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It's time to talk about talk!

Updated: Nov 29, 2022

This blog focuses on language rich environments in response to OFSTED's Early Years Research Review, or should I say talk rich environments!


OFSTED's Early Years Research Review

This month we saw the publication of OFSTED's Early Years Research Review which was aimed at birth to four years old - a later edition is coming primarily on the 7 areas of learning (and presumably 5 year olds?!)

The purpose is "to support early years practitioners to raise the quality of early years education" and explores a range of literature from policy and academia.

Great. I'm pleased that there is a focus on early years education from those who ultimately judge the quality of provision for our youngest children.

However, the review has its limitations - as most do, I guess - but it's useful to highlight those tension spots in the sector when we consider what is best practice in early years and how we broaden our views on research that hasn't just been selected to only support the ideas and beliefs within the Education Inspection Framework (EIF).


Language for a lifetime

One in 4 (23%) children who struggle with language at age 5 do not reach the expected standard in English at the end of primary school, compared with just 1 in 25 (4%) children who had good language skills at age 5. (The impact of the National Literacy Trust’s place-based approach on literacy outcomes in the early years’, The National Literacy Trust, October 2020)

This probably comes as no surprise that children's levels of language impact on later educational success considering the national agenda to close the word gap. In fact, we can go a few steps further and consider the research into how our communication and language development links to our future success:

  1. Early language skills at 5 are linked with employment outcomes aged 34 (Speech and Language UK)

  2. Around 5.8 million people (16% of adults) in England and Northern Ireland score at the lowest levels of proficiency in literacy (at or below level 1). (OECD 2013, p.6)

  3. In 2022, illiteracy is estimated to cost the UK economy approximately £66.55 billion. (World Literacy Foundation 2022)

So, what supports children's developing language? Simply someone to talk to, and something to talk about. This is the most important precursor to developing serve and return interactions.


Talk and children's interests

But what happens if adults decide what children should be interested in? OFSTED states that "the consequence of planning based purely on a child’s interests is that the curriculum begins to narrow for them at a very young age".

OFSTED are referring to those children who perhaps take a keen interest in block play but not music, painting but not small world or writing but not dance. We may view the adult role to instigate and encourage children to engage in interests that perhaps they don't naturally gravitate to and using these opportunities to grow vocabulary that may be better suited to a particular activity. That's one perspective.

What appears to have become muddled in this so-called drawing a line in the sand between planning for talk based on children's interests and planning what (or even where) children should learn is that this is very much about how children pursue their fascinations - what motivates them. It requires an observant adult noticing what interests the child so to know how to build language into their play, rather than a limited view on children's talk based on how varied their engagement is across provision areas.

I'm talking about the children's characteristics of effective learning - how they learn - rather than the curriculum. Should adults interfere with interest, choice and freedom? Can we really plan for play interests? Or more importantly, why are the characteristics of effective teaching and learning omitted in the review?

Any pedagogical sound practitioner would acknowledge that talk is flexible and adaptable and we can use it carefully to meet children where they are at to build vocabulary through engaging with sustained shared thinking (EPPE 2004). Why would we want to decide what children should be interested in, or where they should engage with particular interests. The very fact that children have interests and adults harness and respond them is how children develop habits of mind and intrinsic motivation.

“Sustained shared thinking” occurs when two or more individuals “work together” in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate an activity, extend a narrative etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend the understanding. It was more likely to occur when children were interacting 1:1 with an adult or with a single peer partner and during focussed group work.

The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project (2004)

Reflective questions:

  • How do you currently use children's interests in your observe-plan-assess cycle?

  • What does sustained shared thinking look like in your setting?

  • Do you plan for purposeful talk?

  • What words would you choose to describe a talk rich environment?


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