We are on the cusp of a societal disaster and not enough is being done.
I'm a speech and language therapist who works for NHS Scotland but I've worked all over the UK for 20 years and every speech and language therapist will tell you the same thing:
These days, children don't have the necessary language skills needed for learning.
Research has shown that between 40-50% of children in the UK have inadequate language skills when entering education. This isn't simply a case of children starting education too early. Although I was loathed to send my own son to school at the age of 4 years and one week old, in Scotland the youngest child starting P1 (the equivalent of reception) is 4:6 with many parents choosing to defer so some children are starting at 5:6.
Yet when I recently screened 30 children starting P1 this year, I found that these children reflected the research; 50% of them had vocabulary skills 12 months below what might be expected at their age.
Scotland has invested quite heavily in closing the gap in attainment by having a pupil equity fund which is distributed directly to schools according to the number of children within a certain criteria, based on their SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) ratings. The school I screened happened to have the highest number of pupils fitting this criteria in my local area and have chosen to invest in a speech and language therapist for 12 months as part of their programme to raise attainment.
There are 5 main influences on language development
- A genetic pre-disposition to having a speech, language or communication disorder. 5-7% of children will have a speech, language or communication disorder and no matter how beautifully their parents interacted with them, they were always going to have a language disorder. So blaming the parents is not always helpful. However....
- Parental interaction. It cannot be denied that you are more likely to see a parent walking down the street, holding a toddler in one hand and looking at their mobile phone in the other. Also, children with poor language skills become parents with poor language skills. Professor James Law of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne often talks about the inter-generational cycle of language deprivation. And before the mumpreneurs start off on one about how their phone is their life and it allows them to work flexibly whilst looking after their kids, something has to give. And its usually the quality face-to-face interaction with your child. Which brings me on to ....
- Secure attachments. Reciprocal cooing, eye contact, warmth of hug, a child feeling nurtured and respected. Communication starts from birth and when a baby is breast or bottle feeding, they are looking up to their parent's face craving connection; attachment through eye contact. When they don't get it back, they stop looking for it. Children are lacking basic pre-verbal skills such as facial expressions and eye contact due to an over-reliance of technology.
- Poverty. When a parent is stressed about housing, work, money, food, heating, its fair to say that creating positive interactions with their child is not high on their agenda. We cannot ignore the evidence which points towards the link between poverty and impoverished language skills. Whilst we might focus on financial poverty, I'd say that time-poverty is a very real factor too. If both parents are working and a child is in childcare from 7.30am-6pm then once both parents are home, its tea, bath and bed (with usually a tired-tantrum thrown in somewhere by either child or parent.)
- Finally, access to excellent early years and childcare has an influence on a child's language development. If we consider that 5-7% of children have a speech, language or communication disorder and 50% of children have impoverished language, then 40-ish % have the potential to catch up with their peers with the right stimulation. Their language delay is transient. Finally, some good news, you'd think. Only problem is; teachers are excellent at teaching, but don't receive training in speech, language and communication as it's a given that the child will be speaking by the time they are 4 or 5. If they have the language skills of a 3 year old, however, its unfair to expect teachers to carry the burden of teaching them to speak too. But there's not much point in starting on phonics if they can't string three words together.
The answer is more investment in early intervention.
There are excellent examples of evidence-based early interventions all around the UK but they are simply not enough. Speech and language therapists are experts in this field. It's time to see early language development as an investment not as an expense that can be cut. If we can allow transient language delayed children to catch up, only then can we work towards closing the attainment gap and speech and language therapy waiting lists will be shortened, allowing the children who truly need our specialist intervention to be seen at the time they need it.
Communication is the most important skill a child needs in order to learn and succeed in life. With up to 60% of young offenders having language disorders and a high percentage of children and young people with communication difficulties having mental health we can't ignore the issue any more. Our current teenagers are the first generation who have will grown up only knowing life with smart phones. Theirs is a life of instant accessing of information, entertainment and, yes, communication. However the first few years of their lives were smart-phone free, allowing them to learn language without having to compete for their parents' attention.
Their own children may not be so fortunate.