Many of you will have heard of the Oxford Language Report, which is the published report detailing the findings of an Oxford University Press (OUP) online survey with over 1,300 primary and secondary school teachers from across the UK surveyed. They found that there is indeed a word gap that exists within the UK – with on average 49% of year one children lacking the vocabulary that they need to access the curriculum, so that it negatively affects their learning…

This gap only slightly closes with age as the same survey found that a large 43% of children still have a limited vocabulary to the extent that it affects their learning in year seven, which is the first year of secondary school. It makes interesting reading, but is perhaps not surprising to us in early years settings, who have anecdotally noticed a decline in children’s speech, language and communication abilities over the past 10 years or so. I regularly meet practitioners who tell me that more and more children are entering their settings with a very poor vocabulary, and poor communication and language skills.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the government either. Justine Greening, when she was the Education Secretary, stated that to “close the word gap in the early years” was one of her four ambitions in the Social Mobility Plan, Unlocking talent, fulfilling potential. Now I have a problem with this phrase, although I welcome any attention that the early years receive from the government if it is linked with government spending, the phrase ‘close the word gap in the early years’ implies to me that the problem lies within the early years itself and could even suggest that there is no word gap at other ages, which is not true. This problem is not confined to the UK either, a US study found that by the age of 3, children from poorer backgrounds have heard 30 million fewer words than those from more affluent backgrounds. So I welcome the idea that we need to improve our communication with young children.

Within those first few years, children are just beginning to learn how to communicate. We look after children during the vital stage from birth to 5 years, when the vast majority of language learning happens. We know that children’s brains develop fastest between the ages of birth and three, so let’s put our efforts into supporting children in this phase of education, let’s encourage investment in the early years to provide timely help and intervention and prevent the word gap from happening in the first place. Instead of starting with a deficit model of finding a problem and wanting to fix it, let’s put more preventative plans into place which will support children from birth, or even better, from before birth.
In an article entitled Keep on talking one would imagine that I am wanting us to encourage children to talk more. However, if we focus too heavily on over-emphasising vocabulary, we may not spend enough time focusing on other factors such as paying attention, serve and return conversation and meaningful communication. Words are important, but they are only part of the story of language and communication development.

So let’s think about how we learn to communicate and use language. Usually, children begin with a stage of preverbal communication in which babies use sounds and gestures to get their message across to others.

As children learn words, they begin to take over, but they do not replace other forms of communication. In fact, the way we communicate and the gestures we use can reiterate what we’re saying, emphasise it or even contradict it. For example, my husband sometimes plays a game with our children at the dinner table, where he takes a mouthful of food and makes extremely unpleasant faces, implying that he really doesn’t like the food, to which our children ask, “Do you like it?” and he replies, “Yes, it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted!” They find this incredibly funny and sometimes play the inverse game. We started playing this game when they were younger to support them to understand the well-known phrase it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it…!

Babies are born eager to communicate. They are hard-wired to seek out others and interact with them. However, just because developing language is innate, it doesn’t mean that it’s an automatic process. If a child had no experience of being talked to or few opportunities for social interaction, they would not develop healthily and learn to communicate. Learning language depends upon children hearing language in order for them develop their own communication methods, and using language is important to develop their understanding. Through talk, children are making connections and they use talk to extend, make explicit and reshape what they know. Talk also enables children to play and build relationships with others, which is vital for their social development.

Here are some ways that we can support early communication:

  • Tune in to the child’s signals and cues to engage in meaningful talk
  • Make sure the babies and toddlers can see your face when you talk with them
  • Listen and respond to their language play
  • Copy the facial expressions, sounds and words made by babies and toddlers
  • Play turn-taking games, sing and coo to babies, encourage sound play and babbling
  • Share pictures and objects when you talk so that a child can link objects with words
  • Use labelling techniques and games, for example show me your fingers, nose
  • Use clear speech and simple phrases, role model appropriate and accurate language
  • Use strategies such as motherese/parentese (high pitched voice & simple words/phrases), recasting (rephrase things), expanding (add to) and repetition to enable children to identify and decode meanings
  • Use non-verbal communication alongside talk, role model facial expression, body language, gestures and intonation
  • Learn a few signs in Makaton or British Sign Language and use them every day and value all attempts at communication
  • Use expressive language which include rhythm and patterns
  • Maximise opportunities to develop children’s problem solving skills through talking whenever they arise
  • Model the ‘rules’ of language – e.g. turn-taking, serve and return, listening
  • Introduce new vocabulary when appropriate
  • Ask open-ended questions to stretch the child
  • Set up role-play and other environments which encourage talk
  • Have real, genuine and respectful conversations with children
  • Read stories every day

What you are doing really makes a difference for the children in your care and closing the word gap won’t just happen overnight – it is a reflection of the support, love and attention given to children from birth. So remember to keep on talking because we are supporting children to become the skillful communicators of tomorrow.

 

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

 

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