Speech assessment is two years too late

Kindergarten is too late for intervention ...
Kindergarten is too late for intervention ... Photo: Getty Images

I was chatting to a couple of children at work the other day. Let's call them Joshua and Lilly. They are in kindergarten and, with two terms of ''big school'' under their belt, they know the lie of the land.

They have made some friends, know where the toilets are and know where and where not to play on the playground. Interestingly enough, they also know where they sit on the literacy ladder in their classroom, which is why when I asked them if they were good readers, their replies were a quick and honest. ''No''.

They could tell me who the good readers in the class were - Lauren and Cooper. They knew the other children in the class who were struggling with reading and those who were doing OK. And so with 12½ years of schooling ahead of them, they already knew where they sat on the literacy spectrum in their class - at the shaky end.

" What a shame Garrett does not put money into children before they start school": Annemarie Laurence.
" What a shame Garrett does not put money into children before they start school": Annemarie Laurence. Photo: Supplied

I work with children such as Joshua and Lilly every day - so let me tell you a bit about them. In the years before they started school, an outing for them was being pushed around in a stroller at the local Westfield. They have an iPad. They rarely have a book read to them. Their language is not stimulated regularly by conversation and questioning. They may have a speech delay so perhaps both familiar and unfamiliar people might have difficulties understanding what they are saying. They arrive on the mat on the first day of kindergarten with a mild receptive language delay (comprehension) and a severe expressive language delay (expression). If you think I sound a bit doom and gloom, my own research shows that in the schools I work in, about 40 per cent of the kindergarten children will present this way. As a speech pathologist working in schools, I can tell you Joshua and Lilly are alarmingly typical.

And so when I read that Peter Garrett has announced plans to throw another assessment at Joshua and Lilly when they started kindergarten to identify them ''at risk'', my heart sank. Identifying these children at five is two years too late.

In NSW, it is very rare to find a speech pathologist working in a school, let alone a preschool.

In an ideal Australia, all children aged three would attend a preschool where a speech pathologist would be employed to work alongside the teachers. This would enable them to be screened for speech and/or language delay and to have access to several fun activities that would help develop their language and stimulate emerging literacy skills. They would arrive at school ready to tackle literacy activities when they were introduced in class. You can throw any amount of money you like at Joshua and Lilly to try to help them become better readers once they start school, but it is money wasted when a language delay exists. It's like trying to do an extension on a house with no foundation.

But we do not live in an ideal Australia. In NSW, it is very rare to find a speech pathologist working in a school, let alone a preschool.

In one of the areas I work - a population where many children of preschool age do not attend preschool - a bunch of volunteers decided to take up the baton and get together once a week. They went to a street and threw a rug out in one of the front yards.

Then, armed with books and bears and songs and smiles, they went door-knocking, asking if there were children available to come out and sit on the rug and listen to a story.

At first they were treated with suspicion. And for quite a few weeks, they read and sang to each other. One year later, they have children waiting for them when they arrive. What a great story! What a goldmine for Joshua and Lilly! What a shame Garrett does not put some money into children before they start school. Kindergarten is too late.

Annemarie Laurence is a clinical educator in speech pathology in the Speech Pathology in Schools (SPinS) program run by Newcastle University.