There is considerable debate about what and how to teach young children. Some favour a teacher-led, academically-focused approach while others argue for a child-centric and developmental one.
Like many other countries, pre-school education in England borrows from both traditions. On the surface, the statutory Early Years Foundation Stage for nought to five-year-olds relies more on teacher-led and education-focused approaches. But practice around the country suggests a richer picture. Although the EYFS was only introduced in 2008, the new coalition Government has announced a review, re-opening the debate.
This debate is important. The quality of a child's pre-school education can impact on their educational, health and economic outcomes much later on in life. However, a recent evaluation of Sure Start showed that while the scheme is effective at improving health and social outcomes, there has been no significant impact on language development - an important precursor for success at school.
This is not an uncommon problem; reviews of other early years programmes around the world highlight similar worries about literacy and communication skills.
KEY TO EFFECTIVENESS
As politicians and policy-makers come to review the current curriculum offer, it is important that we look to research and evidence to inform practice. To add to the evidence base, CfBT Education Trust has just launched new research into the effectiveness of different early years programmes around the world.
The first stage of the research involved a systematic review of evidence around the educational impact of 29 different programmes for threeto five-year-olds in group settings. Of these programmes, six were identified as having strong evidence of educational impact either at the end of the pre-school programme or at the end of the reception year in school. The second stage of the research involved the development of detailed case studies for these six programmes.
Findings from the case study research, which involved first-hand observation of the programmes in practice, identified five key features shared by all six programmes. The findings suggest that effective early education programmes:
- - offered intensive support to practitioners to achieve full and faithful programme implementation
- - provided a planned curriculum and detailed guidance material
- - emphasised teacher-led practice supported by structured, child-chosen activities
- - linked programme design and practice to academic research
- - emphasised academic outcomes such as sound, letter and word recognition.
INTENSITY OF SUPPORT
One of the most striking things about these programmes was the intensity of support that practitioners received. Early years professionals often have relatively poor pre-practice training, compared with school teachers of older age groups. Providing detailed and intensive support to practitioners not only helped to mitigate this initial lack of training, but also ensured consistent programme implementation. The content of support varied among programmes, but included coaching and regular off-site training sessions.
Training was complemented by the provision of curriculum materials. These resources tended to be of a level of support more commonly associated with primary school teaching. These materials included suggested activities, lesson plans and schemes of work linked to specific learning and developmental objectives.
Alongside the discussion about developmental or education-focused provision, there is also a debate about whether activities should be driven by the teacher or by the child. While most of the programmes delivered some child-led activities, teacher input was always emphasised. Unstructured, free play was not a defining feature of any of the programmes. In four of the six programmes, days started with class work directed by the teacher, with group and individual activities following after.
The programmes emphasised academic outcomes such as sound, letter and word recognition to prepare children for reading and writing. However, practitioners used a variety of teaching methods to achieve this. Most used a combination of a blended wholelanguage approach (ie, using oral language, books and pictures to aid understanding and generate interest) with some distinct skill teaching (for example, letter and phonemic awareness). Developmental objectives were not ignored, but equally were not prominent.
All of the programmes under review had some grounding in academic research. Three of them were not only designed by early years researchers but continued to be delivered through the universities that developed them. Building on proven techniques for specific educational outcomes, the programmes relied on evidence of impact to promote their approaches.
The five features outlined above highlight some areas for policy-makers to consider as they design new programmes. However, there may also be lessons for practitioners as they implement provision. In particular, practitioners could consider the balance both between childand teacher-led activities, and between academic and development-focused practice. The evidence suggests that while a balance between each of these drivers is important, teacher intervention and exposure to academic material early on can lead to significant impact.
Effective early years education can have a positive impact that lasts for a lifetime. And this is an equity issue. Results from Ofsted show that there are more low-performing nurseries in areas of high need than in more affluent areas. It is therefore important that any review of the current offer looks to existing evidence and research to establish what works.
Oli De Botton is a senior consultant at CfBT Education Trust. He is a former assistant headteacher of a London secondary school and a graduate of the Teach First programme
'Effective early childhood education programmes: a best-evidence synthesis and case studies' was commissioned by CfBT to provide insight into the policy landscape and research base for early education programmes. The case studies by Oli de Botton and findings of the research project are available in the report Effective early childhood education programmes: a best-evidence synthesis by Bette Chambers, Alan Cheung, Robert E Slavin, Dewi Smith and Mary Laurenzano, at: www.cfbt.com/evidenceforeducation
EARLY YEARS PROGRAMMES
Possibly the most controversial programme of the six under review, Direct Instruction is an explicitly teacher-led programme designed to support children with reading. It is organised around a set of highly proscribed teaching strategies that involve small-group call and response, instant teacher correction of mistakes, and repetition. The programme does not include background content or themes; it is simply a set of specific instructions for teachers and children.
This is a comprehensive curriculum that covers both academic and social aspects of development. There are nine explicit domains which are covered in schemes of work: emotional/personal, interpersonal, language and literacy, cognitive, creative, mathematical, science, social studies and physical. Weekly topic units touch on each of these domains through a daily schedule of eight different activities.
Ready Set Leap!
Another comprehensive curriculum, Ready, Set, Leap! has an emphasis on experiential learning to achieve academic learning. Much of the work is conducted in groups or individually supported by technological components such as the 'imagination desk', 'the leap pad' and 'the leap desk'. Activities are designed to encourage social, emotional, physical and cognitive development.
Interactive Book Reading
Interactive Book Reading is designed to promote early literacy through whole-class, interactive reading. Children engage in class reading and the teacher encourages interactivity by posing open and closed questions, before, during and after the story.
Let's Begin with the Letter People
This approach is designed to instill letter and sound recognition through repetition and direct teaching. Twenty-six letter puppets represent each letter of the alphabet, teachers introduce five to six puppets for each six-week unit, and letters are carefully sequenced to allow groups of sounds to be developed. Each letter comes with an accompanying book and teachers are given songs and activities to support learning around each letter.
Early Literacy and Learning Model
ELLM is a highly structured, academic and teacher-led programme particularly focusing on pre-reading, oral language and sound and letter awareness. ELLM offers curriculum guides, lesson plans and practitioner support to early years teachers following a more familiar school-type curriculum.