Communicating with a generation adrift


How to help children who struggle with speech and language

Communication is vital. The ability to speak, listen and understand are three of the most important skills we ever develop. They enable us to learn and interact with other people. But for ten per cent of children in this country who have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) these skills require specific attention. Of these children, seven per cent have a specific language impairment (SLI), meaning they cannot learn language in the same way as most children. They don’t have general learning difficulties; they are simply unable to learn language in the usual way, through parents talking and listening and through interacting with those around them.

For these children, learning language means having specialist support, usually from a speech and language therapist. They need to be taught how to learn language. Assumptions are made when children don’t talk – maybe they are deaf, shy, a bit slow, naughty, rude or antisocial. This is the most prevalent childhood disability and yet it is frequently misunderstood, misidentified or missed altogether. The problem is the scale of the issue – both in the number of children affected and the complex and changing nature of their needs. These statistics – from The Communication Trust’s recent paper A Generation Adrift – are frightening, but they are not new. For many years, these problems have been known, but the time has come to say enough is enough.

Recognising communication difficulties

Experts agree on one point: children need language to learn, socialise, manage their behaviour and develop emotionally. In deprived areas, up to 50 per cent of children start school with delayed language – language that is not good enough for their next stage of learning. This also leads to difficulties in thinking, reasoning and communicating effectively with adults and other children. Research has also shown that children from low income families are often a year behind in terms of vocabulary, putting them at a disadvantage. Having such a large cohort of children arriving at school with delayed language creates additional problems – it can make it very difficult for teachers to differentiate between those who are language delayed and those who have long-term needs and specific language impairments. The Trust’s Talk of the Town project found real difficulties for teachers in accurately identifying children with SLCN, an issue backed up by the recent Better Communication Research Programme.

However, supporting schools to understand what “typical” language development looks like enables them to identify when children are struggling; creating a communication-friendly environment and using catch-up interventions makes it possible to support those with language delay and identify those who need extra longer-term support, such as those children with SLI.

If children with language difficulties are not supported, they can easily fall behind their classmates and this can affect their self-esteem, behaviour and engagement with education. Imagine how frustrating it would be if you were always in trouble because you could not understand what your teacher is telling you to do or if you have lots of ideas but not the language skills to be able to share them. We know that early vocabulary and concept development is particularly critical for children from low and moderate income homes, and that vocabulary at the age of five is a strong predicator of qualifications achieved at school leaving age and beyond. Leaving academic achievement aside for a moment, though, the impact of poor communication is much wider. Children who struggle with language will also struggle with social interaction and this creates difficulties for them in learning skills such as organisation, problem solving, and evaluating their experiences. These are critical skills not just for school, but also in their life beyond.

Communication friendly environments can enable all pupils to learn together.How to support those with SLCN

Supporting language can be as simple as a “tweak” to good practice, mixed with a solid knowledge of language development, but this relies on teaching staff having this kind of knowledge. Sometimes, supporting children with SLCN can be as simple as allowing them more time to frame their answer after asking them a question, or breaking down lengthy instructions into shorter, more manageable sentences. It might just be about knowing more about the nature of their condition and taking guidance on the best ways to support them. For some children, a more targeted intervention may be required to help boost their skills; others will need direct support from a specialist in collaboration with children’s teachers and parents. Language is all pervading and needs to be supported in this way, through a graduated approach.

The Talk of the Town project aimed to make early identification of children and young people with SLCN the norm, while encouraging joint working between schools and the local community and creating positive outcomes for children in a sustainable way. Tests carried out at the start of the pilot showed more than a quarter of children in the nursery classes had a language level which would meet the criteria for a statement of SEN in many local authority areas. Samples of children were assessed throughout the schools and high prevalence levels were found to persist through Key Stage 1, 2 and into Key Stage 3, particularly with very poor vocabulary levels and difficulties for children in constructing sentences.

The project helped the schools embed early identification procedures so that by the end of the year-long pilot, under-identification had fallen from between 31 and 50 per cent to between five and 15 per cent. The programme encouraged joint working between schools and practitioners in health and education, as well as involving parents in children’s communication development through ambassador programmes. Reassessments of the children at the end of the pilot showed a significant improvement, with children’s language levels in nursery classes improving by 15 per cent. There was also a 16 per cent increase in staff feeling very confident in providing positive strategies to support speech, language and communication development in children.

Training school staff

All school staff – from head teachers and teachers to teaching assistants and support workers – need to know more about the ages and stages of language development and how to identify and support children who struggle with language. It is important to increase skills and capacity in identifying and supporting children and young people with SLCN and making sure all children’s communication skills are able to grow and develop.

Recent reports by experts such as Professor Cathy Nutbrown (University of Sheffield) show the benefit of well-trained staff in early years settings. Moreover, embedding a focus on speech, language and communication in training and practice can reap real rewards for all staff working with children and young people. It is vital that all teachers receive a good grounding in speech, language and communication as part of their initial training; to be effective, though, this must be supported by good continuous professional development in the school setting.

Further information

Anne Fox is Director of The Communication Trust, a consortium of almost 50 voluntary groups concerned with SLCN. A wide range of resources and information on courses is available from:

Information on how to support a child with SLI is available from the charity Afasic:

Anne Fox
Author: Anne Fox

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