Minding the Word Gap
Following on from my last blog where I discussed the importance of PSED in the current times, I thought I would continue my exploration into the Prime Areas of the EYFS, this time with a focus on Communication and Language. Prime areas are particularly crucial for igniting children’s curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, and for building their capacity to learn, form relationships and thrive. Along with Personal, Social and Emotional Development and Physical Development, Communication and Language forms the basis for successful learning and progress in the four Specific areas (Literacy, Maths, Understanding the World and Expressive Arts & Design). Additionally, there is currently a greater focus on children’s language development due to the Department for Education’s concern of a significant ‘word gap’ claiming that, by the age of three, more disadvantaged children are, on average, a year and a half behind their peers in their early language development. Therefore, this seems an ideal opportunity to reflect on my own contributions in promoting and enhancing this area of learning. Coincidentally, children’s early language development is also the subject of the first essay submission towards the EYITT qualification that I am currently working towards, so I can look at this from a personal and theoretical perspective.
I am always seeking to improve my practice, having never felt I have found the right way to do things (I am learning that there is no RIGHT way!) as an early years practitioner. I feel I communicate with young children naturally, however, I am aware that I tend to use questions an awful lot when trying to engage in purposeful conversation with the children. This then leads to me questioning myself – Am I asking the right sort of questions to promote inquiry? Are they open or closed questions? Am I moving their learning on? And most importantly, Are the children interested?
I am familiar with the traditional theories of child development, having explored them in my degree days, but I researched the various theorists again to refresh my knowledge. The ideas I relate mostly to are those of social constructionists Vygotsky and Bruner who claim that language is learnt due to a need to understand the environment and from social interaction with others. As I researched further into Sustained Shared Thinking, where adults and children co-construct knowledge and meaning as they share and clarify understandings, I linked this to social interaction theory and also to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) where the more knowledgeable other extends children’s learning beyond what they could achieve alone. It makes sense to me that, not only children, but we all learn new things through our interactions and discussions with others, sharing our thoughts, views and expertise in various areas. Yet, I am still pondering the ‘how’ of all this, in everyday situations with the children beyond just questioning (which obviously has its vital place). Actually as I write, I am partly answering this myself – you get to know the children really well, know what interests them and use this as a springboard for discussion and exploration. So I do have some answers, but in practice feel I need to work on my technique, and this is always at the forefront of my mind when talking with the children.
“Watch children’s interest, listen to their questions, then you will not be able to doubt the strength and spontaneity of their wish to know and understand” – Susan Isaacs
So, as part of my training, I have had to devise a set of adult-led inputs, focusing on Communication and Language. I began to think about the children on an individual and a group level – What are their interests and what are their needs? I determined that they require assistance with their conversational skills and focusing their attention, so I provided real-life objects for them to explore and articulate more complex ideas, rather than one-word responses. With these areas as my objectives, I thought about their interests, which are varied, but am aware of their curiosity about the birds they could hear singing during outside play. It just so happens that I had a bird’s nest at home which had fallen, so I thought that would ideally link with learning through real life experiences and a need to understand the environment. Prior to introducing the bird’s nest, we read the story ‘Owl Babies’ by Martin Waddell to prompt thoughts about birds in general. I was quite surprised at their understanding and compassion with the story, making links to the owl’s feelings and why they felt that way. Even though a couple of them went wandering during the story (!), they still took it in, commenting in context to show their understanding……
“Maybe the Mummy got something to eat?”
“They’re sad, they want their Mummy”.
“Her hasn’t got any food”.
“Mummy ate all the food – they’re sad”.
“I think Mummy went to a concert to dance”.
“I think Mummy owl got stuck in a fox’s tummy and then she got out and got back to her baby owls”.
Not bad at all for 3 year olds!
I then told the children that I had a surprise for them. I tried to maintain an air of intrigue and excitement as I explained that I have something very special that we must take extra care of. I introduced the words ‘fragile’ and ‘delicate’ as I explained the meaning. They peered into the box, some gently touched it, and I waited…..
“There’s grass and sticks”.
“I see feathers”.
“It will be cosy”.
“There’s a hole”.
“Feathers from a white bird”.
The children used various adjectives to describe the nest, although I am aware that the more able child led the responses, so I was unsure whether the other children were sharing their own knowledge. However, I also identify here Vygotsky’s ZPD, where children learn from a more knowledgeable other. It would be interesting to introduce another object on a one-to-one basis to establish this. I also struggled to maintain the boys’ focus who may have responded to a more active session.
So, I took the next session outdoors and planned a more active lesson around building a bird’s nest. We explored the nest materials and compiled a list of items to find on the school field, based on their own suggestions. This time, the boys were more engaged, with one showing enthusiasm over the spider webs he had found. I shared my understanding explaining that birds use spider webs to stick the nest materials together which led to further intrigue. Before I knew it, half an hour had gone by, and the children were all just as enthusiastic as when we first started our search. Communication wise, I initially felt this lesson was less successful than the first. However, I now realise the boys were more engaged and focused, showing an improvement in their listening and attention skills and involvement on a deeper level. Additionally, an open space enabled them to individually share their own responses, within a rich language environment.
My conclusion here places the development of early communication and language development within the social context, with an emphasis on the need for plentiful meaningful interactions with children to optimise early development. I would also suggest that, in order to create these meaningful interactions, it is vital for a practitioner and child to have developed a strong, trusting relationship. If there is a secure attachment, the child will be comfortable in sharing their thoughts with you, and through building a relationship, the adult will have knowledge of the child’s interests which they can then build upon to promote episodes of sustained shared thinking. I am therefore becoming more aware of my questioning, giving the children time to think and respond, and trying to have purposeful two-way conversations with them where we can learn from each other. Furthermore, incorporating real-life experiences into the learning environment, which are based on their interests, may introduce children to new vocabulary which they can relate to. By arousing children’s curiosity about objects and experiences, children can become involved in deep level, intrinsically motivated learning. The simplest things can be of real interest to children and we easily forget this in our hectic everyday world.