Across Lancaster, early years staff in pre-schools, nurseries and child-minding settings were all noticing a worrying trend amongst the children who were joining them – a more prevalent delay in language development.
Common gaps included being unaware of ‘he and she’, not knowing the difference between ‘first and last’ or ‘many and few’, and not understanding the senses.
To help halt the decline, two nursery schools in the area, commissioned by the local authority to provide children’s centre services, took the lead in an initiative to improve speech and language skills. Angela Dixon, an early years teacher and SENCO who works for both Appletree and Stoneygate nursery schools, explains: “We are very aware that difficulties with speech and language are one of the risk factors for underachievement.
“It’s crucial we do everything we can to get children off to the best start and that begins by identifying communication needs as soon as possible. We realised that WellComm could help us achieve our targets by showing the starting point of children’s communication and then showing the impact our work has on progress. With Sure Start funding, our initiative got off the ground in 2011.”
A screening toolkit
WellComm is a tookit designed to help early years settings identify children from six months to six years old who might be experiencing delays with speech and language. It can then help put immediate interventions into place, while waiting for a more formal assessment.
Angela continues: “We distributed 18 WellComm toolkits to early years settings and I worked very closely with a speech therapist, Gillian White, to train around 50 members of staff. We ran two sessions, the first to look at the basic premise of WellComm and the second after staff had had a chance to use it for a while.”
An early start
Now, all three and four year old children entering nursery settings are screened to establish a baseline. “Usually this happens about two weeks after they have started but there are some exceptions. We wouldn’t screen a child who was very unsettled, for example.
“We also screen our funded two year olds and younger targeted children through our children’s centre outreach service.”
WellComm operates a simple traffic light system of banding children in one of three categories. Green means no intervention is currently required, amber means extra support and intervention, and red means consider referral to a specialist service for further advice and give extra support and intervention.
“After assessment, we put in place immediate interventions for those who don’t achieve the green band. We look at the results to see areas where there are groups of children who need to work on the same targets.”
WellComm comes with The Big Book of Ideas, a collection of over 1,000 play-based activities, effective in meeting the individual needs identified during the screening process.
“The Big Book of Ideas offers invaluable support in deciding how best to address areas that require improvement, for example through focused questions, story time or play based learning.
“We found that many children didn’t understand the word ‘isn’t’ as staff have always endeavoured to use positive language with them. Knowing this has meant we are able to tailor what we say, perhaps in the questions we ask the children e.g. ‘Who isn’t wearing wellies today?’
“When we discovered our children struggled with the meaning of ‘many’ and ‘few’,” continues Angela, “we used a story about Percy the Park Keeper. His adventures with ‘many rabbits’ and ‘a few squirrels’ helped children become familiar with the concepts, and we reinforced this with flash cards on the walls.
“We address all issues through our continuous provision, for example, planning science activities linked to the senses. We have also put prompt sheets up for staff to refer to in different areas of the nursery.
“Being able to offer practical help to children straight away is fantastic. We also like the fact it is simple to re-screen to check they are progressing. Over an eight month period of running the programme, the amount of children who screened red fell from 17% to 6%, and the amount who screened amber fell from 23% to 11% so it has been a great success.”
Meeting special needs and EAL
Angela also works across two Lancashire maintained and federated nursery schools, Appletree and Stoneygate. “At Appletree, 17% of children have special education needs and 20% don’t speak English as their first language. At Stoneygate, we have 80% speaking English as an additional language and a third having special educational needs.
“As the language mix is diverse, including Kurdish, Arabic, Russian and Gujarati, we face some challenges when it comes to meeting their communication needs.
“WellComm is a very visual tool so we can carry out the screening in the child’s first language by using native language staff, parents or even students from university to guide the child through the questions. This way we have been able to uncover if any communication issues are down to a language barrier or a child’s developmental needs.”
A sustainable start
Results are shared with parents and with primary schools when a child moves up to reception classes. “WellComm is embedded in our practice and we are considering using the Early Years Pupil Premium funding to continue our work as we feel it is so important.
“As well as the work in the children’s centres we now have 10 primary schools using the toolkit as a result of our project, as we all know failure to meet communications needs can cause such dire long-term consequences.
“It’s imperative to arm children with the ability to express themselves adequately and, with WellComm, we always know what stage we’re at in reaching this target.”
Benefits of WellComm at Lancaster Children’s Centres
• Helped quickly identify two, three and four year olds with speech and language development issues
• Resulted in a 27% increase in children who screen at the right level for their age in just eight months, after appropriate interventions
• EAL children could be tested in their native language
• The Big Book of Ideas ensured intervention resources were readily available to move children forward immediately.
• Traffic light system meant it was easy to spot where children were struggling and monitor progress
• Showed ways of developing the curriculum to support speech, language and communication in a meaningful way through an increased awareness of children’s needs.
• Evidence based assessment which supports referrals to speech therapy services and enhances language programmes in place for children with speech, language and communication difficulties