Decoding SLCN


Jaya Simpson looks at what speech, language and communication needs are and how we can identify them 

Whenever I get together with extended family and old family friends, we start reminiscing about times gone by and the conversation always seems to come around to my talking as a child. Apparently, when I was a toddler I had quite a lot to say. The only problem was that apart from my parents nobody was able to understand me. I would chatter away to my friend “gargot” (Charlotte) about my “backdudee” (blackcurrant) and my “numnee” (dummy) with no awareness that I wasn’t using real words just like everyone else. “How funny that you are helping children to speak!” is as much of a part of our family’s Christmas dinner routine as the turkey, and I haven’t got sick of it yet.

At that young age I was lucky enough to have been well supported by my parents and nursery, and was able to “catch up” before it affected my literacy skills. But what about those who don’t?

Why do we care about SLCN?

It’s been seven years since the “Hello” National Year of Communication – a campaign to increase parents’ and professionals’ understanding of how important it is for children and young people to develop good communication skills, but much of my professional life is still spent trying to do just that.  So why is it so important to raise the profile of speech, language and communication needs (SLCN)? What is it about this particular type of SEN that causes it to be forgotten or missed, and why is it so important that we have systems in place to identify those who are struggling?

The answer is in the research and evidence; we know that communication is a key factor in making sure that children go on to achieve positive outcomes. It’s widely acknowledged that the development of literacy skills are dependent on language competency (Roulstone et al., 2011), and children who struggle with language aged five are six times less likely to achieve the expected standard in English at age 11 (Save The Children, 2016). The implications are wider than academic success too, with these children being more than twice as likely to be unemployed at age 34 and one and a half times more likely to have mental health difficulties (Law et al., 2010).

What do we mean by SLCN?

I’ll start by breaking down the three skills that most of us take for granted, that the children I see, think and write about every day find so challenging. Until we’re asked to describe exactly what difficulties we see in a child, it might have never occurred to many of us that it’s possible for a child or young person to have language difficulties but perfectly developed speech, or speech difficulties with great communication skills. At the same time, difficulties often overlap and many children have challenges in more than one area.

  • Speech refers to speaking with a clear voice, in a way that makes speech sound interesting and meaningful, speaking without hesitating too much or repeating words or sounds and being able to make sounds clearly so people can understand what you say.
  • Language refers to talking and understanding, joining words together into sentences, stories and conversations. It’s knowing the right words to explain what you mean and making sense of what people say.
  • Communication refers to how we interact with others, using language or gestures in different ways, for example to have a conversation or give directions. It’s also being able to understand other people’s points of view and understanding and using body language and facial expressions.

SLCN is an umbrella term used to describe children whose speech, language and communication skills do not develop as expected. Children with SLCN might have specific needs such as developmental language disorder (DLD) or speech disorder, but the term also covers those with related diagnoses that affect speech, language and communication skills such as hearing impairment, autism or learning disability.

How many children have SLCN?

Research shows that 7.6 per cent of children in the early primary years have DLD – that’s two children in every class of thirty (Norbury et al., 2016). The numbers are even higher in areas of social deprivation, with studies suggesting that up to 50 per cent of children in the most disadvantaged areas start school with SLCN (Law et al., 2011).

However, only 2.6 per cent of children are identified by the SEN and disabilities system as having SLCN as a primary need, so why are we missing so many children who are likely to need help and support? Difficulties with recruitment of health visitors, poor access to the two-year review and a lack of assessment of speech, language and communication skills within the curriculum after five years are thought to contribute to the issue, as well as inconsistency of provision throughout the UK (The Communication Trust, 2017).

With the right early intervention, children make better progress, the longer-term impacts are minimised and many children even catch up.

But if we don’t know who the pupils with SLCN are, we can’t begin to provide the support that they need. Without the right support, evidence shows that needs persist and, for some, get worse. The SEN and Disabilities Code of Practice highlights the importance of early identification and makes clear education settings’ responsibility to have policies and strategies in place for identifying and responding where there are concerns that a pupil may have an SEN or disability.

What are we looking for when we are identifying children with SLCN?

It is important to know what is expected in terms of speech, language and communication skills for particular ages. Some typical “red flags” to think about at different ages include:

  • not babbling – the six months to one year period should be all about experimenting with sounds like “bababa” and “mamama”
  • not pointing – young children begin to draw adults attention to things they can see and hear around the age of 15 months, developing those very early interaction skills
  • struggling to follow simple directions – children should be able to respond to “get your shoes” or “sit down” at around 20 months, without you pointing or giving them clues that they can see
  • not beginning to join words – at aged two to three, simple sentences should be starting to appear such as “mummy milk”, or “night-night bear”
  • unclear speech sounds – by the age of three, not all speech sounds are clear but strangers should be able to understand most of what a child says
  • not following what is going on in the nursery or classroom – for some children, difficulties become more obvious when they are alongside peers in a structured environment where expectations are higher
  • struggling with stories – by five, children should able to describe things that have happened using longer sentences, for example “when I got home I saw an enormous teddy bear sitting on the sofa and mummy said it was mine because I was being good”
  • poor behaviour – behaviour is communication and poor behaviour has been linked to language difficulties in children of all ages
  • not following the rules of conversation – by age nine, children can keep conversations going by adding comments and questions, and understand when people may need more or fewer details, depending on the situation
  • misunderstanding jokes, sayings and sarcasm – young people should have mastered more subtle language skills by their early teenage years
  • not performing as expected in exams – by 18, young people should be able to understand the words that are used in exam and classroom questions, such as “evaluate”, “compile” and “find themes”.

Whose role is it anyway?

It is crucial that those working with children on a daily basis are able to identify, support and, where appropriate, refer children with suspected SLCN; however, a national survey revealed that many aren’t equipped to do this. Around 60 per cent of the children and young people’s workforce reported receiving little or no training on SLCN before starting to work with children, and 45 per cent received little or no further training on SLCN as a part of their continuing professional development.

Everyone who comes in contact with a child with suspected SLCN has a role to play in gathering and sharing as much information as possible to identify, support and refer them as quickly as possible. There are screening tools and checklists available to gather this information and involving parents is vital.
Support services for children with SLCN vary in terms of referral process and criteria, so make sure that you are familiar with the processes in your area. Settings may have access to NHS speech and language therapists, and some commission additional help from therapy or advisory services.

Further information

Jaya Simpson is a Professional Advisor at The Communication Trust, a coalition of over 50 not-for-profit organisations concerned with supporting the speech, language and communication needs of children and young people in England:

Information and a number of free resources which can assist you to identify children with SLCN can be found on the “Identifying SLCN” page of The Trust’s website.


  • Law, J., McBean, K. and Rush, R. (2011), Communication skills in a population of primary school-aged children raised in an area of pronounced social disadvantage. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 46: 657–664.doi:10.1111/j.1460- 6984.2011.00036.x
  • Law, J. et al. (2010), Modelling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood. Journal of speech, language and hearing research, 52, 1401-1416
  • Norbury, C. F., Gooch, D., Wray, C., Baird, G., Charman, T., Simonoff, E., Vamvakas, G. and Pickles, A. (2016), The impact of nonverbal ability on prevalence and clinical presentation of language disorder: evidence from a population study. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 57: 1247–1257. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12573
  • Rousltone, S., Law, J., Rush,R., Clegg, J. and Peters, T. (2011), Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes DfE Research Report 134
  • Save the Children (2016) Early Language development and children’s primary school attainment in English and maths:new research findings. London: Save the Children
  • The Communication Trust. (2017), Talking About a Generation – Current Policy, Evidence and Practice for Speech, Language and Communication.
Jaya Simpson
Author: Jaya Simpson

SLCN Communication Trust

+ posts

Communication Trust


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here