As an organisation training the next generation of early years teachers we understand and support the Government's pledge to raise standards in communication, language and literacy development so that every child has the best possible start to their education.
At Best Practice Network our vision for our Early Years Initial Teacher Training (EYITT) programme is that every child has access to an excellent early years' education, regardless of their background, and that every practitioner is supported to be their best in a well-led early years setting.
A qualified and skilled early years workforce, including specialist early years teachers, is crucial in ensuring children have experiences and opportunities that lay the foundations for their future and enable them to become lifelong learners.
Communication and language development, a prime area of the Early years Foundation Stage (EYFS), encompasses a wide range of taught approaches to support children's development, arguably with some methods being seen as more effective than others. At the start of a new decade there is much to celebrate about the quality of early years education in our settings and schools. The EYFS, while undergoing the current reforms, is widely revered across the world.
Early years teachers have specialist subject and pedagogical knowledge. As such they are well placed to raise the quality of teaching. Ofsted's 2020 annual report indicates that 96 per cent of early years settings were judged to be good or outstanding in their last inspection.
However, there is still work to be done in order to achieve the aims of the Social Mobility Action Plan.
Current research indicates that:
- 29 per cent of children start school without the basic skills they need to learn, such as the ability to follow instructions, express themselves or use tenses correctly. For the most disadvantaged children this grows to 43 per cent (DfE 2018).
- On average, disadvantaged children are four months behind at age five. That grows by an additional six months by the age of 11, and a further nine months by the age of 16 (DfE 2019).
- Children with poor vocabulary at age five are more than twice as likely to be unemployed when they are aged 34. (DfE 2019)
- By 2028, the percentage of children who do not achieve at least expected levels across all goals in the communication and language and literacy areas of learning at the end of reception year (EYFSP) is reduced by half. (DfE 2019)
‘Intentional pedagogy’ provides the ethos at Acorns in Harrogate
Since the introduction of funding for disadvantaged two-year-olds, working in partnership with parents and supporting children's progress at home has been recognised as a crucial part of a setting's role. This has been particularly key when it comes to supporting language and communication skills.
We want our EYITT trainees to become agents of change in their settings, to build on the existing opportunities for partnerships with parents, or indeed to foster new ways of working. This is central to their ability to meet the early years teacher standards.
We see the current DfE backed ‘Hungry Little Minds’ campaign as an excellent way for our teachers to share their passion for communication and language development with parents in order to enhance opportunities for learning at home.
But what do practitioners think? I spoke to some of our colleagues about their approaches.
Sandra Matthews, tutor on the EYITT programme and a pre-school manager at Acorns in Harrogate, explained: ‘The challenge to my setting, and to many others like us, is to discover how to engage parents and develop strong trusting relationships with them so that they can work with staff and develop new skills to promote their children's language and communication by following the support provided.
‘Parents Early years and Learning (PEAL; 2006) training was a national initiative which was very useful in supporting practitioners to identify and work to overcome barriers to building parent partnerships. The training has guided my setting's practice for several years now. One aspect which resonated with me was that there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach to working with parents, which means that we need to use different approaches to engaging them, some of which will work for some, but perhaps not others.
‘We cannot simply tell parents what they should be doing, but we can provide practical and realistic advice and support in a range of ways which can make a difference to their ability to promote their child's language and communication skills at home.’
Language development linked to what children know
Ms Matthews says that her setting tries to gain the best understanding it can of families by carrying out home visits before each child starts. This helps the setting to tailor its support towards meeting each families' individual needs.
‘The ethos of my setting is one of intentional pedagogy,’ she says. ‘We do not plan in advance, which may seem as if we would not be able to follow the DfE guidance on closing the word gap. However, practitioners tune in to children carefully as they play, when they are deeply engaged in what they are doing. This means that the words we use can be relevant to them in the moment. We look to provide new language which can be assimilated into the child's knowledge because we aim to understand what they know already, and what the next steps might be to enable them to move forward. This is based on Vygotsky's theory of scaffolding.’
In her 2007 research paper for the National Literacy Trust, Christina Clark suggests that any links, whatever they may be, between home and school are likely to be positive.
Ms Matthews adds: ‘We provide resources and events to promote this throughout the year. Annually, the day before Fathers' Day, we hold a dads’ picnic. We invite dads (or any other significant male) to bring their children and have a day where we meet up in a local park and do den building, a scavenger hunt and sports day events. This is always extremely popular, and we have built up really good relationships with dads who typically never meet. We often find that following the picnic, dads become more engaged in their children's learning.
‘When we receive a disadvantaged two-year-old into our setting, we don't just welcome the child, but their whole family, and all the history and values that come with them. If we teach only the child, we are not supporting their whole development, just a small part of it. I believe however that if we can support the whole family, we can transform lives for good, not only for the child in our care, but for their siblings and parents.’
A key component of our EYITT programme is a focus on the development of subject knowledge so that our teachers have the skills to plan and deliver effective approaches to the teaching of early reading. Our early years teachers recognise that strong language foundations are needed for every child to have the opportunity to develop effective and fluent reading skills.
Key to the teaching of early reading is the development of conversational turn-taking, listening, vocabulary, dialogic reading, the use of shared narratives and attuned adult-child interactions. This helps to build confidence and language exposure.
‘Key to the teaching of early reading is the development of conversational turn-taking, listening, vocabulary, dialogic reading, the use of shared narratives and attuned adult-child interactions. This helps to build confidence and language exposure’.
Western Primary School in Harrogate, part of the Red Kite Learning Trust, was awarded outstanding in all areas by Ofsted in June 2018. Inspectors commented on the quality of education stating: ‘children have a first rate experience. Every opportunity is used to extend children's vocabulary.’
Claire Magill, Foundation Stage leader says: ‘At Western we aim to provide a language rich environment where children's talk is valued, and our skilled early years staff can support high quality interactions. The environment we create ensures children's language is enriched and challenged.’
The range of opportunities that Claire and the team provide are based on children's interests and encourage talk and interaction. For example, children engage in role-play and are encouraged to record each other's talk within their role.
Claire ensures that there are prompts in the Reception classroom that promote talk, ensuring back and forth interactions between children and their peers or children and the practitioners.
Senior leaders at Western Primary School are passionate about the ways in which technology can be incorporated into all aspects of the curriculum, starting in the nursery.
Children enjoy retelling favourite stories to an adult who writes them down and reads the story back to the child. The stories are recorded, and children can access their recording using a QR code. This is a fantastic way to share a love of stories with children who in turn can share it with their parents and carers.
Making a difference
Communication and language impacts on all areas of life. If we as practitioners can help children and their families to prioritise children's language development, we can ensure that each child truly receives the best possible start to their early education. At Best Practice Network we believe that a workforce supported by outstanding early years teachers will make a difference in improving outcomes for children so that they thrive throughout their education and beyond.
Sian Marsh is programme director, Early Years and ITT at Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development, working in partnership with early years' settings and schools across the country to deliver nationally recognised early years training programmes and qualifications.
Further information about Best Practice Network's early years programmes and support, including Early Years Initial Teacher Training, is available at bestpracticenet.co.uk/early-years-courses
Acorns ensures its environment and resources support children's acquisition of language