Oral language: a matter of social justice?

A recent call to be a witness on an enquiry being carried out by the  Centre for Social Justice [CSJ] (13.11.13) on the significance of early oral language development led me to reflect on what exactly social justice had to do with communication.

But first a few words on social justice itself. The term ‘social justice’ implies fairness and mutual obligation in society: that we are responsible for one another, and that we should ensure that all have equal chances to succeed in life. In societies where life chances are not distributed equally (such as the UK), this implies redistribution of opportunities, although the shape that such redistribution should take remains contested http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/

In view of this it is slightly strange that the CSJ was set up by MP Ian Duncan Smith (IDS) erstwhile leader of the Conservative party. The CSJ appears to have its roots in IDS’ reflections about poverty and society after a visit to Easterhouse, a large Glasgow housing estate but the CSJ became a right leaning think tank trying to think creatively about how to address society’s social ills. A number of reports followed, often written in collaboration with labour MP Graham Allen. One of the features of their analyses was a focus on the relationship between poverty and it’s effect not only on the family but more specifically on child development, interestingly at a time when similar conclusions were being drawn by Labour’s Frank Field and health inequalities guru David Marmot. IDS’ conclusions led him to question the perverse incentives of the current benefit system and to propose the universal benefit which is being piloted in various areas in England and has been the topic of much debate in recent months. Explicit in the CSJ reports was that the implications of poverty in a family, hard enough for those concerned, was grossly unfair to the child. The child was being made to pay for the sins of the parent, as it were. While others have been content to describe the cycle of disadvantage, IDS and the CSJ sought change and framed the argument as a matter of justice rather than blaming indigent, work shy parents or teenage mothers ..etc. etc. common enough narratives in current modern political discourse. The CSJ carries out enquiries (CSJ 2013,2014) and has become very interested in child development in general, and child language in particular, as a marker of inequality – hence my reason for giving evidence to the enquiry.

Language development and the way that we regard it is one of those phenomena that tells us something about the way we see children and perhaps less directly how we see society and human as a species. Its importance has been accentuated over the last century or so during which employment (one index of social attainment) has changed substantially in post industrial societies (Ruben 2000). This, in turn, raises questions about why we identify children with language difficulties. It is true that parents or teachers may raise concerns but there are lots of things that we could identify but we don’t ask society to pay for.  The important issue is whether these difficulties are likely to have long term consequences and whether these can be ameliorated. It is fairly clear that the odds of long term negative outcomes are certainly raised, even if this does not always play out at an individual level. Data suggest that school entry language delays, in conjunction with a variety of social factors, can have effects on literacy, mental health and employment, well into adulthood. As a result, oral language development has moved into the foreground to become not just an advantage but a prerequisite for success and, as such, has become a marker of social justice.

These are some suggestions to enhance social justice for this group of children.

1. Better understanding

  • We know lots about what we should recommend to support child development in the early years but this needs to be better disseminated;
  • Oral language difficulties may exist, on their own, but they rarely come without baggage. Behaviour and mental health difficulties often co-occur, exacerbating social inequalities because of the effect they have on adjustment in school and home. Again the mechanisms for this are not well understood;
  • We need to know more about the long term implications of poor early oral language, for example in terms of social mobility. Are there jobs that people with low language skills cannot do or even within white collar jobs are there jobs where there is a communication ceiling..beyond which promotion is impossible?

2. Better provision

  • Speech and language therapy is an important part of the mix and we need to ensure that services are not adversely affected under current economic stringencies. But speech and language therapists cannot “own” early language difficulties. There are simply too many children involved. It is critical that understanding of oral language is central to the training of teachers who all too often confuse oral language with literacy;
  • We need to be careful in assuming that early is always better WITHOUT good data to show this. It should not be a simple trade off – more early intervention means less support later on;
  • We need to consider the implications of oral language across the life course. There has been lots of emphasis on the early years but provision and support in secondary and further education and beyond is nugatory.

The CSJ will be bringing out another report in the middle of 2014, hopefully discussing the importance of early language and what can be done about it. The intention is that this will then feed into the development of the 2015 party manifestoes. Keep an eye out for oral language in the manifestoes as they start to emerge. And, for those at Newcastle University, don’t forget that the Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal has a competition going at the moment for ideas for the party manifestoes. Try lobbying your MP and let’s see if we can get oral language further up the policy agenda.

James Law

Centre for Social Justice (2013) REQUIRES IMPROVEMENT: The causes of educational failure London: Centre for Social Justice http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/requires.pdf

Ruben, R. J. (2000), Redefining the Survival of the Fittest: Communication Disorders in the 21st Century. The Laryngoscope, 110: 241. doi: 10.1097/00005537-200002010-00010.

PhD? It could be you..

Most readers of this blog will have come across me as someone primarily involved in teaching on the pre-reg speech/language therapy courses. However in September 2013, I took on a new role – that of Director of Postgraduate Research (or PGR) for our whole School. This in essence involves looking after the PhD students in the School of ECLS and includes anything from selecting at the admission stage, welcoming new students, making sure that students are progressing satisfactorily, to negotiating with the University Estates service about workspace for students.

To say that this has been a steep learning curve is probably an under-estimate. Every day seems to bring some new issue or fact about PGR that I was not aware of before. ECLS is a very diverse school; in handbooks and at induction we do mention to everyone that there are two other sections besides SLS, i.e. Education and Applied Linguistics, but I am sure this is quickly forgotten as you start to think about linguistics and anatomy and clinics… For me this diversity has meant that not only have I been meeting international students from a whole range of countries, but I have also been trying to get my head around research that ranges from international education to second language teaching to conversational analysis and back to speech and language pathology again, with a few other things I’ve now forgotten about. Two things have stood out though. Firstly, there is a strong support system for PhD students within the university: this means that students get regular meetings with supervisors, that their progress is monitored and help in place when needed, and that their concerns are being listened to and addressed. As regards the latter, the introduction of a ‘Postgrad Research Experience Survey’, similar to the NSS is very recent, but is clearly having an effect. In the past students were very dependent on the resources and time their supervisors could provide and in many instances it was ‘sink or swim’. In my own case, I had an excellent but very eminent supervisor who early on I found frankly scary, so I relied a lot on fellow PhD students for advice in the first year or so. Things would be easier if I was starting out now!

The second thing I have realised is that we do not have many PhD students in Speech and Language Sciences and those we do have are fairly well on with their projects. At the same time we have a clear need for research to develop the SLT evidence base, and also there are funding opportunities out there for those who want to do a PhD. So, anyone who is currently enjoying their dissertation work, or is looking forward to doing it, and who likes exploring complex ideas, this may be for you.

So what is this PhD thing and why would you want to devote a minimum of 3-4 years of your life to doing one? It involves working on a project which you design and carry out yourself; you would have two supervisors, minimally one who is an expert in the area you choose, and one who has a good amount of experience in supervision. While you would need to heed advice from your supervisor, working on a PhD means you have an amazing amount of autonomy to work on something that interests you. You would be provided with research training by the Graduate School and have opportunities to get to know a wide variety of other research students and to discuss your work with them. Many lifelong friendships are forged while doing a PhD! At the same time though, you have to be prepared to work alone at your project and motivate yourself when you hit a tough patch. Why would you do it? Well, if you have a PhD this serves as an immediate indication that you are able to design and conduct research in your chosen area. The way is open to working on further projects, possibly within the NHS, and/or for embarking on an academic career.

You may well be wondering by now why I’m suggesting embarking on more study when most readers of this will be committed to (or seriously thinking about) a clinical career as an SLT. There is a lot to be said for combining the two though. You can do a PhD part-time while working clinically, or you can choose to apply for funding for a PhD after you have been qualified and working for some time – sometimes a good way to do it because after a few years working you are likely to have some burning research questions. Alternatively, if you embark on full-time PhD work immediately post degree, we will ensure you have opportunities to gain further clinical experience in house and get those competencies signed off.

So if you think you might be tempted by this, get in touch with me. You will need to have a good first degree (i.e. 2.i or above), or if you’ve done an MSc, at least Merit standard. Don’t worry if you think that this sounds interesting but you haven’t got the faintest idea for a project; once you have indicated the broad areas you might be interested in, we can get you in touch with a potential supervisor who can help you develop a proposal. Also don’t worry if you are some way off from finishing your degree: the earlier you start thinking about this the better.

Meanwhile I am actively exploring sources of funding that speech & language sciences students can tap in to. Watch this space..

Carolyn Letts



There’s an app for that?

I have recently come back from the madness that is the 2013 ASHA (American Speech-Hearing Association) Convention which was held in Chicago this year. Those of you who have attended previous ASHA meetings may not be so surprised by the following account, but for the uninitiated like me there was so much to take in, and some interesting snippets to share. The most remarkable aspect is the size of the meeting, which is massive! 12000 delegates, an average of 40 parallel sessions, and a convention centre the size of a small town. Going through the programme of talks and activities was in itself a big job, made easier by a conference app – the first I’ve come across in my conferencing experience – which your life depended on throughout the conference. If you’d done your homework and gone through the programme to tick sessions of interest, the app then pulled together a personalised programme for you which had a diary of what you were attending each day, with each chosen presentation showing easy links to the abstract, venue (with a map) and everything else you needed to get to it (or at least try to) on time. If, on the other hand, you had chosen two consecutive talks taking place at opposite ends of the huge building then you only had yourself to blame.

The exhibition hall had over 150 exhibitors and, in keeping with the theme of apps, between them they had apps for everything. Literally. Whether it’s assessment, diagnosis, or treatment, there was an app for it. Phonological disorders? They’ve got it covered; Literacy? Just ask. Aphasia therapy? You’ve come to the right place. I have honestly never come across such a vast market of SLT-related apps and I can only hope that some are really as useful as the companies selling them claim they are. And given that the exhibition hall is also meant to provide a bit of respite from the barrage of talks which were taking place from 8am till 8pm each day for 4 days, quite a few of the stalls offered the opportunity to try many of the Wii-style apps with funky music on, dancing, and a right big party all in the name of demonstrating physical exercises for most types of mobility treatment.

Behind the party though, and in stark contrast with the ‘sell sell sell’ drive of the exhibitors, the talks had very stringent rules, including a disclosure statement that all presenters had to make to declare whether they got any financial or non-financial benefit from any products they were about to mention in their talk (this not only included therapy products, but also publications, grants and anything else that the presenter was promoting). This is probably the organisers’ way of separating the science, which they know needs to remain clean and honest, from the ‘fringe’ aspect of the meeting, which provides them with the much needed funding for a conference of this size. And why shouldn’t they, when SLP in the US receives hardly any funding at all; they need to pull out all the stops to keep the profession alive, even if it means an opening ceremony delivered by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream).

And that does seem to keep the science alive. The range of clinical and research presentations on offer included some excellent stuff, and there were two main highlights for me: The first was a special session on navigating the Twitter terrain for SLPs by Bronwyn Hemsley, Caroline Bowen, and Patricia McCabe, which dealt with social media and its potential benefit (as well as pitfalls) for SLT trainees and professionals (our own social media guru, Helen Stringer, would be proud…); the second was a series of talks and special sessions on working with children from diverse cultures, headed mostly by Sharynne Mcleod. These included anything from new knowledge on assessments in various languages to tips on empowering monolingual SLPs to work with multilingual children. The sheer number of sessions on this topic, including a session I was invited to present at on linguistic and cultural considerations for working with children of Arab, Persian, and Turkish descent, shows that this topic is high on the agenda for SLPs everywhere right now and should hopefully lead to more efforts in addressing the gap in multilingual and multicultural assessments.

The awards for this year included a fellowship to Ben Munson, who was our visiting research fellow in 2011 and to Stephanie Stokes, a former member of staff in SLS at Newcastle, for their services to the profession.

Ghada Khattab