Dr Sarah Spencer


Human Communication Sciences, School of Allied Health Professions, Nursing and Midwifery

Senior Lecturer

+44 114 222 2411

Full contact details

Dr Sarah Spencer
Human Communication Sciences, School of Allied Health Professions, Nursing and Midwifery
362 Mushroom Lane
S10 2TS

I am an academic and speech and language therapist with clinical and academic expertise in children’s speech and language disorder, as well as programme lead for the BMedSci Speech and Language Therapy undergraduate programme here in the Department of Human Communication Sciences.

My clinical and academic work addresses educational inequality and injustice related to language, social class, and special educational needs. My research addresses adolescent language disorders, speech and language therapy interventions, and social class and language. I am interested in mixed methods research, co-producing research with non-academic partners, and qualitative research within healthcare settings.

I am an Associate Editor of the International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, the affiliated journal of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. I am also the editor of Supporting Adolescents with Language Disorders, published with J&R Press

Research interests

Adolescent language disorders

This project investigates adolescent vocabulary skills and evaluates the impact of an intervention programme to support adolescents to learn academic words such as ‘discriminate’ and ‘evaluate’. The project is a partnership with Dr Billie Lowe, Dr Judy Clegg and Prof Joy Stackhouse. The project includes a short intervention programme for boosting vocabulary and word learning skills in small groups, combining psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic approaches, and the materials are freely available here.

Language and social class

This project aims to challenge ‘deficit views’ of working class children’s language skills, by bringing together multiple perspectives on language use and how language is used to show relationships to people, places and communities.

This project is a collaboration between myself, sociolinguist Dr Emma Moore (School of English Language and Linguistics), and civic partner Tracy Brown from The Manor and Castle Development Trust, as well as a group of young people from a local youth club. We collected different types of data – photographs, artwork, audio-recordings, maps, focus group data and stories about language.

The results are 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.

Lived experiences of language disorder

I am working with Dr Judy Clegg and Dawn House School and the Small Talk Clinic here in HCS to investigate lived experiences of language disorders from the perspectives of children, young people, and families.

Previous research

Language and social disadvantage in schools

My PhD thesis is titled ‘Language and socioeconomic inequality in adolescence: abilities and attitudes’. The thesis discussed issues such as: associations between social class and vocabulary knowledge, the complexity of language assessment, and the need to address undetected and unsupported language disorders in secondary schools.

The project highlighted young people’s communicative expertise and the role of language constructing style, stance, alignment, and social distance. I am interested in how this competence can be valued within classrooms and used as the basis for collaborative language development work. Following the completion of my PhD, participants sat their GCSE exams aged 16 years and I examined 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).


Journal articles


Conference proceedings papers


  • Spencer S, Dockrell JE, Bakopoulou I, Law J & Lindsay G () Developing a communication supporting classrooms observation tool. RIS download Bibtex download
Research group

Current PhD students:

  • Sam Calladine, developing and refining a therapy approach for very young children with speech difficulties associated with cleft palate (with Hilary Gardiner and Ray Wilkinson).
  • Rachel Bear, using Conversation Analysis to investigate the feedback strategies parents use in phonological therapy (with Hilary Gardiner and Ray Wilkinson).
  • Mary Hartshorne, evaluating the impact of an intervention to support communication skills in secondary schools (with Judy Clegg).
  • Kim Turner, investigating the profiles of language abilities of young offenders in a custodial setting (with Judy Clegg).
  • Indri Hapsari, identifying the prevalence of speech and language difficulties in preschool children in Jakarta, Indonesia (with Judy Clegg).

I also supervised the following students to completion of their studies:

  • Rachael Black, using participative research methods to research the experiences of parents of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (with Judy Clegg).
  • Rafizah Badar, developing and evaluating the use of the Communication Supportive Classrooms in Brunei (with Judy Clegg).
  • Jo Rees, looking at the impact of cleft interventions using Therapy Outcome Measures (with Pam Enderby and Nasrin Nasr).
Teaching activities

I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. 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.

In addition, I have developed an online learning resource for professionals working with adolescents and young adults with severe and complex speech, language and communication disorders. 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, Suzanne Duffin, staff from Freeman College and Dr Alex Peng and Prof Miguel Nunes. We received a Collaborative R&D and Partnership Award to develop a prototype of this teaching and training resource.

Professional activities and memberships
  • Associate editor, International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders.
  • Professional member of Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and Health and Care Professions Council.
  • Member: RCSLT Clinical Interest Group for Older Children and Young Adults; International Association for the Study of Child Language (IASCL); British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL).
  • Manuscript reviewer for national and international journals such as Language, Speech and Hearing Services in Schools; PLOS one; Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties and the International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. Grant reviewer for ESRC and Nuffield Foundation.
  • Editorial consultant, International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

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 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.