The rise in the number of children who lack language skills is slowing progress at primary level, reports Jan Trebilcock. She investigates one school's successful approach.
Children at Wayfield Community Primary in Chatham, Kent are learning how to work with Mr Tongue - to build up muscles in the mouth that are needed for speech. This is one of many strategies being used to get reception pupils up to scratch with speaking and listening.
Children at the school are also encouraged to munch on crunchy foods like apples and breadsticks during the day as another means of getting lazy mouth muscles working. It's a way of tackling the language delay faced by many children in this deprived area.
Wayfield is not alone in having to tackle the growing problem of children arriving at school with delayed development in speaking and listening. An Ofsted report published this month found language and literacy skills among three to five-year-olds fell short in a third of English nurseries and schools. It concluded that more attention needs to be paid to children's speaking and listening skills.
One of the most worrying aspects of the report was the widening gap between girls and boys. The inspectors noted that in many classes, "boys did not speak with as much confidence or show an awareness of the listener".
It's a big problem. I CAN (www.ican.org.uk), the children's communication charity, estimates that as many as half all of children enter primary school with impoverished speech and language skills.
What do the experts think is happening? To begin with, some language delay can be caused by hearing problems, autism, visual impairment, psychological disturbance and emotional problems, but in many cases, the precise cause is not known.
Whatever the cause, it is recognised as being an increasing problem and one that undermines children's potential for progress.
Wayfield's children come from a socially deprived community which has suffered several generations of high unemployment and has virtually no facilities in terms of local shops, play areas and community centres.
"Parents' communication skills are often poor, so they are at a disadvantage when it comes to communicating with their children," says Valerie Rose, the headteacher. So it's hardly surprising that when the children arrive at the school, 60-70 per cent of them have some delayed language development.
"Many children come to us never having been engaged in constructive play.
They lack the ability to share with one another, and parents let them fight out their disagreements rather than talk them through. That means social interaction and thinking skills are not developed and the children lack a desire to work through any sort of problem, or even to ask a question,"
says Valerie Wayfield is "using anything and everything" to help pupils overcome their developmental deficit, says Valerie. Personal and social development is key and the Government's Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) initiative is being used to teach children how to calm themselves down when, for example, they are angry, and to learn the words to express themselves.
Some of the school's teaching assistants have been trained by speech therapists so they can work with children in small groups or one to one.
And Wayfield is attempting to support parents too - helping them to play constructively with their children through the school's nursery provision, and using its community room to set up ICT and literacy and numeracy programmes for adults.
"The only way to improve things for the children and raise parents' hopes and expectations is to address the whole community," says Valerie.
A new foundation unit at the school brings together nursery and reception children. The mix of three, four and five-year-olds means there are more siblings to support each other in the same group, and the child-to-adult ratio is increased - it's currently about ten to one - so the children get more individual attention.
Wayfield is getting extra support thanks to its participation in the Primary Strategy's Communication Language and Literacy Programme. It is one of ten schools in the Medway area taking part in the programme, which aims to support teachers with additional training and document best practice.
Thirty-two authorities across the UK are participating.
Beverley Atkinson, an early years adviser and consultant, is supporting teachers in the Medway area with advice on how to put curriculum guidance into practice - and that includes everything from addressing a child's physical development to their personal, social and emotional development.
"The key to a teacher's success is knowing their children, having high expectations and knowing child development," says Beverley.
Of course, children do not always follow developmental stages in a linear progression, she says. So tracking the progress of each child is vital- knowing where they are and where they need to go next, and linking teaching directly to the child's needs.
Observation and planning are an integral part of the day for Nuala McGroary and her colleagues in Wayfield's foundation unit, each one armed with a Post-it note pad to record the latest milestones achieved by their pupils.
"Each child has different needs which we have to address," says Nuala. "So we are constantly planning for short and medium-term goals, while allowing the children space to take the lead and become independent learners."
The classroom is buzzing with creative play, from playing with playdough and mark making to aid motor skills, to guessing which of two hidden instruments is being played, to hone hearing skills.
One child is able to distinguish between sounds but has difficulty making them. "Let's look at how we need to have our teeth, lips and tongue to make that sound," says Nuala.
Other children are being encouraged to speak in complete sentences by repetitive modelling or recording themselves with Talking Tins (see box, right). Every opportunity is taken to encourage the children to express themselves orally.
Ruth Pimentel, national director of the Foundation Stage, is overseeing the new Early Years Foundation Stage, which becomes obligatory in September 2008 for all Ofsted-registered early years settings. She sums up the importance of getting speaking and listening right: "That's where it all starts. It underpins children's future success, their confidence, self-esteem and motivation."
It's clear that without well-developed speaking and listening skills, children are unable to access the curriculum. The new push to improve oracy among language-delayed children means Mr Tongue will be seen getting a workout in a lot more classrooms across the country
THIS WILL GET THEM TALKING
Beverley Atkinson, an early years consultant, suggests some useful tools for developing communication and thinking skills in children
Talking Tins: these small plastic recording devices are easy to use, enabling children to record short voice messages and play them back.
Talking Photo Albums: children can display photos they have taken and record comments with each one. Supports storytelling and sequencing. From www.talkingproducts.com.
A great way in to talking and thinking, these are multi-sensory collections of themed objects to handle, feel, smell, listen to and take apart. From www.reflectionsonlearning.co.uk.
Use a soft toy to represent the main character in a story; familiar storybooks, developed using the Core Book approach, are good for this.
The Core Book is available from the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, 020 7401 3382; www.clpe.co.uk.
Story sacks: collections of objects representing characters and events, stored in soft bags, support children to sequence and retell a story. Visit www.storysack.com.
For more ideas about the use of props read: Helping Young Children Learn To Read by Helen Bromley (Lawrence Educational Publications, pound;8).
Mind maps help children to make connections between ideas and talk about what they know. With young children, using 3-D objects is a more effective way of mind mapping.
Read Mind Maps for Kids by Tony Buzan (HarperCollins, pound;14.99).
Big book planners
These large-format blank books are used to record children's ideas as they follow a possible line of development in something they are investigating.
Talking and Thinking Floorbooks by Claire Warden from www.mindstretchers.co.uk.
Children's learning journey is tracked and recorded in a book to which they contribute photos and experiences. Enables them to see links between play, speaking and listening, reading and writing.
Assessment in Early Childhood Settings by Margaret Carr (Paul Chapman Publishing, pound;19.99).