Language difficulties: Assessment and action

Written by: Nicky Parrott | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Given the importance of language skills, the assessment of difficulties early on is vital. SENCO Nicky Parrott discusses her schools’ approach to spotting problems and some of their interventions to improve outcomes

At Liphook Infant and Junior Schools, we believe that language is the vehicle that underpins our ability to access learning. Without age-appropriate language skills, a child’s ability to access the curriculum and make good progress is far more limited.

Furthermore, these difficulties can then exacerbate as the child moves through school and the language being taught rapidly becomes more complex and abstract.
Indeed, the size of a pupil’s vocabulary in their early years of schooling (the number and variety of words that the young person knows) is a significant predictor of academic attainment in later schooling and of success in life (Save the Children, 2016; Parsons & Schoon, 2011).

At Liphook (like so many places) we are seeing an increasing number of children arriving in their Reception year with language difficulties. Our first and foremost questions were: how can we improve outcomes for these children and how can we ensure that these children have the best learning opportunities we can give them?
Solving the problems

First, we needed a way of assessing all children on entry to their Reception year so we could identify potential language difficulties. We purchased Language Link, a receptive language assessment and intervention programme, so that we could assess all children on entry to school. This led us to another question: if we are able to assess receptive language now, how can we identify expressive language difficulties?

To resolve this, we sent a member of staff on an Elklan course for staff working with speech, language and communication needs as well as further training led by educational psychologists and speech and language therapists relating to supporting children with language difficulties in the mainstream classroom.
This member of staff now undertakes Language Link with all children on entry to school. She can initiate verbal communication with them while administering the assessment and asking questions to identify possible expressive language concerns as well.

Once the assessment has been completed, the Language Link programme gives a standardised score for each child and identifies those that need some additional support in specific areas. The speech and language-trained member of staff can then carry out intervention support for these children in small groups.

There is also a small number of children (usually eight to nine per cent of the year group) who are identified as having more significant difficulties with language. These children need swift access to professional support. However, as we are all aware, at present the NHS speech and language service has a very significant caseload for the number of therapists available.

As such, we made the decision to be part of a cluster of schools that have bought into an independent speech and language service to get swifter response times for assessments so that we can work on their language difficulties as soon as possible.

The service visits our federation regularly (once every half-term) so we can refer children for assessment quickly and programmes are received in a short space of time. As soon as we have children’s individual targets their intervention sessions can begin.

We do not remove children from core subject lessons; therefore our interventions take place around these times. The speech and language trained member of staff undertakes all language interventions with children across the infant school. An additional member of staff has been trained in ELKLAN at the junior school to continue any programmes that are on-going beyond year 2.

Following research evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation, all speech and language interventions are undertaken at least three times per week wherever possible (EEF, 2018).

A consistent focus of the sessions is the adult asking the children “Do you remember what we learnt last time?” at the beginning and “What have we been learning today?” at the end of the sessions. Additionally, with children that have more significant difficulties in Reception year, the speech and language trained member of staff has been giving a shorter intervention but doing this twice per day.

This means that the first session is skills-based and is delivered just outside the classroom and the second session is using this skill with the child during their play in the Reception setting to help them link their language targets to their learning in class.

Linking interventions to the classroom and developing ownership of targets

We know that speech and language targets can be harder to relate back into classroom practice as children move through school and we wanted to address this issue so that children would use their targets in all their learning.

We devised child-friendly learning plans using accessible language for the targets and a Lego brick traffic light system so that children have ownership of their targets and know where they are in their learning and what they are working towards.

New targets tend to start on the red Lego brick, which means “I need more practice”. As the child becomes more confident they move to the yellow Lego brick, which means “I can achieve this with support in my intervention session”.

Following this, the child progresses to the green Lego brick, which means “I can achieve this independently within my intervention session”. Finally, they move to the blue Lego brick, which means “I can achieve this target in all my learning”.

The learning plans directly support the children in their learning as they take it to every speech and language intervention session and share it with the adult delivering the intervention. This approach made a real difference to some of the children and they could explain their targets and what they needed to learn.

However, for those children who were still struggling to read, this meant that they were struggling to access the learning plans as much as we would have liked. To address this, we bought a range of talking tins to enhance the learning plans (you can find plenty of options via a quick search online).

Children in Reception with language difficulties each have a talking tin in the shape of a turtle. It is waterproof so can go in water and also in sand trays and has a 10-second record time.

Children in year 1 have a talking tin in the shape of a magnifying glass which has a 30-second record time. Children in year 2 have a talking tin in the shape of an A4 sized clipboard which has a 40-second recording time.

Children in years 3 and 4 have a recordable talk time card which records for one minute so they can give examples relating to the target they have been learning in addition to recording the target. The children always start their talking tin by saying “Today I have been learning to...” then they can record which target they have been focusing on.

The talking tins have been very positive in allowing all children ownership of their targets, as each time the children go to their intervention session they listen to their talking tin on the way and are therefore happy that they feel confident in knowing what they have been learning in the previous session.

In addition to this the children take the learning plans and talking tins back into class so that their teacher or learning support assistant can listen to it before the end of the day and ask them a question or two related to their language target.

This helps the children to understand that they need to use their targets in all their learning and it helps their teacher to be clear how the child’s targets relate to their learning in the classroom.

Embedding this approach

Alongside this we needed to ensure that every member of staff was enabling this approach to maximise its impact. Therefore, when the senior leadership team is undertaking observations or monitoring in the afternoons, they look for opportunities where staff are listening to the talking tins and asking questions relating to the target(s) back in the classroom once the child has returned from their intervention session.

Furthermore, we ensured that a performance management target for all learning support assistants related to this. These approaches have enabled us to ensure that this work was embedded across the federation.

Impact on outcomes

The impact of this approach for children with language difficulties has been very positive. We are seeing swift progress for the vast majority of children and this has been confirmed from the positive feedback we have received from the independent speech and language service and the NHS speech and language service.

Many children are being discharged from the service much more quickly and when we re-assess their receptive language skills annually using the Language Link assessment we are consistently seeing significant improvements in their standardised scores. Furthermore, children are more regularly making accelerated progress or even achieving age-related expectations in some or all core subjects at each of our data collection points throughout the year.

As SENCO, when I monitor these children during their interventions and when they are back in the classroom each term, I am seeing greater progress.

Through undertaking pupil conferencing each term I am finding that: they all have a clear understanding of the child-friendly learning plans and Lego brick progression system; they know what their targets are, where they are in their learning and what their next steps are; most of these children are able to say how they think their intervention is helping them in their learning.

The book scrutiny I undertake each term is also showing accelerated progress and that children’s targets are consistently being reinforced back in the classroom. The overall data for these children is showing that an increasing number are making accelerated progress. We have been undertaking this approach to supporting children with language difficulties at Liphook for more than two years now and we are finding it very successful in ensuring accelerated progress for children. 

  • Nicky Parrott is SENCO for the Federation of Liphook Infant School and Liphook CE Junior School in Hampshire.

Further information & resources

  • Education Endowment Foundation: One-to-one tuition research summary, Teaching and Learning Toolkit, August 2018: http://bit.ly/2phRQJO
  • Elklan Speech and Language Training: www.elklan.co.uk
  • Language Link: https://speechandlanguage.info
  • Parsons & Schoon: Long-term outcomes for children with early language problems, Children & Society Vol 25, 2011.
  • Save the Children: Early language development and children’s primary school attainment in English and maths, December 2015: http://bit.ly/2YSLxx6


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