How St Helens Library Service positively impacts on speech, language and communication outcomes for children

St Helens Library Service works in partnership across the Council and beyond to ensure children and young people have a positive start in life, through the provision of quality books and activities that strengthen speech, language and communication. This case study forms part of the Value of culture - learning and development section of our online Culture Hub.

St Helens Children’s Speech and Language Service and the Library Service together promote the development of oral speech, language and communication skills through BLUSH (Books and Language Unite St Helens).  BLUSH was developed due to concerns about the high prevalence of speech, language and communication difficulties in St Helens, particularly amongst boys. 

The challenge

The Lost Boys report published by Save The Children stated that there wasn’t a single location in England where boys were outperforming girls in early language skills and that the gender gap was at its most extreme in St Helens. Working in partnership with the Speech and Language Team, the Library Service realised that if the deficit in language and communication skills is not addressed, it goes on to have a negative impact on the development of literacy skills and academic progress in general.

The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has impacted children tremendously. They are not interacting with their families and the wider world as much, impacting on social, emotional and interaction skills. Lockdown has resulted in lost learning and language delays and problems with communication continue to be of major concern in St Helens, with high demands on the Speech and Language Team. Boys are continuing to underperform.

Every school in St Helens is reporting issues with speech and language development. The Library Service is now crucial in the reset and recovery of communities and supporting outcomes for children.

The solution

A new Early Years Strategic group has been formed, Key priorities have been agreed including the creation of an Early Years Speech and Language Pathway. BLUSH (Books and Language Unite St Helens) is being included in this pathway.

BLUSH is managed by the St Helens Schools Library Service. Books have specifically been chosen for BLUSH written by great authors with fantastic illustrations, excellent use of language and designed to encourage enjoyment of reading. BLUSH is used to assess a child's level of language, support understanding at the child's level as well as facilitating development to the next level up of language complexity. The Library Service aims to ensure that the child enjoys the books and feels reading is fun.  

The Speech and Language Therapy team have used the books to provide written question templates using the BLANK Language Scheme. BLANK level questions were devised as a way to structure questions at different levels of understanding, ranging from 1 (simple one-word answers) to level 4 which require the ability to use verbal reasoning skills.

Universal training on speech and language development has been provided to St Helens primary schools, Early Years settings and Library staff by Speech and Language Therapists. One of the key aims of the training was to enable staff to develop and ask children questions at the right level to support the child's understanding of language as they look at books together, either on a one-to-one basis or with a group of children.

Library Read and Rhyme Times have been reviewed so that library staff model good behaviour in terms of actions, songs, tone of voice and book selection, which parents can observe and then put into practice themselves.

BLUSH packs for parents to borrow through libraries is being developed and will be launched early in 2021. The Home Learning Environment is paramount and parents need support and access to great books to reinforce the work done in nurseries and schools on improving speech and language outcomes.

The impact

BLUSH has proved popular in schools and early years settings, with teachers reporting that the books are impacting positively on vocabulary and language development.

During the Joint Local Area SEND inspection, BLUSH was cited as good practice and the Library Service acknowledged for its Reading for Pleasure Strategy.

Following the success of BLUSH, further collaboration with colleagues is resulting in a SEND Friendly Library Service approach, working in co-production with parents and children that would widen access to Libraries for children with complex and additional needs is in progress. The aim is to explore the barriers that parents perceive and face when visiting libraries and to make changes either to the environment or to service delivery so that access is widened. The ambition is to ensure SEND families regularly use libraries and that speech, language and communication resources such as BLUSH are a regular part of the child’s home learning environment.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The Library Service is working with Speech and Language Team to further develop BLUSH, so that it can be used up to year 11. It is acknowledged on a strategic level in St Helens that if reading, talking and singing to a child is embedded as early as possible and the family visit the library, this can have real impact on skills and abilities and Library Service representatives are being included on strategy and development groups working on improving outcomes for boys, reducing the gender gap, speech and language outcomes and school readiness.

Lessons learned

The Library Service has built relationships with partners working in areas such as Speech and Language, School Readiness and Looked After Children to ensure that collaborative projects can take place that impact positively on outcomes for all. These relationships have taken time to build. Library Services can often be overlooked and partners are not always aware of what the service can offer and how it can help them meet their own targets. The message “Libraries first” is one that is slowly being communicated.

The transfer to digital activity due to the Covid pandemic has been successful, but the Library Service recognizes that some families struggle to get online or do not have access at home. As libraries have begun to re-open, physical events are once again being considered and it is hoped in the Spring of 2021, a full programme of activity that develops speech, language and communication skills will be on offer again both online and in libraries.