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

Sarah Spencer

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

Tel: +44 (0) 114 222 2411
Fax: +44 (0) 114 222 2439

email : sarah.spencer@sheffield.ac.uk


In September 2011, I joined Human Communication Sciences as a lecturer of developmental speech, language and communication difficulties. I have a diverse range of teaching, research and administrative roles.


My current research examines adolescent speech, language and communication difficulties, developing innovative approaches to support and intervention. I am currently leading a study to investigate adolescent vocabulary skills. This is in partnership with Billie Lowe, Dr Judy Clegg and Prof Joy Stackhouse. We are developing a psycholinguistic approach to vocabulary assessment which can be adapted and used as a therapy outcome measure. We are also designing a short course in boosting vocabulary and word learning skills in small groups, combining psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic approaches. We are involving the adolescents in the design and evaluation of the intervention, using a mixed-method, delayed intervention design.

In addition, I am developing an innovative online learning resource for professionals working with young people with severe and complex speech, language and communication difficulties. This resource uses videos of young 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.

Recently, I was awarded a Faculty Research & Innovation Award for £10,000 to research the use of condition-specific outcome measures with paediatric speech and language impairment. This new project is in collaboration with Prof Aki Tsuchiya, Dr Tim Gomersall, Anthea Sutton, and Hasan Basarir (from ScHARR) and Dr Judy Clegg (from HCS).

In 2012, I was part of the Sheffield Crucible Research Training Programme, a scheme which develops expertise in designing high-impact research within trans-disciplinary teams. Leading from this, I am currently working on the Sandpit project, a collaboration between researchers and artists linked to Furnace Park. Also in 2012, I was awarded funding for a Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) project, which I completed with a BSci student Frances Perkins. This examined the role of communication within youth offending teams.

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 am working on the associations between these GCSE outcomes, their language profiles from when they were 14 years old, and measures of socioeconomic status.

In 2011, 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.

My research interests include:

  • Interventions and evidence-based practice for developmental speech, language and communication difficulties
  • Including service-users in developing, designing and evaluating interventions
  • Speech and language difficulties of older children and adolescents
  • Working in contexts of 'social disadvantage'
  • Facilitation of effective collaborations with education and families
  • Sociolinguistics and speech and language therapy
  • Service-level evaluation
  • Identity and language, particularly related to a) social class; b) adolescence; and/or c) speech, language and communication difficulties.
  • Qualitative and mixed research methods


I am dedicated to high-quality, research-lead teaching (I am currently completing the Certificate in Learning and Teaching (CiLT) course). I enjoy teaching on a range of modules including: 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.

In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I am admissions tutor for our BMedSci undergraduate course, and co-ordinate interviews as part of the UCAS selection process with Ms Sheila Corry.

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).

I am currently involved in Rachael Black’s PhD project, looking at disability and social inclusion (co-supervised with Dr 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 continue to work in partnership with ICAN and The Communications Trust.

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.


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.

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.

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

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