With the changes to the EYFS, the Literacy part of the Early Learning Goals have gone from 2 items to 3, with ‘comprehension’ being added. In last month’s article on International Children’s Book Day, we gave you some ideas on how to use books to help children’s learning in more ways than just reading, and we understand that before children learn to read, they have to learn to communicate, which is why we’re keen to help you encourage speech and language in your setting which leads on to better literacy and understanding too.

It goes without saying that to encourage speech and language, you need to actually speak and communicate with children. This means actively talking to them and not just responding; verbally pointing out as many physical things as you can including colours, shapes, numbers, letters, people and things, as well as more abstract things such as emotions and ideas; and asking questions that lead and extend their thought processes. 

1. Use the 5 Ws – Who? What? Where? When? Why? 

And you can also use ‘How?’. These questions are great to use in stories to check a child’s comprehension and understanding of what they have heard, and to develop conversation skills, but you can also use them in other situations too, such as exploring a garden habitat, or looking at pictures of different situations. 

2. Repeat after me 

Start encouraging children, especially babies, to make early sounds with their voice as a way of communicating. You can make different sounds with your voice whilst changing a nappy, or sing a nursery rhyme or go through different rhyming sounds with slightly older children, encouraging them to repeat the sounds they hear. Remember to keep your focus on the child or children so that they are drawn into the ‘conversation’ with you, even if it is at the pre-word stage. 

3. Describe what you do more often and in more detail

This is a simple way to help children learn new words and is an important way to help decrease the word gap that is now developing in many of our children. All you need to do is describe what you are doing more often with the children. If you are going outside to play, instead of just opening the door and saying “Playtime”, say “Let me open the door for you, it’s playtime and the sun is shining” instead. The children will hear more words and make more meanings from them. Try to vary your words and vocabulary too, so next time you could say “Let’s push open the door, and exit into the garden this way”, or something similar. The wider vocabulary you use yourself, the wider will be the vocabulary of the children. If you are moving around the setting, then try doing it in different ways and use adjectives such as “Let’s skip slowly”, “walk proudly”, or “run quickly”. You could also sing it or make it into a rhyme such as, “We’re getting off the floor, and marching out the door!”

4. Encourage conversations with peers

With older children, you can lead a ‘pair and share’ time where you actively encourage children to talk to each other or have some team word games where children have to come up with words that start with a particular letter, similar to I-spy or that rhyme with each other. Make it fun and physical by getting one child to hide an object and the other one has to ask questions to find out where it is. 

Remember that you should be talking to the children as often as possible and using imaginative play, more formal educational sessions, playtimes, lunch breaks and transitions to engage the children in oral speech and language as much as possible. 

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