'We must get better at spotting language problems'

Children are being left behind because signs of a problem with language are not being picked up, writes Megan Dixon

If we can't explain a school rule to pupils, then maybe it is not worth having, says Jarlath O'Brien

By the end of Year 2, it was clear Luca was having difficulties at school. He was showing increasingly difficult behaviour and falling further behind his peers.

Both his teachers and parents were worried, but had assumed that he would catch up when he learned to speak English better – English was his second language. Although Luca had been in England for most of his life and attended school since Reception, he often found it hard to pronounce words clearly and rarely spoke in more than two- or three-word phrases.

Towards the end of Year 2, he began to work with a specialist literacy teacher. She noticed his difficulties with speech. She also realised that he rarely responded to a question and got easily confused if she was standing behind him as she was talking to him.

Language delay

She suggested he had his hearing tested, and so he was assessed by the speech and language therapist. The result – Luca had delayed language development as a result of an undiagnosed hearing impairment.

As soon as he becomes adjusted to his new hearing aids, he will begin speech and language therapy to help him accelerate his language. It is hoped that his progress in school will rapidly improve. But it will take more time to help him develop the self-regulation to manage his behaviour and improve his relationships with his peers.

Sadly, this story is not as uncommon as we might hope. As the Preparing for Literacy Guidance Report, published by the EEF, highlights, there is some evidence that hearing impairments (including glue ear) often go undetected.

Often these difficulties can resolve themselves, but as in Luca’s case, it had contributed to his poor phonological awareness and difficulties in learning to read and write. For Luca, it wasn’t until he had nearly completed three years at school that his difficulties were uncovered.

We need to get better at the detail around language development to ensure children like Luca do not get missed. 

Language interventions

The seven recommendations in the guidance report highlight the need for practitioners to carefully support children to lay the foundations of literacy learning, and, in particular, for those in disadvantaged circumstances. Recommendation one emphasises the crucial role the development of language and communication plays, not only in the development of literacy skills, but in thought itself.

This is echoed in recommendation four, which touches on the importance and challenge we face supporting the development of self-regulation – the ability to manage your own behaviour and learning – in young children. Developing phonological awareness; reading comprehension; the motivation to write; and close, powerful, purposeful relationships with parents are all mentioned; each strand an essential building block.

Language assessments

However, the last two recommendations may prove to be the most challenging for schools and teachers. They suggest we use assessment to ensure all children make good progress. This demands we go above the requirements to document what has been learned and become skilled in using a range of observational and diagnostic assessments to deepen our understanding of specific capabilities and difficulties.

Once a difficulty has been identified, it is essential that the right staff, highly trained and well-supported can work, either in small groups, or individually to support the child.

Specialist support, such as speech and language therapists, should be available if needed.

So, what of Luca? Happily, he is receiving the support he needs. Eventually. But the gap between his attainment and his peers' has already widened considerably. It will take time, care and specialist teaching to support his literacy development and help him to build positive relationships with those around him.  

Although we will never know if that could have been avoided, it is tempting to think that getting down to the detail of his learning in the early years of his education could have helped to avoid the heartache for all those concerned. We need to get better at the detail.

Megan Dixon is director of literacy at the Aspire Educational Trust

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