Keep the conversation going, please

It’s important to prioritise language learning interactions not just in Reception but throughout the primary years, says Megan Dixon
4th October 2019, 12:03am
Keep The Conversation Going

Megan Dixon

Megan Dixon is director of research at Holy Catholic Family Multi-Academy Trust
Find me on twitter @DamsonEd

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Keep the conversation going, please

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/keep-conversation-going-please

Learning words is important. The more words (and phrases) a child can use and understand, the more likely they are to do well at school. It impacts their attainment, it impacts their behaviour (they are more likely to be able to manage their feelings and emotions), and it impacts their ability to be social (communicating thoughts, ideas, understandings, feelings, wants, needs, wishes, desires and understanding, and relating to the worlds of others).

So, how we help children (especially young children) learn to know and use words (and phrases and sentences) is extremely important. In fact, it might be the most important thing teachers do.

But do we know enough about how to help young children learn words and understand and use them?

When it comes to supporting up to the age of around five or six and beyond, there is strong evidence about what helps. Ensuring that children hear language is important - studies are clear that the number of words a child is exposed to can matter. However, the quantity itself may not be the only thing that matters.

In their evidence briefing, Elena Lieven, Anna Theakston and Caroline Rowland, from the LuCID Centre at the University of Manchester, explain that the quality of talk a child is involved in is as important as the amount of words they hear. They suggest that just hearing language is not as effective as being involved in "conversational turns", which are built around something of interest to the child.

As a conversation unfurls, hearing the adult using more complex vocabulary and grammatical structures helps a child develop their language.

The serve and return of a conversation provides an immediate model of new language for the child, highlighting how the words are related to each other and extending their understanding of grammatical structures.

Unfortunately, there is evidence from a recent study by Professor James Law and colleagues that our classrooms may not be as full of language-scaffolding, word-learning conversations as we might wish.

The findings of the study suggested that the physical classroom environments were designed to be interactive and supportive of language learning. However, there were fewer language learning opportunities and language learning interactions (conversations) as the children moved from Reception into Years 1 and 2. The teachers reported that providing scaffolding opportunities to develop language became less of a priority for children as they moved through school and focused more on the taught curriculum.

Yet if, as the Education Endowment Foundation's Preparing for Literacy guidance report suggests, "communication and language provide the foundations for learning and thinking", maybe we should focus on making our classrooms more word-learning friendly? Let's have a little more conversation, please.

Megan Dixon is North West regional lead at the Education Endowment Foundation and director of English for the Aspire Educational Trust

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