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A Generation Adrift

The case for speech, language and communication to take a central role in schools’ policy and practice

Communication is at the core of what we do in business, education and socially. Never before in our history have we been able to communicate as quickly and widely as we can today. There’s no doubt we know good communication when we see it; individuals who can articulate their thoughts and ideas, can use their language to explain new concepts or describe their experiences. They can really listen and understand other perspectives and can hold an audience, regardless of who and how many.

At the foundation of all communication is language – words, which are made up of sounds, constructed and combined into sentences with meaning and used to interact with those around us. This is the same whether we are talking, listening, writing, reading, texting, e-mailing or sharing information on Twitter or Facebook. In essence, communication is being able to listen and talk to each other in order to connect; to structure our thoughts and transform them into a medium that allows them to be shared. The foundation of all communication is human language and although it’s easily taken for granted, it’s the most complex skill we will ever learn.

Bearing in mind the importance of communication in today’s society, surely we want our young people to develop the stongest language and communication skills they are capable of?

The sad reality is this isn’t happening. According to employers, even our graduates lack the communication skills needed for the workplace and at the other end of the scale too many children are struggling to develop basic language and communication as they progress through their educational journey.

These children have speech, language and communication needs (SLCN). Currently they aren’t being identified early or well enough and aren’t being supported to develop their communication skills - impacting on progress and prospects.

The long term impact of SLCN is well documented; impact on attainment, progression and wider social, behavioural and emotional outcomes. We know for example, children with SLCN are at higher risk of exclusion from school1 and that 60-90% of young people in the youth justice system have SLCN, many of which aren’t identified before offending.

Language is complex; multifaceted and multilayered and children can be very good at hiding their language difficulties, showing other ‘symptoms’ that are more tangible, recognisable or easier to understand – poor literacy, poor behaviour, low self esteem and few friendships.

Supporting language and knowing when children are struggling is not hugely difficult; often it’s a ‘tweak’ to good practice, meshed with basic knowledge of language development. It’s the questions we ask ourselves about why children are struggling combined with the reflective practice common to all good practitioners.

We need to understand the language we can expect at different ages and stages and we need to know how we can adapt our own language to ensure children and young people are understanding what’s being said, to show them how to use their language for learning and to ensure we are identifying and supporting all those children who are struggling.

This paper aims to bring together the evidence around why we must focus on speech, language and communication skills, which are important in their own right and as a vehicle for learning, social interaction, inclusion and independence, for all children and young people and particularly for those who have SLCN. It also highlights the fact that these skills can be supported and aims to provide a call to action to achieve this with practical, evidenced solutions.