6th June 2017

​Why have language skills in the classroom deteriorated?

​Why have language skills in the classroom deteriorated? Cover Photo

Catherine Routley believes the emphasis of language learning needs to be shifted to the early years...

Having been working with both deaf and hearing children with language difficulties for over 30 years, the decline in language skills has increasingly become cause for concern.

Pupils are coming into school with insufficient language, their oral skills not sufficiently developed to support the curriculum.

I am currently seeing children with normal hearing levels needing the type of support and remediation exercises which were once confined to pupils with a hearing loss. Without adequate language skills, listening and reading, speaking and writing are all compromised, resulting in poor academic skills.

Children with poor language skills at age five are significantly more likely to struggle with maths at age 11, a study for Save the Children suggests. For many the economic need to place children in nurseries has meant that much of the pressure is placed on these settings to develop skills in language access. Nursery teachers agree with anecdotal evidence that children are less verbally advanced than at any time in recent history. “The hard research evidence isn’t there as yet because it hasn’t been done,” says Gill Edelman, of I CAN (a charity concerned with speech and language difficulties in children). “But there is a growing body of opinion among professionals that there are more children than there used to be with communication difficulties – and boys are three times more likely to have problems than girls.”

The number of children who have speech and language difficulties at nursery placements is rising in nurseries with little on the horizon to suggest this can be remedied. There has been a suggestion to increase the number of graduate nursery teachers but scant mention of where the funding can be sourced. Poor funding means that training is minimal and combined with frequent staff changes contribute to the perpetuation of the problem.

There has also been a shift in the type of pre-school provision provided. Not so long ago they were run by a motherly ‘Mrs Brown’ in a home from home environment providing many quiet opportunities for language scaffolding. Now they are increasingly part of a large business group, held in acoustically unfavourable settings with story time being slotted in wherever possible It is little wonder that many children have insufficient opportunity to develop oral language competence. Free play is used constantly but without purpose – I was recently at a nursery where poor language was a huge issue. Children played outside for the whole of the afternoon with no stimulating toys and uninterested staff who did very little to aid language development.

Nursery teachers are faced with children who are struggling to develop their vocabulary, cannot speak clearly and have difficulty understanding instructions. They are not going to learn these skills from others and need skilled adult interaction.

Oral language provides the foundation to literacy skills, it cannot be acquired through metamorphosis. It is through listening to adults modelling sentence structure and vocabulary the skills can be transmitted and learned.

Formal language instruction is now needed to assist pupils to achieve the proficiency necessary to become successful learners in the classroom.

I have noticed the lack of that all-important skill – active listening. Everything today is visual with pupils increasingly finding listening a difficult skill to achieve. Active listening provides the key to many skills from simple repeating (auditory memory), and paraphrasing (thinking and reasoning) to reflecting (putting the message in own words). Teachers will attest that a simple request such as ‘go to the cupboard and get the pencils’ is met with a blank look. If the first stage of listening is providing a challenge, there is little hope for expansion.

There is something of a blame culture with nurseries being seen as not being effective in promoting language. They, in turn, blame the lack of conversation between parent/carers and young children.

Whilst much of the responsibility is apportioned to the nursery, communication begins from birth and despite many initiatives being set up to underline the need for effective communication at home this has not been solved.

Decline in parent child interaction can be attributed to:

– Loss of extended family surrounding babies which means babies and toddlers spending less time engaging with other family members

– Lack of interaction at family regular family routines

All too frequently children from toddler age upwards never eat with the rest of the family; instead they eat on their own while watching television (the National Family and Parenting Institute found this is the case in almost half of the population). A visit to the supermarket will show mother and toddler both on mobile phones. The one-time discussion about what ‘shall we have for dinner?’ consigned to history.

Within a few years, the wish to communicate via ‘techno talk’ will become the norm with face-to-face communication becoming consigned to history

Nor is it con fined to social class: often parents who can afford it will opt out from having to interact with their children, preferring instead to provide a whole range of out of school activities, even for very young children. The emergence of early years’ speech therapists and settings which specialise specifically in language promotion for young children are evidence of this.

Alan Wells from the Basic Skills Agency found that headteachers believe that, compared with five years ago, fewer pupils now had basic language skills such as speaking audibly and talking voluntarily to others. Less than half of those starting school could recite songs or rhymes.

The ‘leave it to the school approach’ means schools are the final stop. The school now has to ensure access to a curriculum which requires skills within a range of auditory processing competence: listening, auditory perception, vocabulary, inference, and auditory memory, compounded by reduced funding. Children are being asked to complete tasks in Key Stage 1 for which they do not have the foundation.

This problem will not disappear, needing a shift in emphasis by providing an early years structured language programme.

Catherine Routley is a teacher/consultant in special needs and language skills. She is director of Auditory-Actions. For more information visit www.auditory-actions.co.uk or call 07904 313661