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COVID-19 pandemic has affected children’s speaking and understanding

Almost 70% of teachers believe the children they teach are behind with their speaking and/ or understanding as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a children’s communication charity has warned.

Teacher and student

A new survey of teachers published by I CAN suggests that an estimated 1.5 million children and young people are at risk of being left behind, as they struggle to speak and understand language. 

Jane Harris, I CAN Chief Executive said: “Children and young people’s development have been hit hard by this pandemic. For 1.5 million children to be struggling to be able to speak and to understand what is being said to them should be a wake-up call to government and the education sector. We need to put in place emergency support so that the COVID generation do not suffer long-term.

“Our survey shows that teachers in the classroom are not able to support the children who need their help because the support the government is offering are only for 4- and 5-year-olds. We need an education recovery plan that helps children of all ages to speak and understand language. Without this, how can they learn other subjects, get a job or have decent mental health and relationships?”

The survey asked primary and secondary school teachers across England, Scotland, and Wales about the impact COVID-19 has had on their pupils speaking and understanding.

  • 67% of primary school teachers surveyed believe the children they teach are behind with their speaking and/ or understanding due to COVID-19

  • 63% of primary and secondary teachers surveyed believe that children who are moving to secondary school in September will struggle more with their speaking and understanding, in comparison to those who started secondary school before the Coronavirus pandemic.

This breaks down as follows:

  • 62% of primary school teachers surveyed who have pupils who are behind with their speaking or understanding were worried that these pupils will not be able to catch up.

  • 60% of secondary school teachers surveyed who have pupils who are behind with their speaking or understanding were worried that these pupils will not be able to catch up.

  • Teachers were asked to estimate the number of children they were concerned about – and in aggregate - this equated to 1.5 million children across England, Scotland and Wales.

  • Among teachers who have pupils who are behind with their speaking or understanding, not being able to talk face-to-face with their friends (70%) and the overuse of tablets/phones and computers (69%) were the two biggest reasons that teachers believed their pupils were behind.

Most teachers were critical of the government’s efforts, despite them introducing a recovery premium to support children and young people to catch up with their education after missing nearly half a year from the classroom. More than 60% of teachers surveyed said the UK government is not providing enough support to help children with their speaking and understanding.

The survey concluded by asking teachers what training they had received to support children struggling with their speaking and understanding at the below stages of their training/ career:

  • 68% stated they had not had ‘Not very much’ or ‘Not any’ ongoing training
  • 67% stated they had not had ‘Not very much’ or ‘Not any’ in the early stages of their career
  • 64% stated they had not had ‘Not very much’ or ‘Not any’ in their initial teacher training.

The report recommends the government urgently extends the speech and language help provided to Reception classes to all ages. Teacher training should be improved on speech and language and assessing children in speaking and understanding language as regularly as other skills such as writing, reading and arithmetic.

Speaking up for the COVID generation

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