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Mary Hartshorne, I CAN’s Director of Outcomes and Information, explores the reasons why children’s spoken language often isn’t tracked in schools

Last week, Schools Minister Nick Gibb confirmed that a times table check would be introduced in primary schools in 2019. For children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), whose working memory difficulties mean they have problems processing chunks of complex information, this poses problems. However, it also begs the question: Why? 

The reasons given by Nick Gibb – that times tables are a very important part of mathematical knowledge and so there is a need to check them – made me go back to look at the purpose of assessment. Yes, it’s important for schools to monitor progress, but the primary purpose is to inform teaching and learning. The thinking behind the removal of levels of attainment was based on just this. Levels were becoming viewed as thresholds which pupils had to overcome with a risk that ‘teaching became focused on getting pupils across the next threshold instead of ensuring they were secure in the knowledge and understanding’ (Commission on Assessment Without Levels). Merely checking something, does not mean children will learn it. In fact, it actively encourages teachers to teach to the test, something we argued in our submission to the Education Committee’s inquiry on primary assessment.

Just as assessment in schools should inform teaching and learning, so it is an integral part of therapeutic intervention. For speech and language therapists, assessment is essential to identifying needs and planning effective intervention.

Given the crucial role language plays in children’s learning in the early years, primary and secondary school, it goes without saying that there should be regular assessment of children and young people’s spoken language. Without it, how can it inform teaching and learning? Without it, how can children’s language needs be identified?

And yet currently in education beyond Early Years Foundation Stage there is no statutory need to assess children’s spoken language. Schools no longer need to report on children’s speaking and listening, and spoken language assessment no longer ‘counts’ towards an English GCSE qualification.

To carry out assessment, we need robust tools. Is this a reason for this lack of statutory assessment?

Speech and language therapists have many different assessments, for exploring the many different aspects of speech, language and communication. These include standardised assessments where a child can be compared with children of a similar age; informal assessment such as observations which provide valuable information; and profiles which may give a broader picture of strengths and difficulties. In a recent lecture, Nicola Botting highlighted the importance of assessing the capacity to learn as well as current knowledge of a specific set of words or sentence structures. She talked about alternative dynamic assessment measures and how these were particularly useful in planning intervention.

So is this the same in education? Is there an equally wide range of tools available? Many of those described above need to be carried out by a qualified speech and language therapist, but there are also many that non specialists can use which provide rich information. Teacher assessment has been criticised as being subjective, but in actual fact teacher judgements have been shown to accurately reflect children’s performance. The rating of Communication, Language and Literacy on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, for example, has been shown to be a reliable predictor of later attainment at KS1 and in year 3, not only in literacy but also in mathematics. Likewise, in an evaluation of the Early Language Development Programme (ELDP), Early Years practitioner judgements of children’s early language correlated well with assessment results.  There is also a number of non standardised profiles such as the Communication Trust Progression Tools, I CAN Trackers, Cambridge Oracy Assessment Toolkit which can monitor progress, have been evaluated through pilot, and are widely used so have good face validity.  

So not having the tools is no excuse for not monitoring children’s spoken language.

If there is no way of regularly monitoring children’s speech, language and communication, what does this mean for children and young people? If the purpose of assessment is to inform teaching and learning, does no assessment means no focus on spoken language? Perhaps it is not surprising that our recent analysis found that more than half of children with language disorder in primary schools were being not being identified – meaning that they miss out on the support they need.

Let’s end on a positive note. The recent inquiry and planned consultation acknowledges that – even aside from spoken language – the assessment system is not yet right in primary schools.  There’s no doubt that teachers value and recognise the importance of spoken language. In a recent report The State of Speaking in Our Schools found that 68% of teachers felt oracy was critically important.  With Ofsted clearly stating that they will not expect to see any one particular type of assessment in a school, maybe now is the time to innovate! 

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