Speech, language, and communication needs: Identification and intervention

Many students will arrive in year 7 with unidentified speech, language, and communication needs – and the older they get the harder they are to identify. We speak to Louise Burton, a speech and language therapist, about how we can spot the signs and support young people.
Speech, language, and communication needs: Identification and intervention
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Official figures tell us that 1 in 10 children and young people are affected by long-term and persistent speech, language, and communication needs (Public Health England, 2020).

However, this could be the tip of the iceberg considering that research suggests as many as 40% of young people with SLCN are going unidentified – with significant implications for their academic and social-emotional outcomes (Communication Trust, 2014).

What is more, older students are among the hardest to spot, with particular problems identifying those with difficulties in understanding – an estimated 29% go unidentified at primary level compared to 48% in key stage 3.

The Communication Trust also found that 45% of students who have difficulties with vocabulary fly under the radar – as do 52% who struggle with formulating sentences.

Other evidence, meanwhile, suggests that 8 in 10 children with emotional and behaviour disorders have unidentified language difficulties (Hollo et al, 2014), while among children presenting to mental health services, 64% of 7 to 14-year-olds referred to psychiatric services have SLCN and 40% of these were unidentified (ICAN & RCSLT, 2018).

However, SEND statistics show that only 345,000 students with SLCN as a primary need were recognised via SEN Support or an Education, Health, and Care Plan in 2022/23 (DfE, 2023).

So it is clear that a substantial number of students are going unsupported, which is particularly worrying when we consider that only around 20% of students with SLCN gain grade 4 or above in English and maths at GCSE, compared with 64% of all students (ICAN & RCSLT, 2018).

A known unknown

So, we know there is an issue with consistently identifying SLCN. What is also clear is that school attendance alone will not improve these children's language skills, meaning difficulties can often persist well into secondary education (Spencer et al, 2012).

It is a daunting challenge at secondary level because by this age many young people have become adept at masking their difficulties.

One specific type of SLCN is Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), which affects 7.6% of children – two in an average classroom. DLD is a condition which involves long-term challenges for children when talking and/or understanding words. They may find it hard to express their ideas or understand what others say to them.

There are a variety of reasons or contributing factors as to why children develop SLCN although there is not a lot of research in this area. We do know, however, that SLCN can be more common among disadvantaged young people. Upwards of 50% of children on school entry in areas of social disadvantage have below average language skills, for example (Law et al, 2011).

And Covid-19 has not helped. Lockdowns during the pandemic meant that some children were unable to access therapy or get the enriching experiences that school might have offered at key points in their development.

Louise Burton, a speech and language therapist and research lead at Speech and Language Link, explained: “We know from the research that school attendance alone isn’t enough if children don’t have the language skills to make adequate next steps in their learning.

“In secondary school, the demands in oracy increase hugely. People often think that oracy skills are fully honed by the time young people get to secondary school, but actually they continue developing until the age of 25 – so there is a real need to support language and communication where students need it.

“Ultimately, if a pupil is struggling to make progress academically, presenting with challenging behaviour or struggling socially, it is very likely that the underlying cause is SLCN. To address this, schools need to screen pupils – it’s the only way to guarantee that we are identifying all the pupils who need support.”

Spotting the signs

The good news is that once identified and with the right support, students with SLCN can make excellent progress.

However, Ms Burton warned: “Difficulties with understanding are almost impossible to spot from observation alone.

“It’s just not something that is observable – it is all going on in a child’s head and these children, particularly once they get to secondary level, have become really good at masking their difficulties. They have good surface language skills, they are really good at copying their peers, or hiding behind learnt classroom routines. So it’s really challenging to identify which children are having difficulties.”

So what are other signs we might look for? “Speech, language, and communication underpin children’s ability to learn across all subjects, so teachers might find that students don’t follow instructions or do not understand what they are being asked to do,” Ms Burton continued.

“If you ask them to tidy up because it’s time for lunch, they might just hear the word ‘lunch’ and not fulfil the rest of the task. Nuance and sarcasm are aspects of communication that are difficult for them to pick up, too.”

Misbehaviour and inattention are common problems because students cannot follow what is happening: “Children who are disengaged can be disruptive or misbehave. Staff may also misconstrue a failure to react to an instruction as being naughty or disruptive, and getting into trouble without really knowing why can affect a child’s mental health and self-esteem. It is no coincidence that these young people are at risk of exclusion.”

A package of support

Speech and Language Link provides Secondary Language Link, which fosters a whole-school approach to SLCN identification and support and includes a standardised assessment that can be used with all students on arrival in year 7 to ensure that no-one falls through the cracks. It also includes teacher training materials.

Ms Burton explained: “There are small changes that teachers can make to the way they use language in the classroom that can make a big difference – for example, breaking down instructions into smaller chunks, over-teaching, and over-learning vocabulary, and making explicit links between the teaching of new words with words that students already know and their context.”

The Speech and Language Link package includes a toolkit to support teachers with these techniques as well as in understanding and spotting SLCN. It also includes information about the impact of SLCN on young people’s development and other measures that can be taken to support them.

The most effective approach according to Ms Burton, and something that is at the heart of Secondary Language Link, is using a three-tier framework: “That begins with a universal approach to develop the language and communication skills of all children and then a smaller number of children will require more targeted intervention. The final tier will be your specialist support. It is designed so the school is making the best use of its resources.”

Ms Burton added: “Training teachers is very important. Schools should aim to be communication-friendly settings that constantly build knowledge and expertise among staff. This is not just a job for the SENCO – it’s a job for everyone.”

Speech & Language Link

  • Speech & Language Link develops innovative and award-winning support packages for children with SLCN. In particular, Secondary Language Link is a comprehensive package for supporting students with SLCN. It combines a robust standardised assessment with planned and fully resourced targeted small group interventions and a staff training toolkit. This enables secondary schools to identify and support the language and communication needs of key stage 3 students. Visit https://speechandlanguage.info/

Further information & references

  • Communication Trust: Talk of the Town: Evaluation report, 2014.
  • DfE: Academic year 2022/23: SEN in England, 2023: http://tinyurl.com/38kkesxr
  • Hollo, Wehby & Oliver: Unidentified language deficits in children with emotional and behavioral disorders, Exceptional Children (80,2), 2014: https://doi.org/10.1177/001440291408000203
  • ICAN & RCSLT: Bercow: 10 years on, 2018: bercow10yearson.com
  • Law, McBean & Rush: Communication skills in a population of primary school-aged children raised in an area of pronounced social disadvantage,International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders (46,6), 2011.
  • Public Health England: Best start in speech, language, and communication: Supporting evidence, 2020: http://tinyurl.com/58syr54d
  • Spencer, Clegg & Stackhouse: Language and disadvantage: A comparison of the language abilities of adolescents from two different socioeconomic areas,International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders (47,3), 2012.

Sponsored content

  • This article has been published by SecEd with sponsorship from Speech and Language Link. It has been written and produced to a brief agreed in advance with Speech and Language Link.

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