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In its ‘Moving English Forward’ report, published in March, education regulator Ofsted, although finding a decline in basic reading skills in schools, recorded “There has been improvement in the proportion of children who are secure in all aspects of communication, language and literacy at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage.”
The regulator’s findings reflect well on the approaches that nurseries are taking in developing the abilities of early years children, though related studies from the National Literacy Trust show that making sure twenty-first century generations grow up with an appreciation of language and literature remains a work in progress.
A recent report from the Trust, ‘Children’s Reading Today’, found on the whole literacy rates remain on the decline in the UK, recording that less children embrace the challenges of reading now than in 2005. The report records that more than half of children (54 per cent) prefer watching TV to reading, 22 per cent of children admit they never read in their own time, and 17 per cent of children would even be embarrassed if their friends caught them reading.
Director Jonathan Douglas believes this downward trend in reading for enjoyment needs to be tackled immediately, saying: “The fact that children are reading less than in 2005 signals a worrying shift in young people’s literacy habits. We need to make reading irresistible. We want to call on families and professionals working with children and young people to make ten minutes in their day for reading.”
The Trust’s ‘Young Reader’s Programme’ further highlights the importance of literacy in the early years, stating that: “Reading for pleasure has been revealed as the most important indicator of the future success of a child, with reading attainment and writing ability positively associated with reading for enjoyment.”
This direction is being supported by the revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), that came into force in September, having been criticised in its previous incarnation for being too much of a ‘nappy curriculum’ by campaign groups like Early Childhood Action. The focus is now on a more versatile learning programme, made possible through a reduction the number of key learning goals that providers need to demonstrate, decreasing from 69 to 17. The new EYFS also highlights literacy as one of four leading curriculum priorities – alongside mathematics; understanding the world; and expressive arts and design – demanding from early years providers that: “Children must be given access to a wide range of reading materials (books, poems, and other written materials) to ignite their interest.”
Managing director of South of England based Complete Childcare, Alec Hodson, speaks of the responsibility to language and literacy in the running of its 10 nursery and pre-school learning environments, saying: “This year has seen a rash of reports and ‘studies’ each claiming to have unearthed new evidence of the collapse of language skills in the Early and Primary Years.
“In the nursery sector, we know that we play a major part in the acquisition of the basic skills which every child needs to attain if it is to have a prosperous and productive school career later on. We may be flattering ourselves, but we’d like to think that before children go into their first ‘school’ environment, all the essential building blocks of language – the abilities to speak, listen and understand, and the rudimentary recognition of simple words – are alive and well and ready to be nurtured at school. If we weren’t doing that, parents would quite rightly believe they were being short-changed, as they make choices for their children based on the rounded and fulfilling experience delivered by each nursery. There surely can’t still be parents who see nurseries as just a source of security, food and shelter for their children. We hope not. While each of those needs is an absolute essential it is also a threshold, way beyond which the truly exceptional nurseries exist today.”
In addressing the challenges, Mr Hodson believes there are a plethora of approaches that providers can take to help reverse the trend of declining literacy and language, themselves finding inspiration in the nationally recognised BLAST programme. BLAST stands for ‘Boosting Language Auditory Skills & Talking’ and was designed to support EYFS objectives through the practice of pre-linguistic skills:
“Prior to this year’s fashionable focus on language skills in the general press, our group had already decided to take a giant stride forward in this and other areas, for the benefit not just of pre-schoolers, but right down to the youngest of babies in our settings. We established close working links with an outstanding local Academy who introduced us to the research based BLAST programme.”
The BLAST programme is focused on enhancing early years, speech, language and communication potential amongst 3–4 year olds, including attention on linguistic skills, speech sound awareness and story awareness. Practitioners trained in the programme, now active in over 900 settings around the UK, have found its methods to be beneficial even to children with learning disabilities, behavioural problems and those learning English as an additional language.
Mr Hodson continues, “We were quick to see the massive benefits to children in our nurseries when BLAST, Talking Toddlers and Babbling Babies were each rolled out across the group. Parents not only perceive the difference, but are actively involved in the programme if they wish to be and find the reinforcement methods to be both gentle and effective on children of all developmental levels.”
London and Surrey-based provider Active Learning, look to make the most of interactive fun learning in their provision, group operations consultant Amanda Johnson says: “We aim to introduce language and literacy through every other activity so that children do not really even notice that they are being introduced to reams of new vocabulary, seeing letters, using numbers.”
A depth of activities are incorporated to enable the provider to meet its goals: “We work with children on building the confidence and social skills necessary to stand on stage in front of and alongside their peers to speak aloud, sing and dance creating essential new language skills and above all self belief, fundamental to success in literacy and new knowledge acquisition in every subject later on.”
The Department for Education sees such initiatives as crucial for long-term educational aspiration, stating: “Language development at the age of two years predicts children’s performance on entry to primary school. Children’s understanding and use of vocabulary and their use of two or three word sentences at two years is very strongly associated with their later performance.”
On language development the DfE also stipulates: “The number of books available to the child, the frequency of visits to the library, parents teaching a range of activities and the number of toys available are all important predictors of the child’s expressive vocabulary at two years.”
The British Association for Early Education advise that providers follow the guidance in their ‘Development Matters’ document, which can be used “at points during the EYFS as a guide to making best-fit summative judgements, with parents and colleagues across agencies, in relation to whether a child is showing typical development, may be at risk of delay or is ahead for their age.”
Although chief executive Megan Pacey stresses that flexibility is essential, commenting that: “When using Development Matters it is important to remember that babies, toddlers and young children develop at their own rates and in their own ways.”