Communication breakdown

Children sitting in row and reading books at the park

We need to re-write the literacy story for children with SEN

Good levels of literacy and language skills are the key to unlocking a child’s full potential and the best route out of poverty for our poorest children. Yet in the UK today too many of our children, including 40 per cent of our poorest children, leave primary school without being able to read well.

New research on this issue was recently published in How reading can help children escape poverty, a report highlighting the alarming issue of children’s poor literacy and language skills. The report draws on new analysis by Newcastle University which found that one and a half million children will reach the age of 11 unable to “read well” by 2025 unless urgent action is taken now. In addition to this, the report shows that it is poor children that are the worst affected, as four in ten are not reading well by the age of 11 – almost double the rate of their better off peers. The report highlights the fact that these children are not reading enough outside school, are less likely to have books of their own and are less likely to have a broad range of reading materials.

A picture of inequality

Not only are there differences in performance relating to poverty levels, the report also highlights differences between the reading levels of boys and girls. The report found that 73 per cent of eight- to 11-year-old girls said they enjoyed reading compared to 59 per cent of boys. Worryingly, the reading gap in England between boys and girls is one of the widest in the developed world: boys are twice as likely to fall below even a very basic reading level.

The importance of encouraging reading for pleasure is highlighted as an important step to ensure children can read well by age 11, as the report shows that children who don’t enjoy reading at all are ten times more likely to have fallen behind and be reading below the expected level for their age than children who enjoy reading. 25 per cent of children from poor families said they would be embarrassed if their friends saw them reading outside of school. The report provides many stark facts highlighting the challenges that children growing up in poverty are facing; for example, children in homes with more than 500 books are on average more than two years ahead of those growing up in households with fewer than ten books by the time they are age 11. Even the difference between those with 11 to 25 books in the home compared with 201 to 500 books is equivalent to over a year’s progress.

SEN indicators

For children with SEN, the findings of the report are stark: only 40 per cent of pupils with SEN are reading well by the age of 11, compared with 85 per cent of children not recognised as having additional needs. And in 2013 only half of all pupils with a hearing impairment, close to 60 per cent of those with a visual impairment and just under half of pupils with a physical disability were reading well by the age of 11.

Worryingly, we know that many disadvantaged children will be over represented within SEN categories; as part of this, many of these children will have underlying speech, language and communication needs that will hamper their ability to learn and make friends, as well as develop good reading skills.This is because we know that good language skills are fundamental to achieving good literacy development. The importance of ensuring all children, including those with SEN, have the language and literacy skills they need for learning and life is well documented. Poor language skills have a lifelong impact, not only on literacy development but on all aspects of school achievement and social skills. Children whose language difficulties are unresolved by the time they start school are more likely to have later academic difficulties and those with ongoing communication difficulties are less likely to achieve formal qualifications at the end of compulsory schooling.

Early language issues

The report also found that young children with delayed language were close to three times more likely to be behind at the age of 11 compared with those with advanced language skills at age three. This is worrying given that latest reports on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile results show that nationally almost a quarter of children are starting school at age five with delayed communication and language skills – a figure likely to be much higher in areas of deprivation; research has found that the language of children from the poorest families is, on average, 19 months behind their better off peers when they start school.

Of course early language is so crucial to reading and learning. It is well established that language development in the early years influences educational achievement right through to school leaving age. Children starting school with poor language are immediately disadvantaged as they do not have the skills that they need for the next stage of learning. Their thinking, reasoning and effective communication with adults and peers lags behind as well.

Additionally, children with delayed language are at greater risk of behavioural issues, and can struggle to form relationships and make friends. As most children with SEN have difficulty with some aspect of speech, language and/or communication this is an area that must sit firmly at the centre of SEN support. Without the right help, children with delayed language will not catch up. Children with SEN are most likely to struggle without targeted help.

Time to act

The centrality of language for learning has been recognised as essential by Ofsted for some time now; how well pupils develop and apply their skills in communication and how well communication is taught forms part of the inspection framework. And the advent of the revised national curriculum means that schools need to recognise the importance of spoken language in all areas of the curriculum; it should not just be left to be taught in English lessons. As the National Curriculum in England Framework said:

teachers should develop pupils’ spoken language, reading, writing and vocabulary as integral aspects of the teaching of every subject. English is both a subject in its own right and the medium for teaching; for pupils, understanding the language provides access to the whole curriculum.

We know too that inequality contributes to the UK’s low levels of social mobility. In 2012, OECD research found that the difference in reading ability between high achieving 15-year-olds and low achievers of the same age was equivalent to over eight years of schooling. England is one of the world’s most unequal countries when it comes to children’s reading levels, second only to Romania in the European Union. The UK has high educational inequalities and a large proportion of children, including those with SEN, are left behind.

If we don’t act now to get all children reading well, we are on track to leave close to 1.5 million children behind by 2025. We all need to work together to ensure that we change the story for our children and give them the language and literacy skills they need to thrive.

Further information

Virginia Beardshaw is Chief Executive of I CAN, the children’s communication charity which is one of the founding members of the Read On, Get On coalition, a language and literacy campaign including communities, parents and schools, businesspeople, media and politicians:


Virginia Bearshaw
Author: Virginia Bearshaw

SLCN Viginia ICAN ICan

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