According to a report published by Save the Children* the number of words your child knows by the age of five is a key indicator of their reading success at age eleven, and the impact of children’s early language development can extend far into adulthood. A child with weak language skills at the age of five is much less likely to be a strong reader at the age of 11 than a five-year-old with strong vocabulary. Not only this, but their outcomes in mathematics are influenced too. Many other studies have come up with similar findings.
Needless to say, language is a biggy when it comes to readiness to learn.
One of the indicators of school readiness is whether a child can speak in full sentences, pronouncing the majority of (age appropriate) words correctly and being able to offer appropriate responses when asked a question or as part of a dialogue. However, statistics show that an increasing percentage of children starting Reception cannot do these things and the burden is falling on schools and other agencies to correct poor or inadequate language skills.
The Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum recognises the importance of language; of the seven areas of learning that make up the curriculum, there are three ‘Prime’ areas of learning – so named because they are perceived to be the most important -of which Communication and Language is one. Much thought is given to Communication and Language during the planning of a Reception classroom. Areas of provision such as role play, performance and reading; tables laid out in such a way as to encourage conversation between children; the use of ‘talking partners’ and circle times to develop speaking skills are just some of the ways in which schools maximise opportunities for their children to extend their vocabulary.
Language acquisition begins in the womb with the recognition of mum’s voice and continues each and every waking minute as the subconscious takes in sounds that slowly form the child’s vocabulary bank. Therefore, being exposed to constant flow of clear and accurate dialogue and language from birth and throughout early childhood is imperative – it is our responsibility as parents to support the appropriate development of children’s language and to be mindful of the words and phrases they hear.
Speaking and listening skills are critical when it comes to accessing learning across the curriculum and to helping children access the daily routines of the classroom.
If you are interested in supporting your child’s developing language you could do this by;
- Exposing your child to high quality language every day. Whatever age your child is, whatever their first language and whatever their chosen method of communication, commit to talking and listening to them properly. Look them in the eye when you speak with them, focusing entirely on what they are saying as much as is possible. Value their comments and questions which in turn will give them confidence to speak in longer and more complex sentences. Allow processing time for children to comprehend and choose how to answer you and try not to answer on their behalf.
- Turning off your phone. Put social media away when the children are around and make them your priority. Talk to them, question them, respond to them and ask open questions of them. Limit TV time and be picky about the programmes you allow your children to watch at a young age. Not all children’s TV makes for positive language acquisition. Choose books with continuously new characters and vocabulary when you read the bedtime story (please, please read them a bedtime story every day) and discuss the book as you go through each page. You’ll be amazed how much vocabulary children remember and reuse in their own diction. (this of course includes any words you’d rather they weren’t sharing that they’ve picked up from home!)
- Reflecting on your own use of language with your child. Do you talk to them as an equal, using full sentences and a steady, adult voice that shows respect to them as competent learners? There is a danger in talking to babies like, well, babies. Do children not deserve to know that a train is called a train and not a ‘choo choo?’ And at what point are you intending teaching them that the correct term is ‘thank you’ instead of ‘ta?’ There seems little point in teaching the incorrect word for something and then having to retract it later on.
- Considering when the best times of the day are for extended conversations. Children are tired at the end of a school day yet we all seem to greet them at pick up time with the inevitable ‘ What have you done today?’ question. We shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t always want to relive every moment of their school day straight away, would you? The clue is in the seemingly stock answer of ‘Nothing.’ Instead, consider giving your little one some time to process the day and revisit the conversation later over tea time. Play a game called ‘What have you enjoyed today?’ taking turns to say one thing about your day during your meal. Games like this teach children to listen courteously and take interest in other’s comments as well as to share an opinion about something.
- Correcting misconceptions without making a big deal of them. Simply repeat back the word correctly ‘Mummy I eated all my tea’ = ‘Yes you ate all your tea, well done’ without pointing out the mistake. The correct word will soon, subconsciously, sink in.
It does not matter whether you and child communicate through talk, sign or gesture, the same advice applies. Talk and listen to each other as much as you possibly can. It will pay dividends in terms of confidence in the classroom and, ultimately academic achievement at a later stage.
*Source: Save the Children –THE LIFE CHANCES STRATEGY report.
Lucy Patrick is a primary school headteacher and co-owner of North Kirklees Mumbler.