Speech and Language Challenges at a Record High

New figures released from Speech and Language UK show that at least 1.9 million primary and secondary aged children are now estimated to be behind with talking and understanding words. This equates to 20% of all pupils throughout the UK – 1 in 5 school aged children – the highest number ever recorded. 

 YouGov, an Internet-based market research and data analytics firm, commissioned a survey and found that: 

  • 80% of teachers surveyed think children in their classroom are behind with their talking and/or understanding of words. 
  • 73% of teachers surveyed think that children’s speech and language is not prioritised by the Government. 
  • 53% of teachers surveyed don’t believe they have sufficient training to support pupils’ speech and language in the classroom. 

To drastically improve the lives of 1.9 million children, Speech and Language UK is urging Government and school leaders to take a number of actions to improve these figures. They have put together a strategy with 5 aims which they hope to achieve over the next 5 years.   

Speech and Language development is a big part of the work we do at Dingley’s Promise. The majority of children who access our services are at the beginning of their communication journey and have been recognised as being behind with the vital skills needed to communicate their wants and needs. Aim 1 of the Speech and Language UK strategy is toMake speech and language central to more schools’ and nurseries’ everyday practice across the UK’. They want to do this by investing in more training for school and nursery staff to ensure that they use positive speech and language practices every day. This is vital for the future improved development of children’s communication and at Dingley’s Promise we already have several speech and language strategies in place to support children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. 

We believe that communication is a key element in all learning. It improves self-confidence and wellbeing, helps build positive relationships, increases ability to learn, and ultimately leads to a better future. Not all children with SEND will learn to speak, but it is important to give them a voice and allow them to communicate in a way that is suitable for their age and stage of development. A Total Communication Environment will help to do this and requires everyone to work together to ensure that as many forms of communication as possible are consistently used, rather than relying purely on words and hearing. 

Here are some of the key strategies that we use at Dingley’s Promise to create a Total Communication Environment: 

  • Reduced language – when giving instructions we keep language simple and to the point. Children will often only remember the last piece of the information, so it is important to break down the sentence and make it appropriate for the child’s current level of understanding. 
  • Signing (Makaton) – we use signs and gestures alongside speech to make what we are communicating more visual. Signing is used even if none of the current children rely on this to communicate as modelling signs consistently encourages children to use them too and often signs are learnt quicker than speech in children who are struggling to talk. 
  • Visuals (pictures) – visuals help to reinforce what is being said and help children to fully understand what is being asked of them. This can include the use of photos, PECS, Makaton symbols, Widgets, drawings. They are especially useful to show the routine for the day on a visual timetable, at times of transitions to help children move from one activity to another, and when asking children to make a choice between one activity/resource and another.
  • Objects of reference – These are objects that have particular meanings assigned to them that we use if the child is not yet ready to use pictures. They aid understanding of verbal instructions by giving children a very visual clue about what is going to happen next. For example, giving a child a nappy to show them they are going to have a nappy change.
  • Now and Next/First and Then: A board with the words ‘Now’ or ‘First’ on the left-hand side and ‘Next’ or ‘Then’ on the right-hand side, with a space underneath to add a symbol or photograph.  We use these to help a child to transition from one activity to another, to break down a sequence during an activity, or to show what activities are going to be done during a one-to-one focused learning time. 
  • Communication Boards: These are laminated pieces of paper which can be specific to a certain activity (e.g painting) or time of day (e.g snack time) or can be more generalised to reflect resources available in the playroom or garden. On the boards are symbols of common words (e.g I, want), nouns, verbs and adjectives which enable the user to point at the symbol to show what they want to communicate. 
  • Songs/stories – we offer shared singing and story times every day to encourage listening skills and group participation. We use rhymes and stories which include repetition and rhyming words, and support these with the use of props and signs to make them as visual and fun as possible.
  • Attention Autism/Bucket – an intervention approach developed by Gina Davies to support speech and language development for Autistic children. We carry out ‘bucket’ sessions for those children who are ready to access and try to build attention and early communication skills through fun and engaging activities using the 4 stages of the Attention Autism program. 
  • Intensive Interaction – by taking the child’s lead and engaging in their interests we are able to work on the interaction skills of children who are at the early levels of development. It helps children to learn the benefits of eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and turn taking opportunities, and builds their confidence at being around others.
  • Line of vision – we always get down to the child’s eye level when communicating with them to make sure they can see our mouths moving and the eye contact we are giving them. Using their name to gain their attention and being close to them reinforces that we are talking to them.
  • Allow time – when communicating we ensure we give them time to process and respond. They may not respond with speech but could give eye contact, pass a visual, or reach out to show that they are listening. Giving children time to respond before speaking and signing again shows that we respect their views and want to engage in a back-and-forth conversation. 
  • Sensory input – we think about the environment and ways in which we could improve it to reduce noise or distractions. This includes minimising wall displays and resources in the playrooms, adding soft furnishing to reduce noise, and ensuring there are quiet areas to go to when needed. 
  • Timers – These are used to give warnings as to how long is left of an activity before a transition takes place. We use sand timers and other visual countdowns, alongside using our visual timetable and the use of speech and signs. This gives the children a clear understanding that a transition is about to happen and helps to reduce frustrations. 
  • Consistency – we ensure that every day we offer the same forms of communication in as many situations as possible to build on their understanding and give them the tools they need to become confident communicators themselves. 

By using all these strategies, we hope to improve the speech and language skills of the children we support, as well as give guidance to parents and families about how to support their children at home. We continually build on our knowledge through training and shared learning opportunities, as well as learning from the children and families themselves as every child is unique. We hope to improve the speech and language skills of those with SEND to give them the best possible start which will then be extended and built on as they move on to school and beyond.  

Visit Speech and Language UK

Abi Preston-Rees – Lead Trainer, Dingley’s Promise