The empty chair

Most of the children I teach have some form of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). They find it hard to express their ideas and they have limited understanding of spoken language. Some of my pupils are working at a three or four word level and find putting a sentence together a big challenge. Structured speaking and listening activities are a vital part of all my lessons and it’s important to give everyone the opportunity to take part in successful interactions.

An activity that works again and again is The Empty Chair. I first saw this being used by a colleague and it was so simple and effective that I’ve used it regularly ever since. It’s effective when just starting with a group and it can serve as a quick warm-up with a group that already know each other.

The basic format goes like this: arrange chairs in a circle, making sure there is one more than the number of pupils in the group; pupils sit in the circle; the pupil with the empty chair on their right must ask another pupil to come and sit next to them; repeat until everyone has asked and everyone has moved in response to another pupil’s request.

Sounds simple. That’s right, but for pupils with severe SLCN the activity provides lots of opportunities for strengthening their communication skills. I ask the pupil’s to start by thinking who they want to ask. The next step is for them to look at the person they want to ask, aiming to make eye contact to set up the exchange. They are then asked to use the person’s name and ask them to come and sit in the empty chair. I emphasise the importance of the use of “please” – if the pupils don’t ask politely, the person they asked is allowed to refuse and remind them to remember their manners. In most of the groups I teach, the speaking is supported by Makaton signing and this, combined with the simple format, makes it achievable for all pupils. As you would expect, good eye contact and good speaking and/or signing are reinforced with lots of praise.

The Empty Chair is a really useful activity because it needs no preparation and it can be scaffolded or extended as appropriate to the needs of the pupils.

What simple activities do you use again and again?

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