In some parts of the UK, nearly 50 per cent of children are starting school this term with poor language skills. This underlines the important role that early years practitioners have in supporting young children to become confident and competent communicators.
According to the children's charity I CAN, 2.7 million children in the UK struggle to communicate. Yet communication is key to all aspects of the EYFS, including, for example, emotional and social development, child-initiated play, problem solving, reasoning and numeracy.
Local authorities have had funding for running the Every Child A Talker (E Cat) programme. Early years consultant and trainer Ros Bayley, who leads a range of communication courses, including some in the E Cat programme, says, 'There is now a big emphasis on speech, language and communication. The courses cover issues such as how to be effective in delivering high-quality speech, language and communication provision.
'So, for example, we look at the quality of practitioners' interaction with the children; we look at listening skills and how to promote listening in young children; we look at interesting ways to immerse children in stories, rhymes and songs and how to involve the children in storytelling. We use puppets, and we also look at ways to involve parents. We look at book sharing and at provocations - what I call a creative exchange, where you build up a story with the children.'
The courses are designed for practitioners to go back and use the techniques they have learned the very next day. They aim to provide a mix of theory and practical tips and techniques.
'The theory is necessary because practitioners do not always know how speech and language develop,' says Ms Bayley. 'A lot of practitioners do not know what the reasonable expectations are of a child's communication skills at age one, two, three or four. They do not know the stages of development in terms of what sort of vocabulary you would expect a child of a certain age to be using or the types of sentences to expect.'
Helen Seamark, manager of the Rise and Shine Pre-School in Kingstanding, Birmingham, says the skills she learned on a speech and communication course led by Ms Bayley have enabled her and her team to make great progress.
'We have been focusing on a child who, when she started with us aged two-and-a-half, had just been diagnosed as having delayed development by 12 months in terms of speech, social and global development. We worked hard on language and communication using puppets and other techniques. This child, now at the age of three, is only six months behind in all areas. When you focus on the children's communication, and when you make progress with communication, everything else falls into place.'
The setting uses techniques Ms Seamark picked up on the training, such as creating a listening environment or using puppets to help children understand and describe their emotions.
'Ros demonstrated how to really communicate with children - how to listen to them. We took a video and I saw how I used to do circle time and how I do it now, and it is so very different. We have transformed our practice. The children are really involved in the story-telling now and they love it.
'We don't just listen. Now, we actively listen. We will get down on the child's level to listen. It doesn't matter if the child cannot talk; you watch their gestures, and when you are really listening like that then you can get through to each and every child.'
The expert's view
Kathy Brodie, Early Years Professional and trainer, says, 'When a child has a problem with communication and language, it has a knock-on effect on everything else.
We are seeing so many children with delayed speech and other problems. Practitioners have a crucial role to play in supporting the children and their parents.
'If I was a fairy at Snow White's christening, my wish would be for her to have good speech and language.
'Communication is a two-way process, and practitioners need to know how to engage with children who have not developed speech. You can learn so much from babies by watching their expressions and gestures.
'A good course on communication will look at the environment to ensure you know how to provide communication-friendly spaces. The children have to be able to hear sounds clearly.
'A good course will cover up to five years and the role of the practitioners in supporting the development of a child's speech and language, including English as an additional language, as well as looking at how to identify possible communication problems or language disorders.
'Children will start at nursery with different levels of communication skills. Speech is the feature that will probably vary the most across a group of children, and practitioners need to be equipped to support the language development of the individual children.'
Practitioners must understand communicating verbally and non-verbally, says Ms Brodie. 'People need to be aware that if, for example, they say "Don't do that. No," in a sing-song voice with a smile, the body language and voice tone are not backing up the words and they are sending a conflicting message to the children.'
Sometimes Ms Brodie has found that practitioners are self-conscious about singing with the children. She says a good course will provide people with a host of tips and techniques and the confidence to put them into practice.
'I am a fan of Letters and Sounds and it might be that practitioners can sign up to local authority courses on Letters and Sounds or the Every Child a Talker scheme.'
13 OCTOBER - Supporting Young Bilingual Children, led by Rose Drury, held at Early Education, 136 Cavell Street, London, E1 2JA (Early bird discount of 20 per cent for booking early) T. 020 7539 5400 www.early-education.org
The following are all held at Early Excellence, The Old School, Outane, Huddersfield. T. 01422 311314, www.earlyexcellence.com:
21 OCTOBER - Developing Enabling Environments for Communication, Language and Literacy - A Focus on Writing in the Indoors and Outdoors, led by Helen Bromley
17 NOVEMBER - Developing Enabling Environments for Communication, Language and Literacy - A Focus on Superhero Play as a Meaningful Context for Learning, led by Helen Bromley
24 NOVEMBER - Developing Enabling Environments for Communication and Language - A Focus on Using Interactive Stories and Rhymes as a Stimulus for Learning, led by Ros Bayley
25 NOVEMBER - Developing Communication, Language and Literacy - A Focus on Nurturing Literacy in Babies and Young Children, led by Marion Dowling
I CAN, the children's communication charity, runs a range of one-day courses, as well as workplace training events. T. 0845 225 4071, www.ican.org
Signing Makaton offers a range of courses around the country in Makaton signing. T. 01276 606760, www.makaton.org
Communication Friendly Spaces Training and Development Programmes offered by Elizabeth Jarman Ltd. T. 012338 822193, www.elizabethjarmanltd.co.uk
Communication, Language and Literacy in the EYFS; Letters and Sounds (Phase 1); Listening to Children all offered by Acorn Childcare. T. 0845 371 0953, www.childcaretraining.co.uk
Promoting communication and language in the early years linked to the EYFS led by Yvonne Batson-Wright of Training Designs at venues and times to suit clients. T. 0845 643 4231/07917 095 967, www.trainingdesigns.com
Every Child a Talker Contact your local authority early years team
On line EYFS Inclusion Development Programme (IDP): Speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) e-learning course offered by National Strategies as part of its EYFS support programme. www.nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk
Next month: sustained shared thinking.