Early years: how targeted intervention is improving language skills

Andrew Thraves, GL Assessment
Friday, December 19, 2014

An increasing number of local authorities and childcare consortiums are reporting a frequency of language development delays amongst even the youngest children, with as many as one in 10 children not possessing adequate skills. When you consider that the ability to communicate well is a cornerstone for success in education, it’s clearly vital this issue is tackled head on.

Sure Start Children’s Centres in Lancaster were swift to respond when early years staff across pre-schools, nurseries and child-minding settings noticed a worrying trend – many young children were joining with significant gaps in their communication skills. The authority began a project to monitor and improve language skills amongst three and four year olds to address the issue.  


Reducing the risk of underachievement

“Children were starting with significant gaps in the words they understood, for example the difference between ‘he’ and ‘she’, as they are so used to hearing names instead,” comments Angela Dixon, qualified early years teacher and SENCO, who was seconded to

co-ordinate the project. “It’s crucial we do everything we can to get children off to the best start and that begins by identifying and addressing communication needs as soon as possible.”

Her thoughts echo the findings of MP Graham Allen in his ‘Early Intervention: The Next Steps 2011’ report, which states that “A child’s development score at just 22 months can serve as an accurate predictor of educational outcomes at 26 years…Early intervention is the answer: low in cost, high in results, it can have a lasting impact on all children…”.


Starting early

As part of the initiative in Lancaster, more than 50 staff were trained to screen all three and four year old children entering nursery settings, along with targeted younger children, to establish a starting point, explains Angela. “I worked closely with a trained speech therapist, Gillian White, and we instructed staff how to use a screening toolkit called WellComm from GL Assessment designed for this situation.

“Once screened, it’s easy to see which children need some sort of intervention as they are allocated a green, amber or red banding. Amber means extra support is needed, and red means we should also consider referral to a specialist for further advice.”


It’s good to talk

Even while waiting for referrals, staff were able to begin to address the issues identified as the WellComm toolkit comes with The Big Book of Ideas, full of ways nursery and children centre staff can immediately start interventions for those children who don’t achieve the green band. “At our nursery school even the children with a green banding have WellComm targets using either step up activities or working towards the next age band.

This could be in the form of focused questions, stories and rhymes, or games.

“Being able to offer practical help straight away makes a huge difference to the success of the initiative. For example, we found that many children didn’t understand the word ‘isn’t’ as staff have always endeavoured to use positive language with them for example. Now we tailor what we say, such as ‘who isn’t wearing wellies today?’

“Similarly, when we discovered our children struggled with the meaning of ‘many’ and ‘few’, we used a story about Percy the Park Keeper and his adventures with ‘many rabbits’ and ‘a few squirrels’ to help children become familiar with the concepts.”

At one of the nursery schools, 80% of children speak English as an additional language so staff face challenges in meeting their communication needs. “The language mix is diverse, including Kurdish and Russian, but with the toolkit we can uncover if any communication issues are down to a language barrier or a child’s developmental needs.”


A sustainable start

Nursery staff regularly re-screen children to monitor progress. As getting children ‘school ready’ is one of the aims of the children’s centres, results are shared both with parents and with primary schools when a child moves up to reception classes.

“Over an eight month period of running the programme, the amount of children who screened red fell from 17% to 6%, and the amount who screened amber fell from 23% to 11% so it has been a great success.

“We all know failure to meet communications needs can cause dire long-term consequences, so we are considering using the Early Years Pupil Premium funding to continue our work.”

Research has shown again and again that the early identification of need coupled with good support is the best way to help children over come specific learning issues. Lancaster Children’s Centres know it’s imperative to arm children early on with the ability to express themselves adequately. With WellComm, they will always know what stage they’re at in reaching this target.

For more information, please call 0845 602 1937 or visit the GL Assessment website.

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