Improving Teachers'/Teaching Assistants' knowledge and understanding of Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) within education to improve outcomes for children
Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) are the biggest area of special educational need for children in primary schools. Long term, persistent SLCN, including Developmental Language Disorder, affect around 10% of children in the UK (talkingpoint.org.uk). In areas of social disadvantage, this number can rise to 50% of children starting school without the communication skills they need to fulfil their potential (Talking about a Generation, The Communication Trust 2017).
Nationally, Headteachers are citing SLCN and children starting school with poor language skills as one of their biggest area of concerns. In response to this the government has begun to fund projects to close the word gap and has just launched ‘Hungry Little Minds’ a project to develop communication skills in the under 5s.
To add a local context, our school data (October 2018) showed that 85% of the children assessed in the ‘Talk More’ screening for 2 year olds failed to meet the expected standard and 39% of pupils failed the Speech and Language Link screening of understanding on school entry.
On further data analysis, school leaders found that children with SLCN struggle to close the attainment gap and continue to achieve significantly below the expected standards throughout their primary education.
In light of research findings that “vocabulary by the age 4 is the best predictor of achievement at age 16 out of all measures yet studied.” (Roulstone et al 2011), three Exeter primary schools undertook this action research project with Talk Matters South West. The aim was to train staff in effective talk strategies and embed a systematic approach to developing language skills to improve the outcomes of children who start school with SLCN.
To begin to meet these significant needs, our action research project has focused on:
School leaders in each school setting tracked the impact of these strategies, on children’s communication skills in each of the early year’s settings.
This project intended to raise awareness and improve professional skills amongst school staff in order that they can better support children with SLCN in their schools.
The project has been spearheaded and coordinated by Ali Hirst, SENDCo at Whipton Barton Federation, working with Lucy Bomford, Speech and Language Therapist with Talk Matters South West. This project has brought together three schools and focused on making language development a core part of universal provision in the Early Years as a way to improve outcomes for children with SLCN.
We went about doing this by raising the profile of talk within the Early Year’s settings, skilling up staff and engaging with parents.
It has involved:
Data gathering (5 core strategies)
Staff were asked to complete a pre and post project self-evaluation form. We also screened a number of children from each setting, some who were meeting ARE, and an equal number for whom there were concerns around SLC, across the age ranges (2, 3, 4, 5) prior to and at the end of the project.
The assessment comprised a picture-based vocabulary assessment (the Renfrew Word Finding Vocabulary Scales) (or shorter, object-based assessment for children aged 2-2;11) and a language sample based on sharing a high-interest book (You Choose by Nick Sharratt). Schools Early Years data has also been used to measure changes for the pupils who were selected for assessment.
The approach to the individual school visits varied according to the needs of each setting, and were adapted in consultation between Talk Matters South West and each project lead, as we went through the project.
Quantitative – Summary
We recognise that there are a number of influences on language development, and it is not possible to determine exactly how much of the progress seen is due solely to the project, and how much to other factors such as maturation, input from home and any targeted input. We also recognise that, in terms of the vocabulary assessment, the children may not have been exposed to the test vocabulary in the intervening period and they therefore may not have made progress on that measure. For this reason, a language sample was also gathered to look at functional communication.
In terms of schools data, the evidence shows significant progress has been made, in particular in relation to those children who are working below ARE.
Vocabulary assessment and language sample
Prior to the start of the Action Research Project, we assessed the expressive language of six children in each setting by looking at vocabulary knowledge and by gathering a language sample as part of the assessment using an exciting book as a talking tool.
Impact on staff (measurable impact sheets from each school)
All project leads feel the project has raised the profile of talk within their staff groups. Talk is now a key part of planning for teachers. Adults are more aware of how to create opportunities for children to talk and using the core strategies to give time, expand language and model and repeat target vocabulary. Adults have been encouraged to think about vocabulary to use in their modelling and this has linked with ‘treasures’ and ‘Know, grow and show’ (link to vocabulary project).
Lead professionals appreciated information and training for their staff being delivered by an outside professional (SLT), rather than coming from them and felt this supported the staff development programme within their school. Establishing room leads as communication champions has helped to embed the core strategies and importance of talk.
Benefits have been noted to all pupils, not just the least able e.g. teachers have noticed children using ‘grow’ vocabulary, which has been modelled by staff, not only in their talking but also in their writing.
Qualitative assessment and Early Years data from project leads
In terms of impact, the principal gain has been that the project has raised awareness amongst staff. There is now more to do on reflective practice. Focusing on talk has had an impact on the development of the environment in terms of ensuring that it is a communication friendly space.
One of the changes has been the paring down of visual clutter. The project has helped to streamline communication with staff, focusing in on the key messages and the things which are going to enable children to progress in terms of C&L and more widely across the curriculum. It has given us a real springboard for future development and next steps for the year ahead in terms of assessment for next term and CPD for staff.
The project has brought together all the communication friendly practices already in place (e.g. Makaton) and linked to other projects to develop communication, language and literacy which are going on across the school.
The team have increased their confidence in how they can support all the children with their communication skills and helped to get them ‘on board’ and given them a focus. We have looked at the balance between interactions and observations and adjusted this to allow adults to be more responsive in their interactions with our children.
The project has:
We have increased our use of Tapestry during the project, and made a board linked to this within the setting to draw attention to the talk focus and encourage parental involvement.
Overall, staff are now more aware of the strategies they can use to support talk, particularly during independent learning time. This has been especially noticeable in relation to waiting time and use of comment vs questions. Quiet spaces have been reviewed and extended to support C&L and PSED.
It has been helpful to direct staff to seek out children within continuous provision, rather than taking children out for targeted intervention, thereby having a focus on language in context and real situations. We have also been adjusting the balance between meaningful interaction and observations, which staff have found can get in the way of communication.
This project has fitted in well with the working memory project already underway at the school, and we have been able to link developing memory skills with extending expressive language and understanding. Some parents have become enthusiastic about their children using the new vocabulary and got involved in praising this. In so doing, they have also raised the importance of communication in their child’s eyes.
The project has:
The school now has a systematic approach to teaching vocabulary and developing language skills in our early years setting. Staff plan for talk, identify opportunities to enrich language and have a range of strategies to encourage meaningful interactions. They introduce new vocabulary in context and have embedded practices which deepen the children’s understanding.
All three schools agree that it is important that a focus on developing communication skills is not isolated or seen as an ‘add on’ for children with difficulties but have found that it works alongside and is becoming part of the everyday high-quality universal provision.
Case study examples
A child on track to exceed expectations has been using ‘grow’ vocabulary that has been a focus, not only in talking, but in their writing.
We have noticed an improvement in use of tenses and an increased ability of children to talk about themselves. Tapestry has been helpful to evidence developments in talk.
A child who was assessed pre and post project was able to use a Total Communication approach by signing to show her understanding of the pictures presented, and communicate what they were for, which raised her score rom 4/50 pre to 14/50 afterwards. 10 of these were signs/gestures. This child is working significantly below ARE and is also being seen by the NHS speech and language therapist.
Key Learning Points
The project has enabled us to try out using a wider range of tools and methods for identifying pupils with SLCN. Previously we mainly used Language Link in Reception. This is just a screening tool, and only looks at understanding of language. No one tool can identify all areas of need. By introducing structures around identifying and recording areas of concern, and using new methods of screening, such as the vocabulary tool, we hope that we will be able to identify children earlier, more quickly and more effectively. By identifying children earlier, we have more time to intervene through targeted and, if required specialist support to lessen the impact of their SLCN and any potential impact on PSED or behaviour.
Being involved in the project has kept the momentum up amongst the staff and this has enabled us to begin to embed the core TALK strategies across all staff members. We recognise that, across all schools, some staff members have found it harder than others to implement the five core strategies.
The project has helped to develop and maintain high expectations around language amongst staff and families, and we all want to build on this in the future (School 1). Tapestry has been helpful in engaging families in the project (School 2). We would like to introduce new ways of raising the profile of and the expectations around communication skills, for example making more use of the ‘Terrific Talker’ e-award, which we developed as part of school talk strategy (School 3).
School 3, who have been working on their TALK project with Talk Matters South West since October 2017, were able to share what has worked for them with the two other schools. For example: ongoing ‘in house’ staff training in the 5 core strategies, small group provision for EYs, KS1 and KS2, a change to how they plan for talk, consistent use of vocabulary boards and the 5 core strategies, use of video and working with a ‘buddy’ for staff development.
As a result they have seen a measureable affect in the overall pupil outcome EYs data, as well as the progress within the assessments used in the project (and for 2 of the pupils with specific difficulties, significant progress in some aspects of their SpLD data).
One thing that we would have done differently with hindsight is to have put in place more pre-input outcome measures e.g. around staff confidence and knowledge of SLCN and supporting communication development. There are resources available to do this in more detail, such as the Communication Trust’s Speech, Language and Communication Framework.
How we are going to share the findings of our project
Please contact Mark Drew at Exeter Consortium on firstname.lastname@example.org or 01392 927171 who will put you in touch with the project lead.