Dr Diane Bebbington and Eileen Burke examine the effects of unsupported language difficulties.

Linguistic competencies have a crucial impact on how successfully young people develop at school, how they fare in further education and how they cope in finding work. Here, we consider what can happen to young people if their speech and language problems persist into their teenage years.

The nature of communication impairments

Approximately 10% of children in the UK have some form of communication impairment. Children with previously identified special needs may have learning difficulties that are compounded by speech and language difficulties. The areas that most affect learning are:

  • recognising/understanding vocabulary and grammatical structures
  • discriminating between and/or producing speech sounds
  • conveying meaning by accurate word selection and correct sentence structures
  • narrative language recall and generation
  • using language appropriately in social and educational contexts.

A deficit in one or more of these areas can affect literacy acquisition and the application of literacy skills, worsening learning opportunities and outcomes.

In secondary school, even a child who has apparently been able to function adequately at primary level may have  difficulty in:

  • following complicated timetables
  • retaining specialist vocabulary
  • coping with the pace of information
  • grasping abstract language concepts
  • processing longer linguistic units
  • responding to a variety of teachers in different curriculum areas, each with their own style of delivery.

Add on the demands of understanding and researching subjects and it is clear why these pupils’ academic results can be poor.

Effects on behaviour

Inability to communicate effectively may lead to frustration and boredom with school, making the day an ordeal to be survived. Less structured and supervised periods in the school day can expose these more vulnerable pupils to bullying, further lowering their self-esteem and leading to high levels of anxiety, detachment from the group and reluctance to participate in group learning and teaching. Cross (2004) cites an example of a child who could not understand what teachers were saying. To alleviate boredom, he flicked rubber bands around the classroom. Not unnaturally, this was labelled by teachers as disruptive behaviour. This behaviour can be reinforced because it gives the child some kudos within his peer group, raising his self-esteem and encouraging him to repeat such activities in order to obtain a degree of acceptance! Over half of children classified as having emotional, behavioural and social difficulties also have a communication impairment (ICAN, 2005).

Juvenile delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide appear to be linked to low basic skills, including speaking and reading

Achievements in school and work

For all students, there is a future to consider beyond school, such as employment and forming new relationships. Communication impairment can restrict these opportunities and choices and affect mental health resulting in, for example, depression.

 Although research shows that young people with persisting language disorders may be disadvantaged in later life, it is not necessarily so. One young man, a graduate of a language unit and employed in a limited capacity, is a popular member of his local golf club and regularly raises money for charity by taking part in tournaments. Thanks to early intervention and support throughout his schooling, he is now an accepted, active member of his community.

Given the centrality of language to learning, it is unsurprising that there is an interrelationship between school achievement and language ability. A study by Snowling et al (2001) showed that children with speech and language impairments achieved lower GCSE grades. Young people with resolved, as well as persisting, speech and language problems were also more likely to take vocational courses than A-levels. Juvenile delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse and suicide appear to be linked to low basic skills, including speaking and reading. Speech and language difficulties that continue into the teens can affect young people’s job prospects, as well as their wage-earning potential.

What can schools do?

Given the importance of language in influencing young people’s lives, it is imperative that schools provide timely, appropriate support to those with speech and language problems. Schools can help by:

  • identifying young people with a history of speech and language impairment
  • accessing resources to assess and help with previously unrecognised speech and language difficulties
  • supporting young people in their social and behavioural development
  • taking pupils’ needs into account in developing and delivering the curriculum
  • supporting them in the transition from school to further education or work.

Tanya Barron recently underlined the need for increased disability rights to overcome the disadvantages that disabled people face. Schools can take a lead in ensuring that young people with speech and language disabilities reach their full potential.

Further reading

Cross, M (2004) Children with Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties and Communication Problems – There is Always a Reason. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
ICAN (2005) Response to Parliamentary Select Committee on Education and Skills Enquiry into Special Educational Needs. www.ican.org.uk
Snowling, M, Adams, J, Bishop, D and Stothard, S (2001) ‘Educational Attainments of School Leavers with a Preschool History of Speech-Language Impairments.’ International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders 36(2), 173-183.
See also www.talkingpoint.org.uk

Dr Diane Bebbington is a speech therapist and director of Knowledge Perspectives;

Eileen Burke is senior lecturer in speech and language therapy at the School of Health and Social Sciences, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff