24 Speaking of trouble
THE growing number of children with a language disorder is a public health crisis as widespread as obesity, experts say.
The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute says developmental language disorder affects 5-8 per cent of Australian children.
But the rate can be as high as 20 per cent among disadvantaged children.
Children with the disorder are at risk of poor literacy skills, mental health issues and unemployment.
Lead researcher Professor James Law, from Newcastle University, said it was a public health issue.
“The people who need the services most, least get them,” he said. “Our feedback is that children are turning up at school with really poor communication skills.
“Schools are trying to teach them communication at the same time as they are trying to teach them their subjects.”
A policy brief from the institute calls for kindergarten and early childhood teachers to be better trained to spot the disorder. It says parents and schools should also promote language through conversation, reading, music and rhyme.
Research from Australia and overseas has shown that, without intervention, children with a language disorder continue to struggle with literacy into their 30s.
About half of young male offenders in custody also have significant oral language difficulties.
Dr Noella Mackenzie, of Charles Sturt University, said students with the disorder often struggled in school because literacy underpinned every subject. She said 50 per cent of classes involved reading and writing by the time a child was eight years old.
“Oral language development, we know, is the building block for becoming literate,” Dr Mackenzie said.
“It all starts with oral language and vocabulary and that becomes the base for learning to write and read.
“Literacy is what allows us to learn in other disciplines. You need those skills whether you are doing science, history, mathematics. If children can’t write, they are disadvantaged in every learning opportunity that comes their way.”
Speech Pathology Australia director Gaenor Dixon said developmental language disorder was an “invisible problem”.
“Some kids are very good at masking the difficulties they may have,” she said.