Dr Sarah Spencer, PhD, BMedSci, MRCSLT, Reg HCPC

Sarah Spencer

Department of Human Communication Sciences
University of Sheffield
362 Mushroom Lane
S10 2TS
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0) 114 222 2411

email : sarah.spencer@sheffield.ac.uk


In September 2011, I joined Human Communication Sciences as a lecturer. My teaching and research is related to developmental speech, language and communication difficulties.


My current research interests are: 1) Adolescent speech, language and communication difficulties and 2) Language and social class.
Adolescent language difficulties: I recently completed a study investigating adolescent vocabulary skills and developing an intervention programme to support adolescents to learn academic words such as ‘discriminate’ and ‘evaluate’. This was in partnership with Billie Lowe, Dr Judy Clegg and Prof Joy Stackhouse. The project resulted in a short course in boosting vocabulary and word learning skills in small groups, combining psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic approaches. This was evaluated using a mixed-method, delayed intervention design.

I am currently editing a book for J&R Press Supporting Teenagers with Language Difficulties. The book includes chapters from leading researchers in adolescent language difficulties from around the world and will be available in Spring 2017.
In addition, I am developing an innovative online learning resource for professionals working with young adults with severe and complex speech, language and communication difficulties. This resource uses videos of people talking about their experiences as a basis for reflective learning for professionals. The project is collaborative, and the team involves Dr Judy Clegg, Carla Rohde, Freeman College and colleagues in the Information School (Dr Alex Peng and Dr Miguel Nunes). We received a £38,000 Collaborative R&D and Partnership Award to develop a prototype of this resource. Long-term, we are planning to apply for funding to develop this further and to make the resource available online. We are also working towards completing detailed evaluations of the impact of completing the training.

Language and social class: I am currently working with Dr Emma Moore (School of English Language and Linguistics) on a project funded by an Arts Enterprise grant. This project works with a group of young people from a local youth club and other civic partners across the city to examine associations between space, language and identity. We are now analysing the audio and visual data from the project. The results will be used to respond to persistent concern about ‘poor spoken language skills’ and the increased risk of educational failure related to social disadvantage within policy, the media and research. Despite having rich understandings of the social functions their language performs in their own communities, young people themselves are rarely engaged in the research process. Our project addresses this by working with young people as researchers.

My current research builds on previous work on language, education, social disadvantage and adolescence. My PhD was awarded in 2010, titled ‘Language and socioeconomic inequality in adolescence: abilities and attitudes’. For my thesis, I worked with a group of 150 adolescents, collecting data on their own views of their language skills in addition to using standardized assessments to explore associations between language levels and educational outcomes. The thesis discussed issues such as: the complexity of language assessment, undetected and unsupported language impairment, and the need to involve adolescents in decision-making. It also examined adolescents’ communicative expertise and the role of language in identity construction and group unity. Following the completion of my PhD, participants sat their GCSE exams aged 16 years. I have recently submitted a paper examining the associations between these GCSE outcomes, their language profiles from when they were 14 years old, and measures of socioeconomic status.

Multidisciplinary collaborations: A central theme of my research is working collaboratively in multi-disciplinary teams. With education,  I worked on the project ‘Communication Supporting Environments: developing a tool for use in Key Stage 1’ (Part of the Better Communication Research Programme) with Prof James Law (Newcastle University), Prof Julie Dockrell and Dr Ioanna Bakopoulou, (Institute of Education). The research team developed an evidence-based tool for teachers to use to support communication development in reception, year 1 and year 2 classrooms. The observation tool is available as part of a report disseminating the project, published by the Department for Education here: Developing a Communication Supporting Classrooms Observation Tool.

In 2012, I was part of the Sheffield Crucible Research Training Programme, a scheme which develops expertise in designing high-impact research within multi-disciplinary teams. Leading from this, I worked on the Sandpit project, a collaboration between researchers and artists at Furnace Park which resulted in a book reflecting on the nature of research, art and community.
I am also interested in how speech and language therapists evaluate the impact of their work. A Faculty Research & Innovation Award for £10,000 enabled research with health economics colleagues into the use of condition-specific outcome measures with paediatric speech and language impairment. This project was in collaboration with Prof Aki Tsuchiya, Dr Tim Gomersall, Anthea Sutton, and Hasan Basarir (from ScHARR) and Dr Judy Clegg (from HCS).

Research interests

  • Speech and language difficulties of older children and adolescents
  • Language and social class
  • Speech and language therapy in contexts of 'social disadvantage'
  • Evaluating the efficacy of interventions and implementing evidence-based practice for children with speech, language and communication difficulties (including service level evaluations)
  • Qualitative and mixed research methods
  • Including service-users in developing, designing and evaluating interventions
  • Collaborations between sociolinguistics and speech and language therapy


My teaching covers: research methods (qualitative methods); participation and society; introduction to communication; development across the lifespan; developmental disorders of communication; speech, language and communication needs (SLCN); and SLCN in the classroom context. I co-ordinate modules related to speech and language therapy placements, and also have a role as a clinical assessor on a range of placement modules at masters and undergraduate level. Each year, I supervise undergraduate, masters and post-qualification (LACIC) level research dissertations.
I am interested in using online spaces and social media in relation to teaching, networking and research dissemination. My Twitter account is @SSpencerSALT (as is standard, all views posted there are my own and do not represent those of my employer).

Current PhD students:

  • Rafizah Badar, developing and evaluating the use of the Communication Supportive Classrooms in Brunei (with Judy Clegg).
  • Rachel Bear, using Conversation Analysis to investigate the feedback strategies parents use in phonological therapy (with Hilary Gardiner).
  • Rachael Black, exploring the experiences of parents of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities by using participative research methods (co-supervised with Dr Judy Clegg).
  • Mary Hartshorne, evaluating the impact of an intervention to support communication skills in secondary schools (with Judy Clegg). 
  • Marian McCormick, working with parents to support early language development (with Jenny Thomson).
  • Jo Rees, looking at the impact of cleft interventions using Therapy Outcome Measures (with Pam Enderby and Jane McCormack).
  •  Kim Turner, investigating the profile of language abilities of young offenders in a custodial setting (with Judy Clegg).

Professional Activities:

Clinical interest and expertise:

I am a specialist speech and language therapist, with a clinical interest in persisting and complex speech and language difficulties, particularly in older children and adolescents. I also have a clinical expertise in the multiple associations between language and behaviour and social outcomes. I have worked in a range of settings in the NHS and for the national children’s communication charity ICAN as a professional adviser. I was involved in ICAN’s Secondary Talk programme and worked with a variety of secondary schools to increase and develop whole-school approaches to language and communication. I was also part of The Communication Trust’s training for the youth justice sector, working in partnership with Dyslexia Action, ICAN and youth offending teams across England.
I work as a speech and language therapist with children and young people with speech, language and communication difficulties within the department of Human Communication Sciences and as part of my honorary contract with Sheffield NHS speech and language therapy services.


Gomersall, T., Spencer, S., Basarir, H., Tsuchiya, A., Clegg, J., Sutton, A., & Dickinson, K. (2015). Measuring quality of life in children with speech and language difficulties: a systematic review of existing approaches. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 50 (4), 416-435.

Dockrell, J. E., Bakopoulou, I., Law, J., Spencer, S., & Lindsay, G. (2015). Capturing communication supporting classrooms: The development of a tool and feasibility study. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 31 (3), 271-286.

Cheeseman, M. et al. (2014). NO PICNIC: Explorations in art and research, London: NATCECT & AND Publishing.

Spencer, S., Clegg, J., & Stackhouse, J. (2013). Language, social class and education: listening to adolescents’ perceptions. Language and Education. 27, 2, 129-143.

Spencer, S., Clegg, J., & Stackhouse, J. (2012). Language and social disadvantage: a comparison of the language abilities of adolescents from two different socio-economic areas. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 47, 3, 274–284.

Dockrell, J.E., Bakopoulou, I., Law, J., Spencer, S. and Lindsay, G. (2012). Developing a communication supporting classrooms observation tool. London: Department for Education. Retrieved February 2013 from: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/DFE-RR247-BCRP8.pdf

Spencer, S., Clegg, J., & Stackhouse, J. (2010). ‘I don’t come out with big words like other people’ Interviewing adolescents as part of a language assessment. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 26, 2, 144-163.