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Louisa Reeves on the importance of identifying and supporting SLCN at school

Communication is possibly the most important life skill. If you are reading this article, you might work in one of a wide range of positions across the education, care and health sectors, or you might be the parent or carer of a child with SEN. Whatever your role, without communication skills you wouldn’t be able to perform it. We need to be able to listen, understand and share our ideas, feelings and knowledge for work, social and family life. Yet, we take these skills very much for granted and assume that all children will simply develop them in the same way as other skills.

Communication skills don’t develop in isolation. Babies and young children need to have people around them who are communicating with them, talking, playing turn-taking games such as “peek-a-boo”, telling them about things and responding to their needs and interests. Without this, communications skills just aren’t going to develop. 

In schools, we tend to focus on literacy skills but sometimes we overlook the key role that language plays in learning to read and write. Skills like attention and listening, phonological awareness and understanding of words, concepts and grammatical elements of language are all essential, so what happens when children don’t start school with these in place?

How widespread are SLCN?

We know that about ten per cent of children across the UK have long-term, persistent speech, language and communication needs (SLCN): that’s about 1.4 million children. This means that SLCN are the largest area of SEN. This difficulty is seven times more prevalent than autism (Baird et al., 2006) and yet SLCN and the term developmental language disorder (DLD), which applies to those children who have SLCN as their main area of need is not widely known about. Teachers often lack confidence in knowing how to spot children who are struggling and knowing how to support them when they are.

The consequences of not identifying children’s SLCN can be quite devastating. Children who have poor language skills at the age of five are four times more likely to struggle with reading at the age of 11 years (I CAN, 2017). 

Children with language difficulties are four times less likely to achieve expected levels in reading, writing and maths at the end of primary school. They are nearly four times less likely to get good GCSE results at the end of secondary school (I CAN, 2017). 

The impact on behaviour and mental health is also significant: 45 per cent of children and young people referred to mental health services have communication difficulties and 81 per cent of children with emotional and behavioural disorders have significant language problems; often these difficulties are unidentified (I CAN, 2017).

Given that many of the interventions used to support children and young people with social, emotional and mental health difficulties (SEMH) use talk and are often referred to as “talking therapies”, it is clear that accessing these treatments will be a challenge for those with SLCN.

Identifying SLCN

Speech, language and communication difficulties can be hard to spot in school and teaching staff may need support and information on what skills children should have at certain ages to spot when children are struggling. 

Children and young people who have difficulty understanding spoken language are particularly hard to identify. In the early years stage, children can get by through watching what other children do. Sometimes, a focus on a child-led structure can mean that children with SLCN can pass unnoticed as they don’t need to interact with an adult to get through the day.  

At this stage in the child’s development, adults may need, at times, to “sabotage” an activity, for example by not putting out the cups at snack time or “forgetting” the scissors for a cutting activity so that children need to use their language skills. Using close observation, you can spot children who aren’t understanding spoken language when you say something unusual such as “put the pencils in the bin”, making sure you don’t use gestures to give away what you are saying. 

Throughout Key Stage 1, children with difficulties understanding can still manage to get a long way by copying what other children are doing, although this can lead them to getting into trouble if they follow the wrong group and the teacher thinks they haven’t been listening. 

In Key Stage 2, things become more challenging. Reading comprehension often becomes an area of concern for teachers as this has a significant impact on children’s ability to tackle the Statutory Assessment Tests (SATs). The transition into secondary school can be the trigger for a child who has just coped in the structured context of a primary school to really begin to struggle. Often, this looks like something other than SLCN and can be expressed as mental health or behavioural issues. Secondary schools need to think about whether language underpins a behavioural or learning issue and make sure they have the right tools to identify and support these.

Supporting pupils

So, what can teaching staff do to support children and young people with SLCN? The starting point is, of course, identification and tracking. It can be hard for staff to know what level of language skills children should have and if they need support and information. Support from specialists such as speech and language therapists can be key in pinpointing exactly what areas of difficulty a child is having and how best to support them.  

Visual support is helpful, especially for children with difficulties understanding spoken language. This can include photographs alongside labels in early years and Key Stage 1, as well as visual timetables which sequence the events of the day, visual “lists” of equipment needed for an activity or the stages needed to complete a task. 

For older children, having story strips or other visual aids in the folders or on their desks can help to tailor support to their own personal needs. Other activities such as practising asking for help, knowing when you haven’t understood something and promoting an asking-friendly environment in class can all be supportive for children and young people with SLCN.

Vocabulary is another key area where schools can really support children and young people with SLCN. All children learn and store new words through both their meaning (such as what it does, what it looks like and situations it is used in) and a sound related route (for example, what the word rhymes with and how many syllables it has). Identifying and pre-teaching key vocabulary using both these approaches help children to engage and perform better in lessons. It’s important to include verbs and descriptive words as well as nouns and to teach the words in context over a period of time. 

Children who are unable to recall a word could be encouraged to describe or explain it, whilst young children can be asked to gesture the word or show an object or picture. Words and objects could also be displayed in the classroom or a “word of the week” could be used as a regular occurrence to teach children a new, unique word, and words can be taught in categories. Children can also be asked to develop their own personal word books so as they get older, they can revisit new vocabulary and extend their lexicon further.

Adjusting teaching methods

Making small changes to the way teaching staff speak to children with SLCN can have an impact on learning and engagement. Talking too quickly and not giving students enough time to think can limit the length and accuracy of responses. A pause time of around seven seconds or more can allow students to shape their thoughts. Structured partner talk or providing older students with a “thinking frame” such as a mind map or simple written questions can also help. Additionally, consider what you say; simplify the length and complexity of spoken sentences. Sarcasm, idioms and metaphors will only add to a student’s confusion. 

Changing the way staff communicate with pupils, organise their classroom and plan lessons can be a challenge and some aspects are harder to alter than others. It is essential when introducing a new strategy to monitor any change in the pupil’s response and understanding. This may be over several weeks as the impact of some strategies can take more time than others to be evident. Pupil’s with SLCN need differentiated strategies and approaches if they are to access information, engage in school life and achieve their academic potential. 

References   

About the author

Louisa Reeves is a Speech and Language Advisor at the children’s communication charity I CAN. 

ican.org.uk

@ICANcharity

@icantalk

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