Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Supporting communication and language in the early years

A recent report in the Telegraph states that thousands of children who are starting school ‘struggle to speak properly’: they cannot ask questions, use full sentences or follow simple instructions and they lack the basic communication and language skills needed to make themselves heard in a busy classroom. This is worrying, especially as we are told that vocabulary knowledge in the early years is a strong predictor of academic success.

We know that, to consolidate any new skills including communication and language, children need to be given lots of time to practice. They need plenty of uninterrupted time during the day to chat to friends and adults, repeat and use new words, ask and answer questions, be involved in small group activities etc in the early years provision and at home.

In early years provision, observation suggests that children with poor speech and language often choose to play with other children rather than engage in adult led activities where new language can be taught and current language scaffolded: built on during sensitive interventions by practitioners who know the child well.

A discussion paper from the Literacy Trust looks at some of the most common explanations as to why quality interactions might not be happening in children’s home and family lives and points to parents work patterns, smaller family groups, lack of family time spent together eg eating at the table or adults playing with children as some of the reasons.

Tracking progress

In the early years, providers should be consistently tracking children’s progress in communication and language (listening and attention, understanding and speaking) and should note if a child is at risk of ‘falling behind’. Progress tracking (including completing the statutory 2 year progress check) allows practitioners to ensure children are making good progress and alerts them to concerns when they might, for example, advise parents to ask for intervention from other agencies or professionals.

Ongoing tracking should be completed using Ofsted’s tracker of choice - Early Years Outcomes. A copy of Early Years Outcomes should be in each child’s file and observations should show the child making good progress. It is important to note that Early Years Outcomes is not and was never intended to be a tick or checklist.

Further tracking information, if providers are concerned about a child’s communication and language, including social communication guidance, is available from Every Child a Talker (ECAT).

English as an additional or second language

A survey of London schools in 2000 revealed that more than 30% of all schoolchildren speak a language other than English at home and there are more than 300 languages spoken and a further report from 2013 states that there are more than a million children between 5–18 years old in UK schools who speak in excess of 360 languages between them.

It is highly likely that this percentage has increased in recent years both in London and across the country.

When tracking the progress of children who do not speak English as their first language, EYFS (2014) requirement 1.7 states that, ‘practitioners must assess children’s skills in English. If a child does not have a strong grasp of English language, practitioners must explore the child’s skills in the home language with parents and/or carers, to establish whether there is cause for concern about language delay.’

The EYFS also states that practitioners must support children’s home language and teach them English, providing children with ‘sufficient opportunities to learn and reach a good standard in English language during the EYFS.’

If parents want to track their child’s progress at home, there is a free communication and language progress checker for parents from Talking Point which can be used alongside the activity ideas in ‘What to Expect When? A parents guide’.

Early intervention

Interventions in the early years setting might include daily storytelling and song sessions, with children working in small groups to gain the maximum benefit from adult interactions. Targeted communication tools are also available, such as these Toddler Talk cards.

During our recent Ofsted inspection (April 2016), our inspector asked to see evidence of how we use Letters and Sounds with our pre-school children.

I have written Information Guides for gold members about Letters and Sounds Phase 1 and was able to show the inspector how our planning and children’s observations links to the Letters and Sounds games we play in the provision – and ideas for children’s home learning which we provide for parents of pre-school children.

Daily routines should be organised to allow time for communication and language: activities with adults playing alongside them and guiding their interactions; adult-led activities where adults model language; meal and snack times when adults sit with children, play games and chat to them; times to sing and dance together; practitioners who are always available to the children, playing their games and being interested in what they are doing.

High quality resources are an important part of supporting children’s communication and language development. Of course, the most important resource is the playfully engaged adult who chats, asks open-ended, interested questions (and waits for answers) and takes an interest in what the children are doing.

Resources that promote imaginative play help the children to make sense of their world and can be great for supporting communication; activities such as messy play times allow practitioners to sit and play alongside the children, modelling new language and building on previous learning; sequencing toys allow practitioners and children to work together, solving puzzles and developing critical thinking skills (characteristics of effective learning).

Activities can be targeted to support communication and language across all 7 areas of learning in the EYFS. For example, puzzles or baking will support children’s maths language; repetitive child-friendly books and comics which feature children’s favourite characters will build a love of literacy; singing songs and listening to CDs will promote learning across different areas of art and design; puppets will build imagination and bring stories alive etc.

Sharing activity ideas with home

It is, of course, important that parents are fully involved in their child’s time in the provision – daily diaries, emails, blogs, secret Facebook groups etc can all be used to engage them.

The EYFS also states that we must provide parents with ideas for home learning. This poster from the communication charity I Can might be displayed in the setting and displays might be put up on the parents noticeboard, suggesting one communication and language tip every month to catch parents attention and further engage them in their child’s learning.

Further activity ideas and games for parents linked to Letters and Sounds Phase 1 and children’s current interests in the setting might be shared with parents during daily discussions.

Pre-school children might enjoy taking a book bag home each week - put together a small cloth bag which contains:
• An A5 writing book
• A pencil case with a rubber, sharpener and a few coloured pencils
• A few stickers for parents to use in the writing book
• A ‘reading with your child’ activity sheet
• A letter for parents explaining that their child will bring home a book each week and you would like them to draw a picture and write a story about the book in their own words.
Each week let the child/ren borrow a book (ask parents to sign a list of who has which book) and encourage them to write and draw pictures about the story after their parents have read it to them.

At the same time, you could display different ‘reading at home’ tips each week or month for parents to support them at home and website links such as this one from Book Trust on ‘how to share books’ are useful to give to parents.

I hope you have found some useful ideas in this blog to support your communication and language planning and tips for sharing activity ideas with children’s parents.

Thank you! Sarah
Knutsford Childminding