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Why Identifying Speech, Language and Communication Needs Early is Essential for Children

Spotting SLCN as early as possible is one of the keys to successful outcome in speech and language therapy and learning as a whole, says Shermeena Rabbi...

  • Why Identifying Speech, Language and Communication Needs Early is Essential for Children

As the old proverb puts it, it takes a village to raise a child. While parents will do anything in their power to give their child the best possible start in life, they can’t get everything right.

When the baton of responsibility passes from parent to schools, teachers take on the awesome responsibility of identifying children’s developmental challenges – including those that the parents have missed.

One of the most serious and most common developmental disorders are those surrounding speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), which account for almost a quarter of SEND pupils, according to government statistics.

When parents fail to spot these problems or take a laissez-faire, ‘wait-and-see’ attitude, it magnifies the importance of teacher intervention.

Identifying SLCN early is one of the keys to successful outcome in speech and language therapy.

While adults and older children can of course be treated successfully, the task is made so much easier by identifying potential speech problems during the ‘golden period’, typically between three and five years old.

This is where primary teachers have such an important role to play: not just by identifying speech problems, but by communicating them effectively to parents so that everyone can play their part in the solution.

Speech matters

Speech problems are more common than you might think. Around ten per cent of children starting school have some form of speech and language impairment; indeed, it’s the most prevalent childhood disability.

The consequences of missed diagnoses can be severe. Between 50 and 90 per cent of children with persistent speech, language and communication difficulties go on to have reading difficulties. Speech impairment is present in two thirds of seven- to 14-year-olds with serious behaviour problems.

Spotting problems early

Not every speech problem is as noticeable as a stutter or mispronunciations. Teachers and SENCo staff, therefore, need to understand the signs that can often be mistaken for introspection or learning difficulties.

These include attention and listening difficulties, problems remembering instructions, difficulties answering questions or making themselves understood, or being the last to complete a task or piece of work.

Other red flags include immature vocabulary or grammar, difficulties making friends, non-compliance with instructions, and giving strange of unusual responses to questions.

Of course, there may be other reasons for any of these factors, but teachers should be aware that these could well be a sign that the child has SLCN. Whatever the reason behind their speech and language development, taking the right approach to communication will have a positive effect.

Encouraging communication

There are a number of strategies that teachers and SENCOs can take to improve their communication with children who are struggling with speech and language. These range from exercises designed to test and improve memory, through to attention and listening, understanding, working on expressive language, phonology and social communications.

Memory

For example, to build children’s memory, teachers should ask pupils to repeat exactly what they have said to them, gradually building in longer delays between instruction and repetition. Exercises like Kim’s Game or the ‘shopping list’ (“I went to town and bought an apple, some bacon, a cabbage,” and so forth down the alphabet) are fun ways to help children with both concentration and memory.

Attention and listening

This is another area where teachers can make a real difference. Tactics range from securing the child’s attention by calling their name before giving an instruction, to taking a more visual approach with cue cards and task management boards that provide pictorial instructions of the stages of an activity.

It’s also important to ask pupils to listen out for specific information before giving the lesson (for example, “I want you to tell me what food the Romans ate”), and to ensure that children are placed away from distractions such as open windows or disruptive pupils.

Understanding

To boost children’s understanding, teachers and SENCos should encourage the use of rehearsal and ask open-ended questions to check their comprehension of the task that they’ve been asked to perform.

Giving clear, short and ‘chunked’ instructions – where you separate commands into simple, easily-digestible bites, given in the order they’re supposed to be carried out – can also have a tremendous effect on pupils’ understanding.

It’s also important to augment verbal instructions with visual cues, gestures and signing, such as using hand gestures to teach different tenses (left hand for ‘past’ and right hand for ‘present’, for example).

These activities should be bolstered with ongoing comprehension monitoring to encourage students to identify when instructions have not been understood because it was too fast, quiet, or complicated.

Expressive language

One of the biggest challenges with speech and language problems is that they are self-reinforcing: if a child has problems expressing themselves, they are likely to become frustrated and retreat further into their shell.

On the other hand, helping them with their expressive language can have a huge bolstering effect on their confidence and help them to fall in love with communication.

To aid expressive language, teachers can use Colourful Semantics or Shape Coding to help students understand what elements are needed within a sentence; repeat the pupil’s sentences and add information to it to encourage them to develop their spoken language.

Other techniques include using puppets or toys to act out simple stories, and using talking or writing frameworks to help the student to tell oral or written narratives.

None of these steps promises a ‘cure’ for SLCN, but they’re every bit as important as the future work that the child will do with their speech therapist.

By identifying problems early on and taking simple, effective steps that are focused on fostering understanding and communication, teachers and SENCos can help to draw children out of the prison of language that they inhabit, and provide them with a foundation on which speech therapists can build further language skills and confidence.


Shermeena Rabbi is a consultant speech and language therapist and founder of Unlocking Language.

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