secondary language issues

Prevalence of Language Difficulties in Secondary Schools – did you know?

Maxine Burns, Lead Communication Advisor for I CAN, discusses the prevalence of language difficulties in secondary schools.  

Ask an average secondary school teacher about delayed language development and they may understandably think that this is more of a primary school issue. After all, language development isn’t something that’s likely to have come up in their training and most Year 7s start high school with the basics, right?

Mention language disorder and it’s plausible that someone in their class receives occasional provision by speech and language therapy services, but this young person is in the minority, aren’t they?

Drop into conversation either autism or ADHD and this same teacher might immediately identify several students who could fit these categories. Those students stand out, don’t they?

Raise the topic of English as an additional language (EAL) and, depending on where they teach, this teacher may very well have even more experience to share of students who have recently arrived from other countries in their classroom who are still trying to learn English.

As a professional in the field, I would listen to this teacher and empathise with the challenge of making their subjects accessible to all. At the same time, however, I would harness the opportunity to share some hard facts on the prevalence of language difficulties in secondary schools.

Did you know that…?

  • One in ten children have a language difficulty that is not connected to EAL; that’s 2 or 3 in EVERY classroom
  • Language disorder is seven times more prevalent than autism; both are long-term conditions affecting the whole of a child’s schooling and so this issue can be bigger than those few children who are fortunate enough to be known to speech and language therapy services
  • In some areas of the country, 50% of children start school with delayed language and without support they don’t get a chance to catch up so their language remains behind that of their peers. There could be MANY young people in your classes whose language development is delayed for their age making learning that much more difficult
  • Secondary aged pupils whose delayed language development hasn’t caught up may find it difficult to put their thoughts into words for explanations or to change the style of talking to suit the situation. These spoken language difficulties will also affect their written language ability
  • Language disorder in adolescents is often described as ‘hidden’. The profile of language disorder changes over time; social communication difficulties becoming more prominent and the nature of difficulties becoming more complex
  • Language difficulties can be misinterpreted – a pause for processing can appear as sullenness. Studies suggest that as young people get older they are more likely to purposefully hide their difficulties. Good ‘surface’ language skills or clear speech may make everyday conversation manageable, effectively masking an underlying language disorder.
  • Young people whose language disorder remains unidentified, and therefore unsupported, are at greater risk of developing mental health difficulties or becoming involved in offending

It is still generally assumed that most development of speech and language happens in the early years. However development continues for all children and young people throughout school, adolescence and into adulthood. Supporting the improvement of young people’s communication skills during secondary school is crucial to helping them to participate fully in learning and make a successful transition on to employment or further training.

If you are worried about a young person’s speech and language development, why not have a free chat to one of I CAN’s speech and language therapists, visit the Talking Point website or download our free poster for more information about typical language development in the secondary years.