Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education

SCIE Guide 5

By Marie Diggins

Published June 2004

About this guide

What this guide is about

This guide is about teaching and learning communication skills in social work qualifying education. It is intended to be a resource for all of those involved in teaching and learning on the new social work degree.

Learning to communicate in a professional manner in a variety of contexts with people from a diverse range of backgrounds can be difficult, but it is a fundamental skill without which it is difficult to perform many other social work tasks or, perhaps, the social work role at all.

Communication not always, but sometimes, takes place in difficult and challenging contexts. Finding a way to engage with someone who avoids all contact with social care agencies is not easy; nor is explaining to someone that you have concerns about their parenting skills or to a carer that their son is experiencing a mental health crisis and needs urgent admission to hospital. Communicating with people with different communication needs to yourself can also pose challenges if you do not speak the same language or know enough about their specific mode of communication or preferences.

For qualified or student social workers who are communicating with service users, carers or other professionals, or for students in simulated situations such as role play carried out in front of peers and teachers, these circumstances can conjure up a variety of uncomfortable emotions. Embarrassment, anxiety, fear and uncertainty are but a few of those emotions described. It should be of no surprise, then, that when asking for volunteers for a role play people rush to the back of the queue.

Who this guide is for

This guide is primarily for programme providers of the social work degree, including Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), practice assessors as agency-based educators and service users and carers involved in the planning and delivery of the social work degree programme.

It may also be of interest to: employers, in particular, those offering practice learning opportunities; practice learning organisers; student social workers; and other people involved in skills development, for example, training officers.

How this guide can assist in teaching and learning communication skills

The information from literature and practice reviewed for inclusion in this guide has necessarily been drawn from teaching and learning on qualifying social work courses that precede the new degree. Identifying and reflecting on the experience and knowledge gained from what has gone before should assist programme providers in their planning, delivery and evaluation of teaching and learning on the new programmes.

Communicating with adults, children and those with specific communication needs is a very broad and encompassing curriculum area, and this guide focuses on general principles underpinning teaching, learning and assessing communication skills.

This guide has been published to coincide with the onset of the first of the new degree programmes.

The guide offers a starting point for ongoing dialogue with and between key stakeholders. The Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE) will continue to support the process of sharing and recording the developments that take place as the degree programmes progress. SCIE will provide practical support and encouragement to those who wish to publish and share their work. In 2006 SCIE will undertake a further review of the work undertaken in teaching and learning communication skills during the first of the degree courses from 2003-05.

This guide:

The following areas will not be covered by this guide, but may need further attention:

How to use the guide

The content of this guide is drawn primarily from the findings of a SCIE research review and practice review. These findings are presented in a number of different ways to enable readers to decide how much detail they need at any one time, moving easily between sections of the guide for more detailed information as required. There are reference and electronic links (in the online version) that point to additional supporting text, and examples found elsewhere in the guide and from other publications and websites.

The guide’s key messages are articulated as signposts to new ways of working, and are a commentary on the key themes arising from combined findings from literature and practice. The messages and questions that are set out are intended to stimulate further discussion and action by those involved in teaching and learning communication skills.

A summary of the SCIE research review can be found with references and electronic links to the full text version. There is also a summary of the SCIE practice review with the full text available in Appendix B of this guide.

See practice examples for a description of the teaching and learning resources that were mostly identified during the SCIE practice review.

Details of how this guide was created can be found in Appendix A.


All SCIE resources are free to download, however to access the following downloads you will need a free MySCIE account:

Available downloads:

  • Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education
  • Teaching and learning communication skills in social work education (Summary)