The Knowledge

Can combining language and movement improve both?

Anna Cunningham sets out the results of a new study for into combining exercise and literacy with young pupils

Anna Cunningham sets out the results of a new study for into combining exercise and literacy with young pupils

5 Feb 2024, 5:00

Basic movement skills such as throwing, catching, and jumping are key factors in creating more active children, with health, social and academic benefits. Similarly, good language skills such as vocabulary and understanding narrative are an essential foundation to academic achievement.

Despite this, both motor and language skills are poor in British five-year-olds compared to other European countries, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our research explored the use of a movement and storytelling programme (MAST) as a fun and easy-to-implement way of closing this gap. The programme shows the benefits of using PE lessons as an opportunity to improve both physical and linguistic development in a more effective way.

What is MAST?

MAST is a 12-week programme delivered for two 35-minute sessions per week based on popular children’s books, The Gruffalo and Stick Man, delivered during PE lessons to the whole class. Each lesson follows the unique MAST structure of 5 minutes’ language work followed by 25 minutes’ movement work, followed by a final 5 minutes’ language work. The final language section targets a time when the brain is primed for learning due to increased blood flow following exercise.

The first six weeks focus on locomotor skills such as running, skipping, jumping, while the second six weeks focus on object skills like throwing, catching and kicking. Language work covers key vocabulary and comprehension skills relating to the stories.

What did we study?

Our pilot work showed that combining movement and storytelling was more effective than a movement-only or language-only version of MAST when delivered by us to preschool children.

For the current study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we wanted to see if MAST could be delivered on a wider scale by teachers to Reception classes in primary schools.

Nine schools with average and below-average numbers of pupil premium-eligible children took part. They were randomly chosen to either deliver MAST or continue with their usual PE curriculum. Five Reception teachers across five schools were trained to deliver MAST during a one-day training event at Nottingham Trent University and given ongoing support from the research team. They were interviewed half-way through on their experiences and observed twice. 214 children aged 4 and 5 across all nine schools were tested for their language and movement skills before and after doing MAST.   

What did we find out?

Interviews showed that teachers found MAST a positive and enjoyable experience with three key factors for success being its utility value, being well-equipped and understanding why MAST works. Barriers to implementation were behaviour management, struggles with engagement, not making MAST a school priority, and the need for practical support. Observations showed that implementation fidelity was good, with four out of five settings consistently delivering all key components of MAST and all settings delivering the full 12-week programme.

Regarding effectiveness, children in the MAST group experienced a significant positive effect on their standardised language skills and basic movement skills compared to the ‘PE-as-usual’ group. MAST children showed the greatest improvements in sentence repetition and expressive vocabulary, and in their locomotor skills.

What are the implications?

Ofsted noted in their recent review of PE provision that there were ‘significant gaps’ in children’s competence in fundamental movement skills. The motor activities that MAST helps to develop are explicitly linked to those skills that teachers are expected to work on within statutory PE in key stage 1.

However, the holistic approach of integrating PE with another key developmental area such as language work and delivering it as a whole-class activity offers a time- and resource-efficient way of addressing these concerns about physical development while also supporting children’s expressive language abilities. 

The vocabulary work similarly benefits from being delivered immediately post-physical activity, which seems to boost its learning and retention. MAST has also been effective in supporting teachers with less experience of PE to understand how to support children’s development in this area using fun activities and stories that the children enjoy sharing.

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