Improving learner outcomes

Identifying and supporting speech, language and communication needs

Maria Buttuller

Author Maria Buttuller

Date 31st Dec 2019


Language is one of the most important skills we will ever learn, and the ability to use and understand language is essential for the development of all children. It’s crucial, therefore, that those working with children on a daily basis are able to identify, support and refer children with suspected SLCN.

Problems with speech and language are the most common developmental difficulties that children encounter, and studies indicate that as many as 50% of children start school lacking such skills that are vital for getting off to a good start in education.

According to research from The Communication Trust, it is estimated that 10% of all children have long term or persistent speech, language and communication difficulties. This is often known as speech, language and communication needs (SLCN).

The good news is, with the right early intervention, children make better progress, the longer-term impacts are minimised and many children even catch up.

What do we mean by the term ‘SLCN’?

SLCN is an umbrella term used to describe children whose speech, language and communication skills do not develop as expected.  

  • Speech refers to speaking with a clear voice, in a way that makes speech sound interesting and meaningful, speaking without hesitating too much or repeating words or sounds and being able to make signs clearly so people can understand what you say.
  • Language refers to talking and understanding, joining words together into sentences, stories and conversations. It’s knowing the right words to explain what you mean and making sense of what people say.
  • Communication refers to how we interact with others, using language or gestures in different ways, for example, to have a conversation or give directions. It’s also being able to understand other people’s points of view and understanding and using body language and facial expressions.

Children with SLCN may also have specific needs, such as developmental language disorder (DLD) or speech disorder. The term also covers those with related diagnoses that affect speech, language and communication skills, such as hearing impairment, autism or learning disability.


Identification of pupils with SLCN

The SEN and Disabilities Code of Practice highlights the importance of early identification, and the responsibility of education settings to have policies and strategies in place for identifying and responding where there are concerns that a pupil may have an SEN or disability. Paragraph 6.36 says that teachers are responsible and accountable for the progress and development of the pupils in their class, including where pupils access support from teaching assistants or specialist staff.

Paragraphs 6.45-6.56 on pages 100-102 look at the types of action to be taken when a potential SEN is identified: a cycle of "assess, plan, do, review".

‘Red flags’ for identifying children with SLCN

Children with SLCN can find it difficult to listen to and understand lots of spoken language. You may also find that they need more time to process spoken language and that they find it hard to separate out sounds, words and phrases.  Here are some key ‘red flags’ that you can look out for:

  1. Struggling with stories
    By the age of five, children should be able to describe things that have happened using longer sentences, for example, “Today was really great at school. My teacher gave me an award and said it was mine for being so good”. 
  2. Understanding spoken language
    Children may have difficulty with understanding the meaning of words and concepts. They may have problems following instructions, understanding games and tasks, and making sense of what is being said to them. Children with these difficulties may often appear to understand, as they may be getting clues from following other children or guessing from the context. They may also come across as 'difficult' simply because they do not fully understand what is being said.
  3. Poor behaviour
    Behaviour is communication and poor behaviour has been linked to language difficulties in children of all ages.
  4. Speech sound production
    Children may have problems with the intelligibility of their speech – they may have a reduced number of sounds available to them and have difficulty making particular sounds in simple or longer words. They may not be easy to understand when they speak, or they may be reluctant to speak for fear of not being understood.
  5. Attention and listening
    Many children who have speech and language difficulties have problems with listening to spoken language (often when their hearing is okay). They have difficulty concentrating on a task and listening to adult instructions.
  6. Social skills
    Children's development of social skills, their sense of self and others, and their ability to form relationships and learn can all be affected by speech and language problems


Everyday strategies that can help

  • Cut down the amount of language used
  • Build in time for processing answers to questions (thinking time)
  • Slow down
  • Think visual
  • Model positive interaction

We all know that SLCN is common, so it’s essential to have a sound understanding of typical SLC development, approximate “ages and stages”, and how to  identify learners where there is a cause for concern.


Further learning

Speech, Language and Communication Needs course

Our Speech, Language and Communication Needs course is perfect for those who work with children in schools. This course looks at the impact SLCN can have on a learner’s life. It shows how you can make your classroom and practice more inclusive for learners with SLCN, and offers immediate and practical assessment ideas and intervention strategies.

Further resources for parents  
As parents, we are all keen to know that our children are developing just as they should. Parents can access a free SLCN progress checker from I CAN to review their child’s progress against typical age-specific developmental milestones.




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