By Diane King
The new Reception Baseline Assessment is essentially an accountability measure but, at NFER, we believe that it can also be a useful tool for teachers to identify children who may benefit from extra support. In these early years, it is particularly important to ensure that children have good language skills so that they can access the curriculum and make good progress throughout the rest of their school years.
Teachers are reporting growing concerns that many children are entering school with delayed language skills. There are a number of theories as to why this might be, but one thing we do know for certain is that unless these children are identified and supported, the effects on their academic achievement will be long-lasting.
Evidence from research shows that poor language skills impact not only on literacy development, but also on mathematics and many other areas of the curriculum. A child’s vocabulary at age six is known to be a strong predictor of reading comprehension at age sixteen, and there is a substantial body of literature demonstrating a strong relationship between numeracy skills, language and early literacy skills. In addition, children with delayed language skills may struggle both socially and emotionally at school and are more likely to develop behavioural difficulties. For these reasons, we believe that the assessment of language skills must be a key feature of any Reception Baseline Assessment.
Children arrive at school with a wide range of language abilities. The reasons for this can be genetic, environmental or cognitive. Increasingly, there are also more children starting school who are learning English as an additional language. Reception classes provide a supportive environment for children to learn language but we know that not all children have had the same opportunities to develop their language skills before starting school, with some children experiencing a more language rich environment than others.
Studies have shown that there is a direct relationship between the amount of language children are exposed to at home and the size of their vocabulary, with children from ‘high talking’ families having a significantly larger vocabulary than children from ‘low talking’ families. Moreover, it is not only the amount but also the nature of this language input that is important. Simply hearing a large amount of vocabulary on the TV or computer is not sufficient to develop a child’s language skills – it is also essential that children experience language within the context of social interaction.
However there are some children who, despite adequate exposure to language, still present with delayed language skills; either because they have hearing problems or an underlying disorder affecting the processing of language , or additional special educational needs. What we do know is that whether children display delayed or disordered language, they will all benefit significantly from targeted support aimed at improving speaking and listening skills. It is important to address such difficulties before the gap between these children and their peers becomes wider and, without doubt, the most effective time to provide such support is in the early years. Additional support needs to be both specific and structured as children who are struggling with language will often opt out of normal classroom activities which require language skills, choosing instead to do less challenging activities.
It is often clear to teachers when children have poor language skills but research has shown that many children with language difficulties go unnoticed in the early years. All children develop at different rates and sometimes it is not immediately obvious that a child is struggling: they can become skilled at using other cues from their environment to work out what is happening or what they are expected to be doing.
Given the long term effects of poor language skills on a child’s future academic achievement and social development, we believe that an individual structured assessment of language on school entry is essential to identify children who may need extra support. Whilst it is also important to observe children in the context of the classroom and in their interactions with other children, it is only by spending time with a child on an individual basis, on specific tasks, that language abilities can be reliably assessed.
The NFER Reception Baseline Assessment assesses language through a number of practical, child friendly activities which have been carefully designed to measure specific aspects of language development. Each child completes the same set of tasks so that their performance can be compared to national averages. With such information, both strengths and difficulties can be identified enabling the planning of specific targeted support. The assessment doesn’t take long, but the information it yields is rich and may ensure that children who are struggling with language are identified at an earlier stage than they might have been otherwise.
Surely this can only be a good thing.