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Life chances: the importance of language and communication skills

This month I started thinking about the links between language and communication, life chances and resilience. As is often the way when I start thinking about these blogs something comes on to my radar which steers it in a certain direction. This month it's a report submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology focusing on the adverse impact of childhood disadvantage, which picked up on the themes addressed in the Early Intervention Foundation Report Language as a Child Wellbeing Indicator

What's in the report?

The report focuses on the importance of language and communication skills to social mobility and life chances, as well as the underlying importance for wellbeing and long term mental health.

What's language and communication got to do with life chances?

This paper focuses on the risk factor of being from a socially disadvantaged background and how this impacts on long term outcomes. It also suggests that children who start with skills lower than their peers end up remaining lower. This is the reverse of what many Head Teachers report - that children catch up by the end of the Foundation Stage. This brings the early years and how we support children sharply into focus if the gap persists.

If the gap still remains– in other words children start school with lower skills and end up leaving with lower skills - then difficulties may become entrenched. There is ongoing research needed into what support and interventions are effective but one of the protective factors seems to be supporting children’s language and development in the early years through the home learning environment.

The importance of language in learning and development are well documented. For example poor language skills impact on many aspects of children's learning such as maths and literacy. The report highlights how hard it is to do mental maths if you haven't got the language skills to think maths questions through. These challenges don't go away and an analysis from thousands of children in the UK’s BCS70 study showed that children with low language scores at five years continued to have lower literacy, increased risk of mental health problems and lower employment levels in their mid-thirties. This underpins the vital role that language and communication skills have in supporting children's literacy development, wellbeing and long term outcomes.

Language skills may also have a role to play in supporting and developing children's resilience but more research is needed into how this works and how we can help children develop this capacity

To read more about these links you can download I CAN's factsheets here. For more about the links between language and emotional development click here.

Language and communication: a public health issue

The report states that:

There is support for research for children with clearly identified clinical needs, but preventative services are much less well developed despite understanding of the risk. No one organisation has an oversight of the intervention in this area although, as we have seen, a number are involved. Early development has been picked up as a public health issue by UNICEF but child development has not become a priority as far as public health services are concerned.

As we know, early years practitioners are involved in the integrated reviews so there is an opportunity to track children's language development – but how effectively is this being done?

What can we do as practitioners?

  • Raise awareness of the importance of key aspects of the home learning environment for communication development with parents. I CAN's factsheets and resources can support you with this.
  • Provide support for children who are eligible  for 2 year funding by providing a communication supportive environment and be aware of early signs of delayed language.
  • Find out more about local offer and any local services. Some practitioners have fed back that tracking children's language skills have given them a reason to make contact with the child's health visitor and input additional information to the integrated review.
  • Tracking children's progress and know what to expect when. Find out more here.

Reflecting on practice:

  • What resources and information do you have for parents about developing the home learning environment?
  • Are you aware of the Local Offer in your area and what services are available to families and practitioners? If you are, how do you share this information?
  • How is the integrated review working in your area? Are there any ways you could support moving this forward?

The report highlights the fundamental importance of language and communication skills for children's life changes and long term outcomes. Although there is no one co-ordinated preventative programme we can all play a part in both raising awareness of the vital role that language and communication play and also supporting children and families who may be at risk. 

About the Author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents. Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 

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