Identifying, assessing and supporting young children’s speech, language and communication in early years settings

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A landmark government commissioned review of Services for Children and Young People with Speech, Language and Communication Needs [SLCN] (Bercow Report, 2008) signalled the centrality of SLC in children’s development, learning and later academic and life-long success. It further stimulated increased attention and interest in SLC from government and led to a significant government-funded research programme (Better Communication Research Programme, 2012) and a ‘Year of Communication’ (2011) that aimed to raise awareness of the needs of children with SLCN. Furthermore, this established a national prevalence of SLCN of 7 % of all children in England, 1% of children having severe or complex SLCN needing long-term specialist provision, and a further 50% of five-year-old children living in the most disadvantaged areas of England having speech and language skills that were significantly lower than those of their peers. The effectiveness of Early Intervention [EI] was a key theme resulting from the Bercow Report (2008) and subsequent independent reviews. Most significantly, Bercow (2008) was confident that the majority of difficulties and delays in the acquisition of SLC could be identified as early as the second year of life and emphasised the role of early years practitioners in the early identification, assessment and support of young children’s SLCN.

The Bercow Report (2008) stressed the role of early years practitioners with regard to the early identification of problems with children’s SLC development so that the number of children reaching compulsory school age identified with SLCN and SEND could be reduced through universal, targeted and specialist EI. Nutbrown (2012: 19-20) noted that for early years practitioners a “key part of understanding how and when children typically developed was being able to notice signs of slower, or different development and whether or not an apparent delay in development was an indication of other SEND”. She was particularly concerned that early years practitioners should be equipped with the knowledge about:

  • what to look for in this regard;
  • how to respond to it;
  • how to interact with parents and the multi-agency professionals who may play a part in supporting a child with SEND, with EI.

My PhD therefore aimed to explore the policy-to-practice context to the delays and difficulties in the acquisition of SLC in the first five years using a mixed-methods interpretive case study design. Nine children were observed in 11 different early years settings (some children attended combined placements), eleven early years practitioners and nine parents were interviewed in addition to an initial survey.

Using a bioecological model as person-process-context-time model to understand the phenomenon of early identification, assessment and support of SLCN revealed that the processes and structures within early years settings such as the size of settings, age ranges of children, grouping of children, activities provided for them and adult pedagogical interactions impacted on children’s communicative interactions with others, adults and peers. Children’s use of solitary self-talk was an interesting finding given its reported usefulness for children in forming a bridge between social speech and inner speech, keeping track of their thoughts and regulating their emotions.

At the microcontext of the home environment, parents appeared to be supportive, were realistic in their expectations for children and sought professional help for their children when needed. However, it had been easier for some parents to secure professional help than others. Parents were content that their child had made progress in SLC in their early years setting and appreciated the benefit for their child of attending early care and education settings.

At the microcontext of early years settings, early years practitioners were observed to be fulfilling their role of assessing, monitoring and identifying problems with children SLC competently. However, the majority of children identified with SLCN from survey responses were aged twenty-four to sixty months with few in the twelve to twenty-four month age band suggested by Bercow (2008). Specialist settings were using a wider range of tools for assessment and monitoring than mainstream settings which helped them to monitor progress in finer detail. The majority of practitioners reported that their initial training had not equipped them adequately to identify problems with SLC, work with parents and other professionals or support children with EAL. Whilst all practitioners had attended post-experience training related to SLCN and SEND, only one had attended training related to supporting children with EAL.

Specialist and mainstream placements were found to complement one another, although the wide variation in adult-led/child-initiated play within and across groups was surprising since this was found to have a strong influence on the amount and quality of adult and child-initiated talk. This served to reinforce the view that children with delays and deviance need time in a social context to rehearse speech as well as to observe, listen to and imitate known figures in familiar contexts.

Specialist settings were able to plan very intensive and closely matched tasks that can become de-contextualised and thus become skill-and-drill in nature. Mainstream settings were able to build on incidental activities and familiar social contexts providing contextualised SLC and behavioural models. Language learning for young children is not a skill but a culturally learned behaviour created through patterns of action and interaction in a specific social context. Talking to young children, about the things that the caregiver and child do together with objects (to create joint attention), simplifying sequences of actions that can be talked about and later repeated by the child is a foundational step in language development.

Mainstream practitioners would benefit from gaining a more detailed knowledge of normal or typical patterns of language development, especially the early stages related to attunement, relationship-building and turn-taking which were shown to be fundamental to SLC development. Specialist practitioners might benefit from considering building and developing a social contextual dimension into planned intensive one-to-one SLC activities so children have the opportunity not only practise new skills, but also to apply them in a socially appropriate situation with the benefit of adult scaffolding. Children learn language through incidental rather than didactic learning opportunities.

Both specialist and mainstream practitioners would benefit from developing a wider range of strategies and support resources for EAL, especially with regard to Assistive and Augmentative Communication (for example signs and widgets), for parents and children. These could profitably be used more extensively in mainstream settings.

At the exo level of LA influence, the study suggests that whilst children with severe and complex SLCN received specialist early years provision and considerable support from Speech and Language Therapists, this was not the case for children with mild to moderate and therefore less easily recognisable SLCN. Although children with mild to moderate SLCN and EAL had some access to specialist services, it was not comparable to that offered to children with severe and complex SLCN. Although this seemed appropriate, it raised the question of how those children at risk from developing SEND might have their developmental trajectory optimised given the importance of development in the first three years of life stressed by Government policy reports such as the Bercow Review (2008).

SLCN as observed in this study varied in nature, intensity and onset. Most children had been identified by professionals or parents as having a difficulty by the age of two years, six months. This suggests that the education and health check required to take place at approximately two to two years six months is appropriate. The Children and Families Act will serve to strengthen support for children with more severe difficulties. However, the reduction in LA services following austerity measures may threaten the prescribed and important extra support by Area SENCOS, Educational Psychologists and SLTs for mainstream practitioners who support children with mild to moderate SLCN.

The study has highlighted the difficult and subjective nature of early identification and assessment and the wide variation in children’s early experiences, social interaction, SLC, socio-economic and socio-cultural environments. The appropriateness of requiring generalist practitioners to undertake specialist roles with reported reductions in support from other professionals due to austerity measures remains an overarching challenge for policy makers to address. However, if problems are not identified early then later problems with communication, language and literacy skills and other areas of the curriculum, accompanied by poor self-esteem and motivation to learn were anticipated by practitioners in this study and other research (for example, Bercow Report, 2008). Whilst the study has focused on learning and competence in SLC, it has been beyond its scope to extend to consideration of broader literacy development.

Early identification of problems requires observation over time with children with milder delays being identified later than the second year of life suggested by Bercow Report (2008). Children can make satisfactory progress when provided with the right specialist support and resources in mainstream early care and education alongside their typically developing peers. All children could benefit from:

… an unbreakable determination to seize the opportunity that this review offers to help some of our most vulnerable children and young people. (Bercow Report, 2008: 64)

Agreement as to how to achieve the aims established within the Bercow Report (2008) to ensure effective EI for all children needs to be fully understood and acted upon. A shared understanding of early SLC development across professional groups is a necessary pre-requisite to achieving this.

How to cite this study:  Blackburn, C. (2014) The Policy-to-practice context to the delays and difficulties in the acquisition of speech, language and communication in the first five years.  Unpublished PhD thesis, Birmingham: Birmingham City University


Bercow, J. (2008) The Bercow Report. A Review of Services for Children and Young People (0-19) with Speech, Language and Communication Needs. Nottingham: Department of Children, Schools and Families

Nutbrown, C. (2012) Review of Early Education and Childcare Qualifications: Final Report. London: Department for Education


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