Improving communication, language and literacy in the early years

Guidance Report

The ‘Preparing for Literacy’ guidance report published by the EEF, presents research & offers ideas to guide practitioners in the Early Years in supporting children with their journey in becoming life -long readers, writers & communicators. It is interesting as stated in the introduction to this guidance that it has been produced to support children within the 3-5 age group. 

“However, it may also be applicable to older pupils who have fallen behind their peers, or younger pupils who are making rapid progress.”

Even in the introduction, there is a positive use of the term ‘lever’ to explain key pedagogical accounts in providing reflective tools in order that practitioners share the opportunity to ponder on their own ideas & beliefs in collaboration with current & intended future provision. I feel that it offers people the chance to revisit where they are in this subject area & be given the permission to analyse & move forward at a pace & content which is applicable to them.

As with other publications presented from the EEF, the summary of recommendations are presented in a poster style summary; which is where some practitioners may want to start  in considering which aspects of the recommendations are particularly pertinent to them. Alongside the poster summary is a much more detailed guidance report which discusses each recommendation in much more detail; with reference to key research also being highlighted.

The recommendations comprise:

  1. Prioritise the development of communication and language
  2. Develop children’s early reading using a balanced approach
  3. Develop children’s capability and motivation to write
  4. Embed opportunities to develop self-regulation
  5. Support parents to understand how to help their children learn
  6. Use high quality assessment to ensure all children make good progress
  7. Use high quality targeted support to help struggling children
  1. Prioritise the development of communication and language 

With more & more research & studies being carried out exploring the difficulties some children have in developing effective speech, language & communication skills, there have been many examples which show how prevalent this issue is.

‘I can’ the communication charity in their report ‘Bercow: Ten years On’ summarised that ’more than 10% of all children and young people, over 1.4 million in the UK, have communication difficulties. Too many are not getting the support they need’. (2018)

The word gap is widening with research such as ‘Why Closing the Word Gap Matters: Oxford Language Report’ by Oxford University Press (2018) highlighting the key issues which practitioners are facing as children join their settings 

“For our Oxford Language Report we carried out market research with more than 1,000 teachers. Over half of those surveyed reported that at least 40% of their pupils lacked the vocabulary to access their learning. 69% of primary school teachers and over 60% of secondary school teachers believe the word gap is increasing”

The recommendations for this section of the EEF guidance offers strategies & approaches to address the increasing number of children with poor speech & language skills; including considerations of the role of the adult in promoting quality interactions with children. Specifically, highlighting the effectiveness of talking with children rather than always talking to children is a key consideration. This distinction provides a fantastic model of what the language of play sounds like. For example: the child busy engrossed in the water tray is loving the sensation of filling, pouring & refilling the bucket. They are fascinated with watching the flow & drip drip as the water splashes through their fingers & into the water tray. To enhance this activity the adult (as a supportive play partner) can take part in a conversation about what they see  is happening & take this opportunity to connect the words to the action which the child is enjoying. Reinforcing the words with lots of non-verbal clues may also be useful too. “I love the way you are picking up the bucket (point to the bucket) nearly at the top….nearly at the top….splash!”

If an intention is for children to understand & use a wide vocabulary themselves, it makes sense that we offer those words so children can hear them. It also helps to hear these words in context; that is as the child is playing, so the connections between the experience & word become stronger & more secure until the child feels confident in knowing what they are going to say & why they are choosing specific words at a specific time.

I also think it’s important for adults to show that they also model their own playing so that children also have another opportunity to further develop the connections & also to give children the ‘permission’ to know that this is ok for them to do as well. Talking out loud is a powerful (& very simple) strategy which practitioners can use (not just in EYFS, I would argue, but everywhere!) Talking through what is happening as you decide where to start as you share a book or talking about how you were able to work out a new word verbalises the process of what literacy skills are being demonstrated, which in turn may support children to find that hook to assimilate & recall information when needed. Where this has been a fundamental element of settings & schools teaching philosophy, children can be observed doing this for themselves more & with a greater level of independence. This is a wonderful chance for the children to practise & rehearse key skills as well as providing the practitioner with a valuable opportunity to take on board what their children are thinking, exploring & working out.

Included in the guidance in ‘Box 1: high quality interactions-it’s harder than it looks’ offer some very useful ideas for practitioners to use, focusing on sustained shared thinking & guided interaction. When I have shared these with practitioners (either new to EYFS or more experienced) & asked them to consider the ones they do lots of & the ones they maybe don’t do as much of they are always surprised firstly by how much they already do & also excited to try new ideas. There is a definite feel that this approach is more of a scaffolding approach where the child is given a way in to think & respond rather than a more ‘let me tell you’ approach. In settings were this has been implemented, there has been a rapid improvement in how much the children are engaging in their activities; maybe because they feel that the adult is truly collaborating in their play or perhaps the quality of talk with the adults has changed to become more developmentally appropriately. The practitioners also have reported that they feel ‘less pressurised about getting through things’. They feel that they are enjoying the journey alongside the child. They have also reported that they are finding out more insightful information about the strengths & next steps for their children.

I would add to this list to give children more thinking time as this can also be very useful in allowing children (& adults!) to process the information & respond as appropriate. Speech & language therapists would suggest that this thinking time could be up to 10 seconds. Count 10 seconds in your head…seems a long time! Generally we don’t t like silences & may have the temptation to fill this silence. There could also be the worry that if nothing is being said then perhaps there is no real teaching happening. (I can definitely remember this worry as a new practitioner being observed…) However if we flip this around & consider the purpose of the 10 seconds then it may not be enough! Processing, assimilating & responding are intricate, involved process which for some children who are at the beginning of their journey in communication is placing quite a high demand on them. 

This powerful clip from the Albert Shanker Institute (2013) reinforces this research showing the potential impact for future learning.