Are we missing a trick in primary assessment? with Jean Gross CBE

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What gets measured tends to get done. In primary schools this means a curriculum driven largely by English and maths.

But perhaps assessment needs to help us look below the surface of these headline measures. Why? Consider these research findings:

  • Children with poor language at age five are six times less likely to reach the expected standard in literacy at age 11 than those with good language, and 11 times less likely to reach the expected standard in maths.
  • Children’s reading ability is dependent on their oral language skills – their vocabulary and language structures. The contribution of spoken language skills to reading is not confined to reading comprehension; it also predicts how easily they will learn phonics.

Evidence from intervention studies suggests that the relationship between spoken language and attainment is causal rather than simply one of association – and that it is possible, therefore, for schools to improve children’s reading, writing and maths as a result of a focus on spoken language. For example, a rigorous study for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) found a significant uplift to attainment in English, maths and science after teachers introduced dialogic techniques in their classrooms. The EEF Toolkit concludes that pupils who participate in spoken language interventions make approximately six months’ additional academic progress over a year.

Looking under the bonnet

To me this suggests that if we want to raise standards, we need to ‘look under the bonnet’ of children’s literacy and maths skills and know where children are in their spoken language development. 

If we do this, we will be able to spot children who need extra support with their language, and take action. This does not mean immediately referring them to a speech and language therapist, to sit on an ever-lengthening waiting list. It means adapting everyday classroom teaching and learning, and putting in targeted school-based language intervention programmes. We will explore this more in future articles.

Here, I will explore ways in which schools can profile children’s language levels. But first, let us look at what we can learn from such assessment.

Purposes of assessment

Schools might decide to assess spoken language in order to:

  • give spoken language a greater priority in school, through a summative assessment of every child’s skills that sits alongside summative academic assessments;
  • overview levels of spoken language development in a class or year group, so as to target funding/provision/adult skills appropriately within the school;
  • profile a whole class through formative assessment, so as to adapt teaching accordingly; 
  • evaluate the impact of initiatives/funding streams/provision via ‘before’ and ‘after’ spoken language measures;
  • identify children needing additional help with their spoken language;
  • identify particular areas of language in which an individual child needs help, again as a formative assessment to guide teaching;
  • provide information about spoken language development at transitions from class to class, or phase to phase;
  • provide useful information to parents/carers about their child’s development.

It is useful for schools to think about which of these purposes they want to fulfil, as this will guide their choice of assessment tools.

Ways of assessing spoken language

To spot children who need extra help with their language, we need to know about the developmental stages children generally go through. In the all-important 3–5 age group, these stages are set out in the Observation Checkpoints in the DfE’s Development Matters, the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile and the Communication and Language Ranges in Birth to Five Matters. These are fairly broad-based; a former government programme called ‘Every Child a Talker’ provided more detailed information and its monitoring tool is still widely used to profile children on four strands of language – listening and attention, understanding, talking and social communication.

As an example of understanding developmental stages, we can consider what a typical five-year-old, should generally be capable of. They should  be able to:

  • talk about events, explaining where they went and what happened;
  • use sentences joined up with words like ‘because’, ‘or’, ‘and’ (for example, ‘I like ice cream because it makes my tongue shiver’);
  • be easily understood by others;
  • follow simple two-part instructions reasonably well, for example, ‘Go and get me the big scissors and some blue paper from the drawer;
  • understand simple ‘why’ questions about a story that has just been read to them;
  • use talk to organise themselves and their play, saying things like ‘Let’s pretend we are in a jungle, you be the. . . and I the . . .’

For older primary school children, information on the developmental stages children go through is not as readily available as it is for the 3–5 age group, as there is no government guidance to follow. There are commercially available tools, however, which schools can use to assess children’s language right up to the age of eleven. These can be used with individual children but also to profile whole classes. Many of them link directly to teaching strategies.

Concerns about speech difficulties

Teachers often worry a lot when children have speech difficulties, but many five-year-olds are still mastering sounds like r, th, sh and j, and not until they are about seven can they reliably use clusters of sound such as sp, scr, fr and so on. 

Speech difficulties are more likely to resolve themselves spontaneously than difficulties with understanding language – although they are also the type of difficulty that is most responsive to direct face-to face sessions with a speech and language therapist. Other types of difficulties often respond better to strategies used by those who are in daily contact with the child, both parents and school staff.

EAL or language difficulties?

Another worry teachers often express is about EAL learners. It can be hard to know whether these children have speech, language and communication difficulties (SLCN) or are simply on their journey of mastering English.

To find out, teachers need to establish whether the child’s language development is on track in their home language, by  discussing this with the family – perhaps with the help of an interpreter. They should also assess whether they are learning new English words in school, and responding to any EAL support they receive. 

If the answer to these questions is yes, and home language learning is on track, it is unlikely that the child has SLCN.

Watch out for birth season

Another tip is to be aware of the child’s actual age when thinking about who might need extra help with spoken language. National SEN data show that pupils who are summer-born are 1.65 times more likely to be identified  by their school as having SLCN than autumn-born children –  and that this effect is specific to language, not appearing in children with autistic spectrum disorder. 

Some children may simply need more time to mature.

Children with social, emotional and mental health needs

We know from research that a startling eight out of ten children with emotional and behavioural disorders are found to have previously unidentified language difficulties. Young people referred to mental health services, moreover, are three times more likely to have SLCN than those not referred. 

The implications are clear – we should always investigate language levels for any child whose behaviour or mental health is causing concern. 

Looking to the future

Whilst I’ve signposted here some ways of identifying speech and language needs, they all rely on individual teachers’ willingness to invest time voluntarily. There is no mandatory national assessment framework, based on a clearly set out progression in language learning in schools. 

Until there is such a framework, spoken language will not be allocated the curriculum time it deserves. So let us hope that as the debate about primary assessment continues, spoken language finds its rightful place in what we consider important.

Because while what gets measured tends to get done, what isn’t measured definitely gets marginalised.

This is a blog by Jean Gross CBE, the former government Communication Champion for children and author of Time to Talk (Routledge, 2018), Reaching the Unseen Children (Routledge, 2021) and Beating Bureaucracy in Special Educational Needs (Routledge, 2023).

Pearson are proud to be working with OxEd and Assessment to provide the NELI programme. NELI is the most well-evidenced early language programme available globally, shown to improve children’s language by an additional 3–5 months, with gains in language and word reading still seen up to two years later.

It is based on extensive University of Oxford research into children’s educational development and is now used and trusted by over 10,000 schools. So far, OxEd & Assessment’s work with over half a million children in over 10,000 schools has identified 100,000 children who would benefit from additional support!

Find out more about the NELI programme