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Two children in every class of five-year-olds have significant language disorders

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

Around two children in every Year 1 class in primary school will experience a significant language disorder that affects their learning, according to a new study.

The UCL-led research into language impairment at school entry age found that children with unexplained language disorders have higher social, emotional and behavioural problems, with 88 per cent failing to achieve early curriculum targets.

The study explored the way language disorders are identified, finding that some children who have language needs as well as non-verbal problems are currently failing to get the support they need from specialists.

Lead researcher Professor Courtenay Norbury (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) said: “There has been considerable debate over the inclusion of NVIQ (non-verbal IQ) in the diagnosis and treatment of language disorders, and a below average score is currently the most common exclusion criteria used for access to specialist help.”

“However, this definition is creating a group of children with considerable language needs who fall between diagnostic categories. As their non-verbal skills are lower than average, they aren’t eligible for specialist language intervention services, but crucially, they may not qualify for services for children with learning disabilities as their NVIQ is not impaired enough. The current system therefore leaves children who have verbal and non-verbal difficulties at a double disadvantage, with limited specialist support.”

The findings are based on the Surrey Communication and Language in Education Study (SCALES), the first UK population study of language ability at school entry, and involves over 170 primary schools in Surrey. They found that eight per cent, or two children in a class of thirty, are likely to experience a clinically significant language disorder of unknown origin and that this is associated with poor academic attainment in the first years of school.

The pupils who were assessed did not include children from special needs schools and were from a relatively affluent area of Surrey. The estimated prevalence found in the study should therefore be considered as a minimum and may be higher in other areas, say researchers.

The study involved researchers from King’s College London, Royal Holloway, University of London and The Newcomen Centre at Guys and St Thomas’ Hospital, London. It was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre.

‘The impact of non-verbal ability on prevalence and clinical presentation of Language Disorder: evidence from a population study’ was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.


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