Liam is just five. He lives in a boisterous home where everyone shouts over the noise of the TV and the baby crying. His mum works part- time and has enough to do sorting out clothes and food without engaging in long conversations. "Downstairs - quick" and "Got your coat?" are the sort of unstructured sentences Liam hears every day, and his literacy is suffering.
Jane Maloney, headteacher at Millbrook Community Primary School in Knowsley, knows many children like Liam. She has found that some four- and five-year-olds in her school only have the language development of the average three-year-old. So her staff are using a programme called A Chance to Talk, run by The Communication Trust, I CAN and the Every Child a Chance Trust, to help pupils to catch up. The programme supports speaking and listening in the classroom and through targeted interventions. Staff receive training to help identify children and to run a 10-week programme of small-group work to improve language and communication skills.
A trained teaching assistant (TA) runs withdrawal sessions for groups of four children with delayed language, with link activities back to the classroom, designed to support the children who are struggling and which can benefit all children. In the initial pilot study, children were making progress of around 18 months after the 10-week programme. It also enables staff to identify those children who may need more specialist intervention.
Staff in the schools involved have commented positively, not just on changes in children's language, but on their confidence and their readiness to learn and engage in activities with their peers.
At St Mark's CofE Aided Primary School in Stoke-on-Trent, inclusion leader Ann Stone found a significant proportion of the 112 children on the special needs register had difficulties with speech, language and communication. The school has worked hard on communication projects this year and where once staff used question and answer techniques, they are now as likely to get a child to talk to a partner.
One of the most successful projects has been Spirals, a circle-time activity where children learn to make eye contact, smile, and greet others. One girl with very little confidence amazed her parents and teachers by acting in a class assembly in front of the whole school and speaking audibly and clearly.
"The results have been excellent," says Ms Stone. "When I looked at our current Year 6, 48 per cent had been on the special needs register at some stage of their school career. Now the figure is down to just over 20 per cent."
In secondary school, speaking and listening can be even more challenging. Children need higher level language skills to meet the demands of different subjects, and adolescents with communication needs may be wrongly identified as having behavioural difficulties.
Enhancing Language and Communication in Secondary Schools (ELCISS) is being used in Beal High School, Redbridge. TAs run a 12-week programme for groups of four to six children focusing on vocabulary and narrative. The aim is to boost language skills with a cross-curricular approach. One child who entered the school with a reading age of eight left KS3 with level 5 and is predicted to achieve B and C grades in his GCSEs.
Young people need to work on social communication too. The inclusion advisory teaching service in Bolton provides training on the locally developed Secondary Talk programme. The original focus was behaviour and general emotional well-being, but it has also made a difference for children learning English as an additional language and pupils who have statements for speech and language difficulties. Turton High School Media Arts College has run the 10-week course where pupils work on idioms or body language, identify an object from a spoken description or retell a local news story. The school has since seen improvements in vocabulary, behaviour and social skills.
Deb Nicholl-Holt, one of the creators of Bolton's Secondary Talk programme, points out children are expected to learn through listening at least 60 per cent of the time in primary school, but in secondary school this increases to 90 per cent. Hopefully, with initiatives focused on improving language skills, children like Liam will not be left behind.