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Bringing learning to life for children with Specific Language Impairment

a boy and a girl at a desk with a teacher

Dedicated researchers at London South Bank University are helping children with language difficulties access new ways to learn and develop

Specific Language Impairment (SLI) is a developmental disorder which affects 6-7% of UK schoolchildren. Children with SLI display difficulties with many aspects of language, but have far fewer problems with non-verbal tasks. Unfortunately, very little is known about SLI – especially when compared to dyslexia – related to SLI but not as severe.

Children with SLI traditionally also have difficulties with tasks that require executive functioning, the complex thinking and planning required for new tasks. These are tasks that don't have well-learned or easy answers. Previous research into the area had not investigated these skills, or the potential role of language in executive functioning tasks. LSBU research is helping to redress that balance.

Research focused on executive function

Thanks to funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Professor Lucy Henry was able to undertake research focused on executive functioning and its relationship with language. Working alongside Open University's Professor David Messer, she administered a comprehensive range of measures of executive function tasks. Some required language as a key part and others minimised the need for it. The tasks were given to children who suffered from SLI and to children of similar non-verbal ability and age.

All the tasks were designed to be as simple as possible, and to measure relevant skills reliably within the five domains of executive function – working memory, inhibition, fluency, planning and set-shifting.

Widespread difficulties

The results were startling. The team discovered that children with SLI had widespread difficulties with executive function in four of the five domains, regardless of whether the role of language was minimised or not. This confirmed for the first time that the difficulties SLI children had with executive function was not a result of their difficulties with language but was instead an extension of the condition.

This discovery has helped speech and language therapists, teachers and parents to better help children with SLI. Executive functioning is important for 'higher-order thinking' and therefore vital to dealing with the novelty involved in learning. Intervention and remediation programmes for children with SLI would be strengthened by considering potential executive function weaknesses too.

Further research

Further LSBU research developed an intervention designed to include the working memory domain of executive function. A six-week intervention with primary school children produced significant improvements in working memory (up to 30 standardised points) that were then maintained for six months. Improvements in reading comprehension were also found after one year.

The intervention itself was enjoyable and practical, involving a highly interactive ten-minute interview three times a week. The existing market leading intervention (COGMED) involves 45 minutes a day for up to six weeks, so the LSBU-developed equivalent would be of great interest to children and teaching professionals alike.

Disseminating the findings

Research findings have been widely disseminated. They were taken up by children's communication charity I-CAN in 2011, and supported their involvement in the Department of Education-funded study "Engage in Education". As part of the study, Professor Henry's research made a significant contribution towards the development of training and materials for children and young people with executive functioning problems.

The study had some remarkable results:

  • 90% of staff said they would change the way they worked with children, particularly as a result of being able to identify hidden communication difficulties.
  • 55% of the children felt they were better communicators thanks to the study
  • 84% of learners increased their attainment or stayed the same
  • 95% of parents reported their children's attendance at school had improved either "quite a lot" or "quite a bit".
  • Over 80% of learners reported improved confidence, behaviour, communication skills and attitudes to teachers, attendance and school work
  • Fixed term exclusions decreased by 21%.

Positive outcomes

Building on the positive outcomes of the study, Professor Henry and I-CAN organised a workshop at LSBU on Executive Functioning in Children with Language Difficulties. It was attended by speech and language therapists from schools and charitable organisations, and 95% of attendees took away learning and teaching materials. Independent feedback verified that attendees found the materials and approach to be credible and based on sound science, and that the session would impact on the way they approach such issues.

As the impact of LSBU's research takes hold, the lives of hundreds of thousands of children will be helped by Professor Henry's work. Those who had previously been unable to connect with their education will be able to benefit from new teaching methods to have their individual learning needs met.

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