Finding the right words

Sue Palmer

In the first of a three-part series on earlyliteracy, Sue Palmer shows how to engage young children in meaningful conversation

"Talk in the foundation stage is like anything else," says early years consultant and storyteller Ros Bayley. "The challenge is to get the right balance of teacher and child-initiated activities. If you over-formalise the process, you won't address the developmental needs of young children.

But if you're not clear about exactly how you cover vital skills, you'll miss opportunities. Then some children will be denied access to the building blocks of literacy."

Ros Bayley and I have been working together on a book called Foundations of Literacy, a seven-stranded approach to the development of "pre-literacy skills" for three to six-year-olds. Although our backgrounds are very different - I'm a literacy specialist - we're both passionately convinced that the most important skill of all is speech. As educationist James Britton said 30 years ago: "Reading and writing float on a sea of talk."

But, as teachers increasingly tell us, many young children arrive in nursery and reception classes with very poor oral language skills.

Compensating for language delay and getting all children talking (and listening) is essential before formal literacy teaching begins, but one of the problems is to achieve a balance between adult-initiated and child-initiated learning.

Children are highly motivated to learn during activities they've chosen themselves, and there's a direct, concrete link between what they do and what they say, which helps language development. But if they have limited vocabulary and expressive language, their capacity for talk will be limited ("Car do brmm", rather than "Now the racing car's starting up and steaming down the track, brmm"). While the ideal would be to provide all children with sustained one-to-one conversational opportunities with an informed adult, that simply isn't possible in a busy early years setting.

Children, therefore, also need to work in a group with a practitioner on activities specifically designed to improve listening skills, increase attention span and auditory memory, teach social skills such as turn-taking, and develop vocabulary and expressive language.

The best UK and European settings have rigorously structured programmes to develop oral language - not that the children realise this, of course, as the activities take the form of songs and games. And sessions are not long, but spread throughout the day - little and often works best.

Nursery classes might have a short "welcome session" for 10 to 15 minutes after registration, another before or after snacks and outdoor playtime, and a final gathering before home time. The length of any session will depend on their attention span. With older children, there's time in the school day for more whole-group sessions. Each can involve any number of activities, such as circle-time games, storytime, action songs and rhymes.

Basing activities on children's own interests can provide opportunities to plant the seeds of language development, which can grow during child-initiated learning. For instance, it is useful to target specific vocabulary on a weekly basis, particularly words that:

* name (postman, elephant);

* denote actions (bring, carry);

* describe (friendly, huge, gently);

* categorise (jobs, animals - and words that fall in the categories);

* denote position (in, under, behind, between);

* denote sequence (when, after);

* are used for reasoning (if, but, so, because).

A poster displaying current key words will remind all adults in the setting to bring them into talk. It's also important to target types of expressive language, which children from "language poor" backgrounds may not use spontaneously. The mnemonic PREPARE is useful here (see box opposite).

There may be some children whose spoken language is so delayed that they are still unable to join in. These children need extra help, including as much one-to-one talk as possible, preferably every day. One way to tackle this is to give each adult in the setting a list of three or so of the most needy children, with each of whom they'll always spend from five to 15 minutes every day. As well as pole-bridging (see lesson ideas), they should use the following techniques.

* Expansion, for example:

Child: Daddy gone.

Adult: Yes. Daddy's gone home.

Take care not to expand a sentence too much - just enough to give the child an achievable model.

* Provide alternatives, for example:

Child: Doggy naughty goed out.

Adult: Oh, the doggy was naughty, was he? Did he run away? Or did mummy send him out?

Again, keep the language simple enough for the child to pick up in a reply.

Avoid questions with single-word replies. The child should have to answer in a sentence, picking up on the language you have provided.

If possible, provide extra help for such children in a small group situation. Some local education authorities have developed excellent courses, informed by speech and language therapists.

A simple but effective course which can be run by a teaching assistant is Spirals: Circle Time Sessions to Improve Communication Skills by Marion Nash et al (David Fulton).


Plan Let's think about what weyou are going to do. Thinking ahead.

What will you need? Tell me how you'll start. Sorting out sequence.

What will you do next? First, next, then, etc.

Recount Can you remember what happened when...? Thinking back.

Where were you? Tell me how it all started. Working out sequence.

What happened next? How did it all end? In the beginning ...

Explore I wonder what this is? What might that be for? Considering possibility in the here and now.

I wonder how it works? Where do you think Tentativeness: I think ...; this should go? maybe.

Predict I wonder what's going to happen? Anticipating the future Can you guess what will happen next? based on what you What do you think would happen if we did ...? know. Tentativeness.or if we didn't ...

Analyse Gosh - what's going on here? Consciousness of Can you work out how this happened? observation. Curiosity. Do you notice anything about ...? Why do you think it happened? Tell me how you felt when ... Reflection on feelings.

Report Tell me about ... What is it for? What does it do? Observation and What colourshapesize is it? explicitness; awareness What does it looksoundfeeltastesmell like? of key features.

Explain Do you know how this works? I wonder why Curiosity: how and why?

that happened? What starts it off? Awareness of sequence. Do you know what makes it do that? Cause and effect. Do you know the reason for ...? Tell me how you know that.

NB: The questions indicate the type of enquiry involved in each type of language use. They are not intended for bombarding the children.

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Sue Palmer

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