Things You Should Continue Doing In The Early Years (And What The Research Says About Why)

17 June 2018

Author: Aidan Severs

Much of what goes on in Early Years is misunderstood by those without experience of working with the youngest children in our education system. Early Years practitioners can feel like they are continually having to defend their working practices against those who have little understanding of the ways children develop and learn in the Nursery and Reception years. The fact that there are proportionally fewer Early Years teachers than say, Key Stage 2 teachers, or Key Stage 4 teachers, means that they are under-represented in education as a whole.

And nothing is as bad as when an agency produces a report telling the experts how to do it. So, does the EEF’s latest guidance report ‘Preparing for Literacy’ just teach the proverbial grandmother to suck eggs?

One benefit of engaging with research is that often it can confirm that what is being done already has an evidence base. Sometimes, after reading up on a particular working practice, one might discover that nothing needs to change, and that actually the things they are already doing are likely to be effective. Often, teachers will be convinced that their practice is effective because their own assessment of outcomes appears to prove it. For these teachers, checking with research findings can confirm that what they are doing has worked elsewhere too.

With that in mind, here are some common Early Years practices that the ‘Preparing for Literacy’ guidance report confirms as best bets; these are things you should definitely continue to do in your Nursery and Reception classrooms:

Sharing books

Early Years practitioners will not be surprised to find that “a wide range of activities can be used to develop communication and language including shared reading” and that “all children appear to benefit from a range of complementary approaches to early reading including storytelling”. The report states that “shared reading is a consistently promising approach to improve a range of outcomes including vocabulary, oral language and print awareness” – confirmation that time spent reading books jointly with children, as well as interacting with children in discussions about the books, is an important pastime in Nursery and Reception.

As well as having an impact on spoken language, sharing books can also help children with early writing: “Reading and writing focus on the reception and production of meaning respectively, but they share many underlying processes. Furthermore, the two can be mutually reinforcing, that is improving reading can support the development of writing.” In addition to this, books can help develop concepts about print: “Some young children will arrive with good concepts about print, but not all will, so this should be explicitly taught. Concepts about print are crucial for both reading and writing activities.”

And the sharing of books shouldn’t only happen in the classroom; parents should be supported with reading with their children at home: “Promoting shared reading should be a central component of any parental engagement approach… in general, approaches that focus on how to read effectively with children appear to be more successful than those which focus more broadly on the promotion of reading or on the provision of books.” The report is enthusiastic of the benefits of reading with children: “Before children are able to read, studies highlight the benefits of reading to children. As soon as children begin to read, parents should be encouraged to read with children…”

Telling stories

Not only do Early Years staff up and down the land read books to children, they also tell stories. It could be a story in the role play area: a social story, for example, about how to go to the shop which includes how to choose items, interact with the shopkeeper and pay for the items. It might be a story in the small world area, where an array of knights and horses and kings and queens are brought into an adventure to capture a dragon that is hiding in the castle the children have built in the construction area.

These kinds of common activities, says the report, develop communication and language, especially since it’s not just the adult that will be telling the stories. Children will join in, and, more often than not, take over, letting their imaginations run away with them. The report confirms what everyone who has worked with young children knows: “it is important to develop and monitor children’s capability to formulate and articulate increasingly sophisticated sentences and express them in writing. Children should have a broad range of opportunities to develop their expressive language.”

And the report goes one step further and proves the great social and emotional impact that storytelling has – children learn how to behave, how to be kind, how to work hard and so on, from stories they are told: “many approaches to improving self-regulation use stories or characters to help children remember different learning strategies, which can be an effective means of introducing strategies”

Talking with children

An Early Years setting that didn’t do this would be a rare and strange place indeed – it is a basic tenet of all the work that happens in Nursery and Reception classrooms. The key is to ensure that adult-child interactions are of a very high quality – a simple way to ensure this is to think about “talking with children rather than just talking to children.” Adults should model the use of rich language and talk with children about the experiences and activities that they are undertaking in the classroom. Prioritising such high-quality interactions with children will help to develop their communication and language which, in turn, provides the foundations for learning and thinking and underpins the development of later literacy skills.

Already mentioned has been shared reading, a process which not only involves reading books but talking about them also. “Shared reading is a consistently promising approach to improve a range of outcomes including vocabulary, oral language and print awareness.” Teachers in the Early Years should make sure that shared reading “involves children jointly reading and interacting based on a book with a trained adult.” The report reminds its readers that “multiple frameworks exist to structure the activities, and each emphasises different outcomes. Dialogic reading is one well-evidenced framework”

As well as ensuring that shared reading and talking with children happens in Early Years settings, it is important that this also happens at home. “Running workshops showing parents how to read and talk about books with their children effectively” is a sure-fire way of improving outcomes for children therefore “running training workshops for parents with explicit advice on reading is likely to be helpful”. Such workshops should focus on helping parents in “supporting their children in a variety of ways, for example by asking questions or by linking the topic of the book to real-life examples”.

Encouraging role play

Role play – on the bikes in the playground, in the small world area, in the home corner – provides fertile ground for the development of expressive language which underpins effective writing. “Therefore, it is important to develop and monitor children’s capability to formulate and articulate increasingly sophisticated sentences and express them in writing. Children should have a broad range of opportunities to develop their expressive language.” Although role play areas might not be set up with writing in mind, they play an important part in readying children for producing written outcomes later on.

Not only does role play provide opportunities to develop language, it also gives staff the chance to observe children – a central part of all existing Early Years practice. In its fourth recommendation on developing self-regulation (a child’s ability to manage their own behaviour and aspects of their learning), the report suggests that “assessing self-regulation can be difficult, but it is often easier to observe during less structured activities such as when children are playing or interacting with a peer.” This is something that will be well-known to Early Years staff.

Singing songs and reciting rhymes

Singing songs and reciting rhymes – a practice which is built into the fabric of many Early Years settings with sung instructions and rhyming call and response routines – is a great way to prepare children for reading. Many adults who work with young children from homes where nursery rhymes and the like have not been taught will attest to the fact that these children also usually read later. Reassuringly the guidance report acknowledges the importance of such practice: “All children appear to benefit from a range of complementary approaches to early reading… promising approaches… include singing and rhyming activities to develop phonological awareness.”

As Early Years practitioners will know, rhyming can also be used as an assessment tool as part of an enjoyable activity: “The components of phonological awareness can be assessed using rhyming: ask children to create a rhyming string based on a prompt”.

Providing inspiring learning environments and equipment

If there’s one thing that Early Years staff know more than anything else it is how misunderstood play-based learning is. Seeing learning taking place isn’t always easy for the untrained eye even in the most effective play-based environments but a greater issue perhaps lies with the misconception that play-based learning is all that is happening. In actuality so much hinges on the expertise of the staff in their interactions with the children – there are plenty of instances of adult-led work and there is a fluidity between child-led, adult-led and adult initiated work.

So, the report’s “tentative recommendations to maximise the impact of play-based learning on communication, language and literacy” which include “ensuring learning environments for play are literacy-rich (for example, by providing writing materials or written props for role play activities), and balancing more structured, adult-directed activities with opportunities for child-initiated play” will not be news to those currently working in the Early Years. The reason why this is a tentative recommendation about play-based learning is probably down to the interpretation of the term ‘play-based’ – the recommendations provided in the report for maximising teaching and learning are probably in-line with most current practice and just describe good teaching.

As well as providing opportunities for talk and self-regulation, the provision of inspiring environments and equipment can give chances for children to write – in the best Early Years setting children already write of their own volition because of what has been provided by the staff. The report says that “some studies indicate that the use of novel writing tools can motivate children to communicate through writing, although the effects may be short-lived. Motivation can also be enhanced by encouraging children to write for a range of purposes and audiences with opportunities to ‘publish’ their writing by sharing it with the intended audience”. The areas of continuous provision in Nursery and Reception classrooms usually provide a motivational and inspiring context – a role play area set up as a space ship, for example – that gives children a purpose for their writing. The implication here is that this motivation will lead to increased engagement and practise and eventually excellent written outcomes.

Posted on 17 June 2018
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