The publication of the revised Early Years Foundation Stage brought with it an increased focus on communication and language development. With it being a prime area, educators were already aware of the importance of promoting this, but it is now a clear priority. We know that communication and language development is vitally important in the early years as it underpins development in all other areas. In prioritising communication and language, we are giving all children the skills to succeed in their future education and adult life.
Developing skills in communication and language impacts on a child’s holistic development. Children are able to express themselves, share their ideas, talk about their experiences, make friends, access play and learning opportunities, make sense of the world and influence our curriculum and planning. We are paving the way for later literacy development, enabling them to understand instructions, ask questions and become independent, curious learners.
Creating a language rich environment
Communication and language can be prioritised through the culture and ethos of settings and schools.We’re looking for educators to embed experiences and opportunities for communication throughout the curriculum in early years. This begins by understanding the importance of this area of learning and being able to critically reflect on the provision. The environment should belong to the children and they should see themselves reflected in the activities and resources – look at it through the eyes of the children. Get to their level and reflect on how your environment supports the communication needs of all children within the setting. Do you have dual language books and resources that reflect the diversity of your community?
A language rich environment is a space where talk and listening is valued. There are quiet, cosy nooks where children can retreat to talk, share stories or just observe what is going on around them. Children are given time to talk in a variety of different contexts, from large and small groups, an individual basis to outdoor activities and sensory experiences. Real life, hands on experiences enable children to engage using their senses. This inspires talk as they use words and phrases to describe their thoughts and actions, supported by knowledgeable, skilled educators who are able to tune in and scaffold learning.
Books and songs are seen as rich ways to encourage early talk and understanding. These won’t be limited to specific times and areas of the provision, but will be embraced as fun, active ways for children to hear and make sense of words which they can then use in play. Children build a bank of favourite books, re-enacting them and taking on roles. Perhaps they might use puppets, peg dolls, loose parts or small world set ups as props to retell the stories.
Background noise will be limited during group activities so children can fully focus on sounds and words. Listening is an important and sometimes challenging skill to develop so we need to facilitate an environment which makes this easier for children. In doing so, we are helping them to tune in to specific experiences, such as story time, allowing them to focus, understand the meaning of words and link them to the context of the book.
The role of the adult
It could be said that the adult is a part of the enabling environment, facilitating the provision to inspire talk and listening. They are able to sensitively tune in, respond appropriately according to the child’s stage of development, engage in active listening and model positive interactions with children and colleagues. However, underpinning this is an understanding of the stages and milestones associated with language development. This helps us make sense of observations and recognise when children need additional support.
An expert workforce will know the children well, having formed positive relationships with the child and family. There will be an understanding that children will join settings with different experiences, from varied home learning environments and cultures and therefore all are unique. Where some children will rapidly learn new words and use these to communicate verbally, other children will find this skill challenging. Through quality interactions, educators can adapt their language to meet the child where they are. Strategies might include speaking in short, clear sentences which are easy for children to understand, getting down to the child’s level, leaving time for children to process information and commenting rather than questioning. Educators will repeat back sentences, adding an additional word to expand vocabulary or for children to hear the words pronounced correctly. We can model language associated with feelings and actions, enabling children to hear them in the correct context.
Consideration must also be given to those who speak English as a second language – we can communicate with families, getting a sense of the child’s level of development and interests which can help us be prepared for the child. Educators can learn key words and phrases, helping the child to settle and feel valued and safe. It’s a great idea to invite parents in to the setting to read books in their home language, exposing children to new, exciting experiences.
Through inspiring experiences, in and out of the setting, we can motivate all children to connect their thoughts with words, irrespective of their level of development. We want to encourage that sense of awe and wonder which acts as a driver for talk, inspiring natural curiosity. These moments are times when children can share what they are seeing, smelling or touching and we, as educators, can wonder with them.
Leadership for communication and language development
Leaders will know their staff well and will therefore be able to identify strengths and weaknesses in practice. From this, leaders can then implement strategies to support training and development. Supportive supervisions can build on this as spaces to discuss practice and provision and highlighting ways to develop as individuals and as a team.
Under strong, supportive leadership, teams can look critically at practice and provision. This could be through team meetings, peer observations, discussions with the children, audits of the environment and engaging in continual professional development. We can use this knowledge to evaluate the effectiveness of our environment in promoting communication and language skills and thereby inform our planning. What experiences can we offer to extend a child’s development? This requires skills of reflection and a sound knowledge of communication and language development milestones.
Most importantly, leaders will understand the need for their staff to know the children well, and to form strong attachments. It is through these bonds that children can be supported, and interactions can be tailored to their needs. There is an understanding that this relationship extends beyond the setting and incorporates the whole family, respecting parents and carers as the child’s first educators. Relationships based on trust and appreciation for the role families play enable children’s communication and language development to be prioritised within the setting and home. Working together, we can share ideas, progress, interests and characteristics of effective learning which can all influence language skills. The child sits at the centre and will impact on practice, provision and policy development.
Finally, children need us to be interested and enthused within the early years environment. We create the safe, happy space where children are inspired to talk, listen, play and learn.