Growing numbers of young children are unable to express their ideas or understand what their teachers are saying to them, as teachers at Ford Primary School in Plymouth have discovered. The school has responded by developing and pioneering a speech and language package which is now helping pupils all over the country to boost their communication skills.
"Two years ago, if I'd tried to engage some of the new reception intake in conversation, they would have looked at me as if I was strange," recalls Chris Benson, Ford's headteacher. "Now, I can't get away. They're asking me what I did at the weekend."
From the outside, Ford seems an unlikely powerhouse for transforming education. A forbidding Victorian granite edifice looming over a maze of narrow streets in Plymouth's dockland, it serves one of the most deprived areas in the country. But inside, the warmth and commitment of the staff stand out against the bleak setting and the difficulties faced by the pupils.
The school had noticed a significant decline in children's language levels over the past 10 years, according to Chris Benson. "Large numbers of reception pupils were reticent about talking to staff and other children.
They had short attention spans and low self-esteem, and were unable to access the curriculum." He attributes the growing deficits to frenetic contemporary life styles which leave parents too little time to talk to their children.
Dismayed by the implications for learning, the headteacher used some of his budget to pay for expert input from Marion Nash, a Plymouth educational psychologist, and Jackie Lowe, a speech therapist with the local NHS primary care trust. Working with an early years teacher, they created Spirals, a user-friendly language programme which develops language skills through a carefully structured package of games. Using furry puppets and brightly coloured toys, children progress from saying their names to describing an imaginary animal passed round the group or explaining why the badger puppet is feeling sad. Another favourite is the phonological express, where pupils form an imaginary train of matching letters or sounds. All the weekly 25-minute sessions take place in small groups, using a supportive "circle time" ethos which creates the trusting atmosphere pupils need.
"It's like a small family group, which helps to build children's confidence," explains Jackie Lowe. Success is based on the four Ps, says Marion Nash: a slow pace, pausing, pondering - which gives children a chance to respond to questions, and praise - each pupil must be praised at least once every session. Teachers also need to use simple, clear language.
The games use methods such as kinaesthetic and tactile learning, to develop a variety of skills, including listening, language, critical thinking, socialisation and imagination. The programme was tailored to the pupils' needs and trialled in six early-years settings in Plymouth; there are now activities for nursery, and key stages 1 and 2. The games for older children focus on national curriculum elements like story-telling.
The results have been outstanding. A survey of teachers using the programme showed that 97 per cent of pupils showed positive gains in listening, language, thinking and social skills after eight weeks; teachers also noticed that pupils were able to transfer their new abilities to their usual classes. Parents are impressed, too. "He is much more confident now," said Sonia Hardy, mother of nine-year-old Luke. "Before, he used to clam up and hide away in a corner." Luke's language has improved so much that his statement of special educational needs has recently ceased.
Val Galer, the senco at Ford, has noticed other gains. "The descriptive language in Year 4 is actually better in children who have taken part in Spirals," she said. "We had some beautiful writing from these pupils recently - for instance: 'The glittering snow fell softly on the ground'."
Linda Mercer, senco at Highfield Primary, which helped to trial Spirals, believes the programme is successful because it is based on expert knowledge of children's intellectual and linguistic development, yet it is easy for teachers to use.
Training in the Spirals approach for all Plymouth's early years staff has been fun and "hands-on", so that they feel confident to use it, says Marion Nash. Teachers are also equipped with 24 ready-made lesson plans.
Jackie Lowe and Marion Nash have now written a booklet with suggested activities for parents to use with their children at home. They have also just finished a new programme developing the language skills pupils need for maths. Marion Nash is now looking for new sources of funding for the next stage of the project, focusing on science and critical thinking.
"Spirals' success has been remarkable; we are seeing a steady upwards trend in our KS1 results which we would never have envisaged," said Chris Benson.
"Unfortunately, we are facing a 9 per cent cut in our budget next year, so we are not sure whether we can fund the next phase."
Language Development: Circle Time Sessions to Improve Communications Skills. Marion Nash with Jackie Lowe and Tracey Palmer (David Fulton pound;17). Includes a video CD