Sian Marsh, Best Practice Network’s Programme Director, Early Years, on how partnerships with parents make an amazing difference to children’s language and communication skills.
The Department for Education’s recent Home Learning Summit was a valuable opportunity to review the Government’s 2028 goal to halve the proportion of children who don’t achieve at least expected levels across goals in communication, language and literacy by the end of reception.
Of course, what happens at home is a major factor in determining a child’s development in these areas – and the early years profession has a major role to play in working with a child’s family to support them.
It was interesting that a key message that came out of the summit was ‘chat, play, read’. We see the development of quality interactions between children and all adults in their lives as key to closing the word gap and supporting all children to achieve a good level of development.
Listening to practitioners who are already doing sterling work with parents is key to our work here at Best Practice Network. We want to learn from the very best approaches and then develop professional development programmes that will enable practitioners in every setting to make a difference.
One of the many early years setting that have impressed us with their work with parents on children’s language development is Children's House Nursery School in Bow in the East London borough of Tower Hamlets.
Our early years advisor Maureen Lee visited them earlier this year and found a setting helping families help their children to make big strides in language, communication and literacy development.
Headteacher Chris Lewis told her that parental engagement was a major focus. “For the past few years school staff have noticed a worrying trend with increasing numbers of children starting nursery with poor speech, language and communication skills in both English and/or the home language,” she said. “With an average starting age of 40 months the majority of children have language development emerging in the 22-36-month developmental band. A typical three-year-old should understand conversations about things that they are interested in, use sentences of three or more words and when they talk they should mostly be understood. Many of the children starting nursery at Children’s House have between 50 and 100 words and are often just beginning to put words together. They are just starting to follow and understand simple instructions.”
Chris said that supporting children to rapidly acquire the language they need had become a whole school priority and a key role for all staff.
“All early years practitioners will agree that speech, language and communication skills are crucial to young children’s overall development,” she said. “We work hard to create an emotionally supportive environment to build children’s wellbeing and confidence as this is fundamental to the development of their communication and language.
“We want our children to be confident, speak clearly, process speech sounds, understand others, express their ideas and be able to interact - skills that are the fundamental building blocks for a child’s development.
“Before children start at nursery we offer stay, play and learn sessions to all children on the waiting list. These sessions are language focused with story and rhyme time and we are quickly able to identify children who would benefit from additional support. Once children start nursery we use the “Every Tower Hamlets Child a Talker” programme (ETHCaT) ensuring that every opportunity is taken to have interesting and enjoyable conservations with children. We have found that when children are given opportunities to engage in interesting and enjoyable conversations they often surprise us with their insights and thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comments.”
For children who have a significant delay the setting has targeted interventions and invites parents and carers to participate in the Early Words Together Programme. This National Literacy Trust programme builds parents’ confidence so that they can support their children’s communication, language and literacy skills at home.
“A targeted programme like Early Words Together has made a huge difference to the progress of the children who took part,” Chris said. “This is backed up by research which shows that children with a language delay who take part in Early Words Together catch up with their peers in their understanding of spoken language in just three months.
“At Children’s House, all of the parents and carers who took part in Early Words Together now read with their child every day – up from less than 50 per cent at the start of the programme. Every parent who participated reported they now talk more to their children – and all parents feel more confident about sharing books with their child. Families who read the least often at the start of the programme show a 91 per cent increase in reading frequency by the end.”
The course has transformed lives. One mother who took part in the course with her son said it had been “life changing” as she can’t read English. “I found it embarrassing to attend any course as I am always worried that I will be put on the spot,” she said. “I loved this course as I had support from my volunteer and learnt so much about how to talk with my child and share books. I never knew that I could retell a story by using props or just talking about the pictures.”
After participating in the course her son had made significant progress and by the time he left nursery he had moved from having significantly delayed communication and language to the level expected for a child of his age. He is now doing well in primary school.
This is one story of the impact that working in partnership with parents can have on the language and communication development of a child. By learning from these approaches - and using professional development to help other settings develop effective strategies to tackle this challenge - we can together make a real difference.