Speak first to close the reception year language gap

2 Jun 2021, 5:00

Covid’s disruption of young children’s early language development has been devastating – but some tried-and-tested approaches can undo the damage, writes Josh Hillman

Oral language development plays a central role in early childhood – facilitating social and emotional development and providing the building blocks for the development of later literacy skills. It also enables smooth transition to the primary classroom and builds children’s capacity to benefit from all aspects of school life.

But these foundations are not laid equally. Gaps in language skills and vocabulary between children from lower- and higher-income families (on average, of course) are already apparent at eighteen months old. By the time they start school, children from the poorest fifth of families are 19 months behind those from the richest fifth in terms of vocabulary. Disparities like these have persistent effects throughout education and into employment.

Enter COVID-19 – an abrupt and prolonged disruption to opportunities for pre-school children to develop their language skills. Early-years education providers were closed, or restricted in what they could offer, and some families have since been reluctant for their children to return to or take up places in nursery schools.

Indeed, the latest data from DfE shows attendance in early-years settings is still lower than usual at 78 per cent. Their lives largely home-based, young children missed many of the informal ways in which language is developed, such as socialising with wider family and friends or absorbing ambient language in public spaces.

And even when they hear language, masks mean they can’t always see it being spoken. Emerging evidence suggests that even speech and language therapists were at times wearing PPE, with consequences on support for children with the most significant language needs.

Once again, the hardest hit were young children in lower-income families

More limited exposure to language in formal and informal settings has affected the development of most children entering reception classes. But once again, the hardest hit were young children in lower-income families. They often had fewer educational resources and developmental activities in the home, and lower rates of engagement with parents who were struggling with poverty or trying to juggle work and caring responsibilities.

And this is not a problem restricted to one cohort of school starters. Teachers are rightly concerned. Recent Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) research shows that 96 per cent of schools surveyed in the autumn term of 2020 were concerned about the impact of the pandemic on language and communication skills. Since then, we have had another lockdown and continued restrictions on socialising.

So what can schools do to help address this? Evidence shows that oral language skills can be enhanced through targeted support for pupils whose skills in this area are relatively poor. Small group or individual sessions with a teaching assistant should focus first on improving children’s expressive and receptive vocabulary, as well as their basic listening and narrative skills. Using a storytelling approach enables children to develop these skills by talking about a series of thematic images, and creating, re-telling and summarising stories.

Focusing on speaking and listening in this way helps build children’s confidence in their ability to communicate and in some cases can improve behaviour, as they become less frustrated socially. This small group, storytelling approach is also effective for children who are learning English as an additional language.

Once progress has been made in speaking and listening, pupils are better equipped to move on to activities designed to support phonological awareness and letter-sound knowledge, as a foundation for learning to read. In this way, targeted support for small groups of pupils reinforces and complements phonics programmes in the wider curriculum.

The importance of oral language development and the barriers posed by the pandemic have been recognised by the government. The DfE has invested in support for these skills as a core part of the recovery programme to support disadvantaged children who are falling behind before they have even started school.

So while the Covid disruption has been bad news for young children’s language development, there are reasons to be hopeful. The pandemic may have exacerbated the early-years language gap, but the truth is that it was already a significant challenge. The recovery effort may be the opportunity we needed to focus minds and resources to tackle it properly.

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