In a recent blog, the EEF’s national content manager, Alex Quigley, discussed the important role of diagnostic assessment in supporting pupils as they return to school.

School staff are under intense pressure to close the attainment gap for children, with research undertaken by the EEF after the first lockdown indicating that there have been, on average, learning losses for many pupils. However, the experiences of pupils during this time have been extremely varied; on average, pupils are likely to demonstrate learning loss, but some will have experienced severe learning loss, whilst others will have thrived. There has been significant variability in terms of space to learn at home, internet and IT access, and help available to support learning.

In his blog, Alex discusses the importance of taking time to determine the impact of the pandemic for individual pupils, in order to establish the support they need going forwards. He recommends that ‘it will be carefully calibrated assessments, undertaken in classrooms, which offer a more accurate and complete picture of any necessary catch up’.

The importance of diagnostic assessment is demonstrated through the fictional case of James, a pupil in Year 7: ‘Back in September, James started secondary school with insecure reading skills and his handwriting lacked legibility and fluency. Simply accessing the curriculum remotely proved a persistent challenge.’ The importance of fully assessing James’ skills when he returns to school is discussed, particularly his reading fluency and handwriting skills, but also his understanding of key information and concepts for core subjects.

My first thought for providing support for James’ return to school, is that it is very likely he has an underlying (and probably undiagnosed) oral language difficulty.

There is currently a significant mismatch between the known prevalence of language difficulties and the number of children actually identified and supported. Difficulty understanding language is described as a ‘hidden difficulty’ because it is not something that can be identified from observation alone. Many children are adept at disguising their difficulties understanding spoken language by copying their peers, following the usual classroom and task routine, and picking up on visual, non-verbal cues given by adults around them. Many pupils manage to mask their difficulties in this way, until more noticeable ‘symptoms’, resulting from the language difficulty, are identified, including poor academic attainment, challenging behaviour and (as in James’ case) poor progress with literacy. These areas are often then the focus of interventions, meaning that precious resources are used to target ‘symptoms’ rather than the underlying cause.

Oral language skills are a significant predictor of later literacy skills; pupils need to be able to understand spoken words and sentences before they will be able to read them, and they need to be able to use words and sentences in their spoken language before they will be able to write them. For James, providing diagnostic assessment of his reading fluency and handwriting skills is important, however, we also need to determine whether he has any underlying difficulties with oral language. Undiagnosed and unsupported language difficulties will mean that interventions focusing solely on developing literacy skills are unlikely to be successful.

When supporting pupils to return to school, it is likely that for many, language and communication skills have been significantly affected, alongside other areas of development. There will also be pupils who already had language difficulties that had not been identified prior to the pandemic that may have worsened. Ensuring that children’s language skills are assessed will enable schools to put in place strategies and interventions to boost oral language skills for children identified, which will have a positive effect on attainment, literacy, and engagement.

Alex emphasises that using diagnostic assessments to support pupils’ return shouldn’t be new to schools; it should mirror the process used when a pupil was struggling to make process before the pandemic. In the same way, ensuring that pupils with oral language difficulties are identified is not something that schools only need to think about to support pupils to ‘catch-up’. Prior to the pandemic, huge numbers of children with language difficulties were not being identified and supported within schools, resulting in a significant attainment gap, which remains with pupils throughout their education. For any pupil, if you have concerns about their academic progress, their literacy development, their emotional and mental health, or they are demonstrating challenging behaviour, always check that their understanding of language has been assessed.

How can Language Link help?

The Language Link packages contain standardised assessments for children from age 4;0 to 14;0, to identify pupils with below average understanding of language. The online assessments are delivered by school staff, supporting schools to identify children who may require support from specialist services and those who are likely to make progress with universal and targeted support in school, ensuring that resources are used in the most effective way. Following assessment, core strategies and interventions are recommended for pupils, based on specific areas of need identified on the assessment.

Find out more about Infant Language Link, Junior Language Link and Secondary Language Link visit.

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