Words, words, words: Supporting young children with their language development

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This week we are thinking about how practitioners can help young children in their language development. Recent reports on this issue have come to our attention and we have been also talking to students about practices they have observed early years settings. One report entitled Why closing the word gap matters came out on the 19thApril 2018 and was published by Oxford University Press.  It has gathered teachers’ perceptions on the vocabulary of both primary and secondary school children.

The report highlights some concerns around the children’s acquisition of an adequate vocabulary so that they can access every opportunity the school curriculum offers them. For example, it draws our attention to the fact that primary school teachers who teach children in the 5-6 age range (Year One in England) consider that almost half the children they teach are held back, in terms of achievement, because they have a restricted vocabulary. A noteworthy 93% of teachers who participated in the research believed that one key reason for this limited vocabulary was because children were no longer reading, or being read to, for pleasure. A report with a similar focus which was published in September 2017 by the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) asserts that 5-8% of young children in the UK have language difficulties and makes links between these difficulties and the child’s socio-economic status.

So why does it matter and what is the impact of this limited vocabulary on outcomes for children? Many issues are highlighted in both reports such as ‘their ability to manage emotions and communicate feelings, to establish and maintain relationships, to think symbolically, and to learn to read and write’ (Law, Charlton, and Asmussen, 2017, p. 5) and of course their achievement on leaving primary school.  The gap then widens as the children begin their secondary education and according to the EIF report is even evidenced in the number of young offenders who struggle with language and communication. This clearly highlights the important role that those who work with young children play in narrowing this gap in the early years.

The Communication Trust contains many resources for practitioners to access if they are working with children they believe may have SLCN (Speech Language and Communication Needs). However, we also need to think about our day-to day pedagogy and the opportunities we give children to talk and develop a rich vocabulary. We have noticed practice recently that we believe may be stifling young children’s language such as requiring children to sit silently at lunch time or rushing 3 and 4 year olds to learn initial sounds in formal phonic sessions when they should be experimenting with sounds and language. And of course, learning to listen!

So as those who work with young children, it is important to engage with the key messages  from these reports and consider how we can help young children with their language development so that they do not struggle to engage with the curriculum as they progress through the education system because of an inadequate vocabulary. We need to ensure that we don’t just focus on the skill of ‘decoding’ which phonics offers but that we also provide a rich reading environment, access to exciting books, opportunities to talk and listen, the joy of being read out loud to and also that we continue to work with parents to support them also in offering these opportunities at home. We would love you to share your practice with young children, either as a practitioner or a parent; how do you support young children in developing a rich and varied vocabulary?

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