very enthusiastic about continuing to run helicopter sessions. The target children made the largest gains in turn taking, listening and concentration skills. Turn taking was fostered through waiting when in the circle and also by the notion of a turn on the story list for story telling. One practitioner noted, the technique keeps a whole class of 30 children attentive because no one knows what will happen next and what the next story will contain. As part of the helicopter children are encouraged to clap and give compliments to each other about their stories. In one school, specific praise was modelled by the teacher (eg. I really liked the way you showed us a slide.) As a result the teacher noted the children were now complimenting each other at other times.


The use of the technique enabled practitioners to focus on positive interaction strategies at both story telling and story acting stages. After taking down a story, an adult could reflect on their own body language, how long they waited, and how they observed, smiled and let the child take the lead. They could praise and ask questions only tentatively and sparingly eg. Anything more? During story acting they could model active listening, waiting and curiosity. Waiting was a key strategy. It was difficult for some of the adults involved to wait initially but, once mastered, this was a powerful strategy to transfer into other classroom activities. As speech and language therapists the project has

Girolametto, L. & Weitzman, E. (2002) Language facilitation in child care settings: A social-interactionist perspective, in Enhancing Caregiver Language Facilitation in Child Care Settings. Proceedings from the Symposium. October 18. Tornoto: The Hanen Centre. Glascoe, F.P. & Sturner, R. (1999) Surveillance and Screening, in Law, J., Parkinson, A. & Tamhe, R. (eds.) Communication Difficulties in Childhood. Oxford: Radcliffe Publishing. Gussin Paley, V. (1991) The Boy Who Would Be A Helicopter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Palmer, S. (2006) Toxic Childhood. London: Orion. Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P ., Siraj- Blatchford, I., Taggart, B. & Elliot, K. (2003) Effective Provision of Preschool Education Project (EPPE), Summary of Findings. London: Institute of Education (www.ioe.ac.uk). Tyrwhitt, P. (2006) Personal communication.