Friday, 24 February 2012

The Toddler Testing Debate - Wendy Lee, Professional Director

There was a piece in The Times earlier in the week describing how a test done in the US with toddlers could predict problems in literacy. As a speech and language therapist, my reaction is – well of course it does!

In my gut I know this to be true, though we also have research evidence of the importance of vocabulary and of language levels in young children being predictors of how children manage at school.

But we do get very worried when we hear the word ‘testing’ and ‘toddlers’ in the same sentence - and understandably so. Recently we saw headlines expressing concerns about the testing of toddlers as part of the new Early Years Foundation Stage and Healthy Child Programme.

I guess we imagine the worst, rows of babies and toddlers being put through their paces to spot those who don’t quite make the grade. No one wants that.

I would be the first to argue against ‘hot housing’ children, taking away their childhood, not allowing them to play, have fun and be individuals and pushing them into formal teaching but this is not about testing in that way.

This is about knowing that language and communication is important to us all! As parents, we want our children to be good at talking. We value communication.

As professionals, we know communication is more than just talking. It is the vehicle for learning, it is the flip side of reading and writing, it is necessary to regulate our behavior, to organise our thinking, to build relationships and to work and live with others.

I’ve worked as a speech and language therapist for more years than I would care to admit. I have met every kind of teacher, parent and professional – those who are desperately worried that their child cannot say ‘r’ at age 4 (this is fine) and those who are OK with the fact their child can’t put 3 words together at 4 (this is not fine – and no, he won’t just catch up, though many will quote exceptions to the rule – Einstein for example).

I have also seen what happens when children with poor language are not picked up early. Some children with potential to catch up don’t, others who have long term language needs end up misunderstood or misdiagnosed. I have shared frustration with parents and colleagues, working with older children seen as ‘low ability’ with poor reading, poor behavior, no confidence… knowing had they been picked up at age two or three, life would look and feel very different.

Surely, we want to avoid this scenario. We can ‘test’ children when they are young; it can be fun, it just looks like playing – or at least that is how children and many parents see it!

We can pick out those children who, with support at the right time, can catch up. We can also pick up those with longer term needs who can be understood by adults that work with them, so they can be supported to learn and progress in the best way to suit their needs.

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