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Open the box!

Those of us who work in the more disadvantaged inner-city schools never cease to be amazed at the inadequacy of our pupils' language development. Their inability to name common objects, animals and colours, combined with an absence of prepositio ns, pronouns or the language of size and shape, makes access to the national curriculum all but impossible.

This statement, taken from the "desirable outcomes" for children turning five, is, for many pre-school and reception children, so far from the reality of their level of spoken and receptive language as to be ridiculous: ".. children listen attentively and talk about their experiences. They use a growing vocabulary .. to express thoughts and convey meaning."

In a school where this language deficit was a general condition rather than specific to individual pupils, the nursery teacher agreed to use the Teaching Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Skills (Thrass) picture chart to deliver a structured and repetitious language development programme.

A set of three boxes with lids, in large, medium and small sizes, was painted in the primary colours and "varnished" with PVA glue. The 120 pictureword cards of the Thrass pack were enlarged to A5 and laminated.

Each day, one card plus a "real" representation of the word are put into one of the boxes. The children take turns to guess which box the items are in, so using the language of colour, size and place in a natural setting which they enjoy. The item is shown, inspected and discussed, and one child tries to match the card to the same picture on the Thrass chart. The card of the day is then placed in a frame in the good old "playschool " tradition. The frames are a circle, a square, a triangle and a rectangle. Over a week, the pictures may have a theme, such as water, net, shark, fish, dolphin.

This simple session takes only 10-15 minutes, but the wealth of language repeated each day is quite staggering. The process has been extended by adding smooth, rough and furry surfaces to the box lids and by putting the day's object in, behind, under or on top of the boxes. New boxes are being designed so that this formula can include spotted, striped and plaid boxes as well as tall and short house-shaped boxes, pyramids and spheres. So the world of words may continue to be repeated in this structured but engrossing play situation.

We may be a long way from teaching the phonemes and graphemes of the Thrass programme, but we are helping our pupils to speak in sentences rather than short phrases and to distinguish a dog from a cat. We are providing the foundation for future literacy and the children love "doing the boxes".

Jean Howard, a special educational needs support teacher, devised this lesson with the help of Cleeve primary school in Hull, East Yorkshire. Thrass is a phonics, spelling and handwriting system devised by Alan Davies, an educational psychologist and lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Teaching Handwriting, Reading and Spelling Skills is published by HarperCollins, tel: 0181 741 7070

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