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How to support children with language difficulties

Guest Post
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In today's guest post, Mary Hartshorne from I CAN explores the impact of language difficulties on children's development and looks at how schools can improve outcomes for these children - without spending lots of money.

How many children in your school have a language disorder? A recent survey in Surrey found that at least seven pupils in every hundred struggle with their language - that's seven times more children than are diagnosed with autism.

Children with a language disorder have difficulties with both speaking and understanding. They tend to have limited vocabularies, leave endings off words and use very simple grammar in their sentences. They have difficulties telling coherent stories and don’t understand complex instructions. And according to that same study in Surrey, almost nine in ten children with a language disorder don't meet early curriculum targets and are more likely to have emotional, social or behavioural problems.

More worryingly, the study found that less than half of these children were receiving any additional help at school and nor had they been referred for speech and language therapy.

We know many children with a language disorder can be missed. A language disorder is often referred to as a ‘hidden disability’, often masked by literacy, learning or behaviour difficulties. Unidentified and unsupported, it can have lasting impacts on children’s reading, learning, friendships and life chances. Yet if caught early and with the right help, children with a language disorder can achieve, enjoy and do well at school. For children to flourish under the reformed SEND system, we need really good language-rich classroom practice, so that teachers can identify children who are struggling.

Fortunately, we have seen many schools which have achieved just this and they have skilled staff and systems in place so that, even with stretched budgets, children get the support they need.

What can make a difference to these children in your school?

Planning support across the following three levels can work in both primary and secondary schools:

  1. Universal
  2. Targeted
  3. Specialist

It’s a model I CAN used in the A Chance to Talk project where clusters of primary schools commissioned support from their local speech and language therapy service. What’s different about this is that the therapist works closely with school staff across all three levels of support, not just with children who have identified needs.

Making all classrooms 'language friendly' is critical to success - and this is part of the first 'universal' level. Classroom teachers use approaches such as praising children for good language and communication skills, giving pupils time to process instructions and questions, or skilfully adjusting their own language for children – maybe simplifying sentences for some children. This helps teachers to identify children who might need more targeted support such as Talk Boost language groups run by trained teaching assistants. They can also pinpoint those children needing specialist intervention.

What is the impact of this approach?

Schools that work in this way can really see a difference in the number of children needing specialist support. Schools ‘catch’ children early, and staff are confident in the ways they support children’s language – so this means speech and language therapists can focus the time they have to see individual children on those that need it the most.

Schools can also see an impact on academic progress for children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). A case study from primary schools in Kirkby, Merseyside reports that pupils with SLCN had better speech, language and communication skills, found learning in the classroom easier, and were noticeably more confident and sociable. For both therapy managers and school leaders, this is a cost effective way of supporting pupils with SLCN.

High-quality teaching which supports pupils’ language and communication is the key to the success of this approach. I CAN would like to see this as the basis of every schools’ local offer to show how they meet the needs of all their pupils with SEN. Schools can download a description of high-quality teaching, relevant to both primary and secondary schools, which can be used to guide practice.

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