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

I am a speech and language therapist, with a clinical expertise in persisting and complex speech and language difficulties. In September 2011, I joined Human Communication Sciences as a lecturer in developmental speech, language and communication difficulties. My research covers adolescent language disorders, vocabulary skills and interventions, evidence-based practice in speech and language therapy and use of outcome measures, 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.

Current Projects

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. The materials for delivering this short vocabulary intervention are available free here. 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 Autumn 2017.

In addition, I am developing an 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.

Language and social class: I am currently working with Dr Emma Moore (School of English Language and Linguistics) on a project funded by a University of Sheffield 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.

Previous Research:

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 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).

Research Interests:

My two main research interests are: 1) Adolescent speech, language and communication development and disorder and 2) Language and social class. In addition, I am interested in:

  • 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)
  • Including service-users in developing, designing and evaluating interventions
  • Collaborations between sociolinguistics and speech and language therapy


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.

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:

  • Rachel Bear, using Conversation Analysis to investigate the feedback strategies parents use in phonological therapy (with Hilary Gardiner and Ray Wilkinson).
  • Rachael Black, using participative research methods to research the experiences of parents of people with profound and multiple learning disabilities (with Dr Judy Clegg).
  • 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).
  • Mary Hartshorne, evaluating the impact of an intervention to support communication skills in secondary schools (with Judy Clegg).
  • Jo Rees, looking at the impact of cleft interventions using Therapy Outcome Measures (with Pam Enderby and Nasrin Nasr).
  • Kim Turner, investigating the profiles of language abilities of young offenders in a custodial setting (with Judy Clegg).
  • Nyree Nicholson, working with parents of young children with language delay and investigating their experiences of support and intervention (with Silke Fricke).

I also supervised Rafizah Badar, developing and evaluating the use of the Communication Supportive Classrooms in Brunei (with Judy Clegg). Dr Badar has now completed her PhD.

Professional Activities:

  • Associate editor, International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders.
  • Member of Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists.
  • Member of Health and Care Professions Council.
  • Manuscript reviewer for journals such as Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties and the International Journal of Language and Communication Disorder
  • 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 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.


Spencer, S., Clegg, J., Lowe, H. and Stackhouse, J. (Forthcoming) Increasing adolescents' depth of understanding of cross-curriculum words: an intervention study. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders

Spencer, S., Clegg, J., Stackhouse, J. and Rush, R. (2017), Contribution of spoken language and socio-economic background to adolescents’ educational achievement at age 16 years. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 52: 184–196.

Spencer, S. (2016). Research as working class resistance: lessons learned from Getting by. Pedagogy, Culture and Society. Accessed online at:

Bishop, D.V.M., Snowling, M. J., Thompson, P. A., Greenhalgh, T. & CATALISE consortium (2016). CATALISE: a multinational and multidisciplinary Delphi consensus study. Identifying language impairments in children. PLoS One, 11(7), e0158753.

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.