Speech and language challenges

Experts call for prioritisation as post-pandemic speech and language challenges reach record high.
Speech and language challenges

One in five school-aged children are struggling with challenges linked to speech and language development – an increase of more than a quarter on figures reported by teachers pre-pandemic, new research finds.

Loneliness, poor mental health and low academic attainment in core subjects like reading, writing and maths are more evident among children who struggle with communication issues, education experts warn.

“A lack of investment and prioritisation, and a difficult pandemic has created an alarming number of children struggling with talking and understanding words,” says Jane Harris, chief executive of charity Speech and Language UK.

Some 74 per cent of teachers say they believe children will struggle more with their talking or understanding of words compared with those who started secondary school before the pandemic, according to the research, based on a survey of 1,000 teachers and published by Speech and Language UK.

Reduced access

A recent report, prepared by academics for the child of the North all-party parliamentary group (APPG), cites reduced access to specialist services during the Covid-19 pandemic as a key driver behind the increase.

The report states: “With reduced access to specialist services during the Covid-19 pandemic, children with existing difficulties (such as speech and language problems) are at an even higher risk of negative repercussions on their social, behavioural, and academic development.”

Harris describes the increase in speech and language challenges as “especially frustrating”.

“There is huge evidence for the solutions, from specialist support for children with complex challenges to programmes that teachers and teaching assistants can run in schools and nurseries without specialist training,” she adds.

While her charity’s research focuses on children across both primary and secondary education, it highlights a greater impact of the pandemic on the youngest children’s communication skills.

The report calls on government to implement a range of recommendations including a new tool for schools to track talking and understanding words at Key Stages 1 and 2, similar to that used for tracking progress in literacy and numeracy, as well as increased training for all teachers and early years practitioners to spot children struggling with speech and language.

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) says: “Nurseries already do wonderful work in supporting our children’s early language and vocabulary. Their practitioners are in an ideal position to spot children who need additional support.”

However, she argues that ministers must increase the early years pupil premium to match that received by schools if providers are to be crucial in tackling speech and language challenges.

“Early identification and support can make all the difference to these children’s lives and yet the local authority funding doesn’t even cover the costs of early education and childcare, let alone pay for one-to-one sessions with skilled staff,” she says. Meanwhile, the Child of the Northreport highlights the benefits reaped by children in Department for Education-funded opportunity areas like Blackpool which saw 6,000 primary school children screened for speech and language disorders through health and education partnerships forged through the scheme.

An evaluation of another DfE-funded scheme Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) found that the programme boosted the language skills of reception-age children by four months and had a greater impact on those eligible for free school meals (see below).

“As we approach a general election, we hope that all political parties will put speech, language and communication skills at the centre of their education plans,” Harris says, suggesting that greater investment in partnership working must be prioritised to tackle the increasing scale of the issue.



A programme to support young children’s language skills in response to the Covid-19 pandemic had a positive impact on their development, latest research findings show.

An independent evaluation of the Nuffield Early Language Intervention (NELI) found that the programme boosted the language skills of reception-age children by four months, with pupils in receipt of free school meals seeing an average seven months’ additional progress suggesting it could help close the attainment gap.

The intervention was offered to all state-funded schools in England for three academic years from 2020/21 to 2022/23, with 6,500 registering in year one and a further 4,000 in the following years. The Department for Education is funding a fourth year of the programme as part of its post-pandemic response.

The evaluation, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research and published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in September, looked at data from 10,800 children in 350 schools who registered for the second year of the national rollout and compared their progress with children who didn’t receive the intervention.

Developed by researchers at the universities of Oxford, Sheffield and York, NELI trains school staff, usually teaching assistants and early years educators, to deliver individual and small-group sessions to four- and five-year-olds to improve their vocabulary, active listening and narrative skills. The programme is interactive and engaging – for example, in one session children paint handprints and then wash their hands to practice the target vocabulary “clean”, “wash” and “dry”.

The research found that the impact was greater the more sessions that children received.

This is the third EEF evaluation of NELI, all of which have found positive effects on young children’s development.

Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the EEF, says of the findings: “This gives early years educators a programme that they can trust to help children needing additional support with their communication and language skills, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

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