Research School Network: Improving communication, language and literacy in the early years Focusing on making meaning as well as development

Improving communication, language and literacy in the early years

Focusing on making meaning as well as development

Eileen Allpress, Director of Ipswich Research School, introduces the EEF’s Preparing for Literacy guidance report and explains how this evidence is brought to life at Highfield Nursery School and Children’s Centre.

As an Early Years Practitioner one of the most enjoyable aspects of working in the classroom was listening to the rich verbal interactions that were taking place. Providing a language-rich environment gives young children excellent building blocks for their future learning journey. In Highfield Nursery School language is made real through stories. The vibrant story-based curriculum gives excellent language based opportunities especially for the disadvantaged children, of whom we have a high percentage within the nursery provision.

The EEF Preparing for Literacy guidance report makes 7 recommendations to support outcomes.

1. Prioritise the development of communication and language.

Embedding these activities within a curriculum of rich and varied experiences will help ensure language provides the foundation of thinking and learning.

Improving young children’s vocabulary is often a high priority especially when working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are more likely to have a less extensive vocabulary. Evidence suggests that approaches need to be both implicit and explicit and vocabulary needs to ensure there is both depth and breadth of word knowledge. Using story related activities can help support this through both explicit vocabulary teaching (new vocabulary related to the story) and implicit vocabulary teaching (modelling the use in other contexts) when a sensitive attuned adult follows the child’s lead in situations of interests to them.

2. Develop children’s early reading using a balanced approach not just about decoding skills.

Early reading should use a balanced approach focusing on making meaning as well as development of specific recognition skills involving letters and sounds and must include all early literacy components to be meaningful. A story approach at Highfield allows the children to recognise and blend the word, FEE, FI, FOE, FUM”, through Jack and the Beanstalk, and then YUK” and YUM” through the Emperor’s egg story which is revisited later in The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch.

3. Develop children’s capability and motivation to write.

Extensive practice is needed to develop effective handwriting, finding motivational activities for children to communicate through writing is necessary. Providing opportunities to write for a range of purposes and audiences can also help with helping engagement in writing. Younger children benefit from having access to unstructured drawing activities, with provision of more structured activities is more effective with older children.

We regularly use Write Dance’ and Music Maestro’ to help with development of the physical aspects of writing.

What is really key is involving children in planning activities around the story so they have agency for instance planning the story display board for Jack and the Beanstalk. They then have the chance to retell the story with an interested and enthusiastic adult scribing and encouraging the use of vocabulary.

4. Embed opportunities to develop children’s self-regulation.

Children’s self-regulation refers to their ability to manage their own behaviour and aspects of their learning. This includes children’s awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and how they can motivate themselves to engage in learning. Early years approaches often focus on emotional regulation.

One approach to developing self-regulation involves a plan, do, review cycle. This can be embedded into existing activities or can be taught separately. Evidence suggests benefits are greatest when approaches are embedded rather than taught discretely. Using a range of approaches is likely to be more effective than any single approach.

The story based curriculum at Highfield gives opportunity for children to share the experiences of story characters to enhance empathy within a safe environment eg, being scared as Jack hiding in the giant’s castle. A nurturing, therapeutic approach is used for all children with early movement play areas in every classroom and specific support provided for children if needed to transition. We have recently developed the CALM programme where children are supported to recognize the depth of emotional response to their own reactions.

Many approaches use stories or characters to help children remember different learning strategies. Scaffolding should be considered as the aim is for children to internalise the approaches. The approaches may be best introduced by explicit modelling but the children will benefit from using less structured activities to practise them.

Research highlights the importance of collaboration and language in developing self-regulation. Although more evidence is needed, studies conducted to date suggest activities designed to improve self-regulation have potential to improve learning across a broad range of outcomes including early reading and mathematics.

5. Support parents to ensure they understand how to help their children learn.

There is consistent evidence that the level and quality of parental involvement in learning is linked to a child’s communication, language and literacy capabilities. Evidence shows that this engagement can improve outcomes but not all approaches are effective.

What works with our setting, is a personalised approach to parental engagement in learning. This model has been developed with contextualised knowledge of the community we serve.

6. Use assessment to ensure all children make good progress.

Adaption of teaching and learning based on accurate information, collected through observation and assessment will ensure children receive appropriate challenge and support. This is especially important in early years due to the variation of children’s starting points and fast rate of progress.

If observation and assessment identify a child as having difficulties, a range of diagnostic assessments are available to accurately identify the specific aspect of learning they are finding difficult. The EEF’s Early Years Measures Database is a free on line resource providing an overview of different measures that can be used with young children.

At Highfield, involving parents from the earliest stages (home visits) helps build a relationship of trust and close observations of all children around their learning interests. This works best if the whole team contribute with qualitative information. Our Resilience Tracker is used as a key assessment tool to provide support for children to access the best learning experiences we can provide.

7. Use high-quality targeted support to help struggling children.

There is good evidence that the use of small-group or one-to-one activities can improve children’s communication, language and literacy capabilities. This should be informed by diagnostic assessment.

Existing research underlines the importance of providing specific training to the adults providing the support. It is also important explicit connections are made between targeted interventions and everyday activities or teaching.

Provision needs to be tailored, with continuous fine tuning specific to current need. Removal of barriers to learning through meeting the need of the whole’ child.

Questions for your consideration.

What aspects of your provision are children most enthusiastic to talk about and share with their parents?

How do you know this?

How motivated are children by the writing and reading experiences that are offered by you?

How do you know this?

How do your observations of children’s learning interest inform the opportunities you provide for them?

What do you know about narrative and how important it is for humans?

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