Saturday, 9 November 2013


'Talk' seems to be the buzz word at the moment in the Early Years.  It is used too often when we should all be saying "Communication."
In our setting communication is low.  In fact its often the case that practitioners talk more than the children, but its improving.  One of the most successful parts of our strategy has been the introduction of ELKLAN through INSET training.

ELKLAN [Elklan website -]

ELKLAN is a program developed by two women, Liz Elks and Henrietta McLachlan.  The purpose of ELKLAN is to develop practitioners understanding of the needs of the child and the way in which adults communicate with children.  It teaches us to value the different approaches children might have to communicate and challenges us as practitioners to vary our approach to match the needs of the children in our care.  Now that sounds fab but doesn't really have much substance or strategies - which is what I like to know when I work within a new program.
One of the aspects of ELKLAN

- Blank level questions: (This one is about talk)

ELKLAN introduces you to Blank level questions, so named after the woman who thought it up, Marion Blank.  We teachers are just so creative!
So Blank realised that children need questions at different levels in order to comprehend them and to reply.
There are four levels to these questions:

Level 1: Name
So this being the bottom rung of the level means that these questions are the most basic you can use.  The most common question which we use in this level is "What is it?"  A simple question which requires only a simple one word answer at its foundation. Other questions which we use are: "is it ...?" "Can you find me?" "What can you find/see/do?"   It is clear that all of these questions require simple 1 word answers (sometimes yes or no) and don't require a lot of talk from the child in order to have a conversation.  If children wish they can reply with more than one word and this leads them onto higher level questions as the conversation progresses.
Here is an example:

"What is it, Jill?"
Jill is thinking about the object that she is working with.  She looks at the objects (lets say scissors) and takes the image she sees before her (scissors), processes and her brain gives her a name for those scissors.  She gets that name and then works to verbalise it, coming out with "scissors." Eureka!

Level 2: Describe
"What is happening in this picture?" "Can you find something we can use to (verb)?" "Where is the (e.g. teddy)?"  These questions require a little more thinking and a little more language.  BUT we are not asking for them to use 10 words in reply.  Children are able to answer with 2 or 3 word sentences here or even 1 if they chose, but what is important is that this requires more thinking in order to answer.  You can almost hear the cogs moving around in their head.
Here is an example:

"Where is the teddy, Jack?"

Jack has to go through the same progress as Jill above but with a few extra bits. Jack needs to understand the question word "Where".  He will only know this if he has been subjected to this word over and over again (at least 10 times!).  So Jack knows this word from his experiences in Nursery and needs to access its meaning.  Jack then needs to think about the correct responses drawing on his understanding of the prepositions, e.g. "under/over/next to/on" OR JUST "there, sofa, table,etc." He draws all of this information and tries to make a sentences with this.
This is an incredibly complex step from Level 1 to level 2 but we don't really appreciate this until we actually think about their thinking process.

Level 3: (Comprehension)/ Re-tell.
"What will happen next?" "How did you make that?" 
We don't like level 3.  I find it harder to question children effectively within this level. The purpose is to get them to explain their processes and even their thinking.  This is hard to do and is very hard for me to write (like I have above).  It takes practise like anything else I suppose.

Here is an example:

Aisha made a sandwich, "How did you make that Sandwich, Aisha?"

Aisha needs to be able to access all of the information that Jack has above in addition to adding some understanding of process to her explanation.  E.g. understanding the order in which she did things and being able to describe them using language associated with the past.  Sometimes it is necessary to access feelings and descriptions which would not usually be used in level 1 and 2 so expect children to need a lot of practise at this level.

Level 4: Justify (Children can't really do this before the age of 5 - but that's a general developmental marker.)
"What would happen if...?" "Why can't we play with that?"
We had a little girl in our setting last year who could answer some level 4 questions with ease.  Despite her ease with some, others she found very difficult to understand.  Level 4 pretty much contains all the language you would use for the rest of your academic life.

Here is an example:

Musa sees the bicarbonate of soda sitting in the tough spot and the bottle of vinegar next to it, "What would happen if we poured the vinegar into the black tray, Musa?"

Ok.  So Musa needs to understand the following.
What is a black tray? What is vinegar? What is bicarbonate of soda? What does poured mean? (or any of the words in this sentence). What happened the last time he poured vinegar on bi-carb? (He needs to have some understanding of this process before. He needs to have seen it, been told about it or have had some experience of something very similar otherwise his response will be not make any sense to him or us.)
After he tells you about it he then needs to test his theory and talk about if he was right or wrong.
He needs to be able to observe the process of pouring the vinegar on and also to be able to observe.  He needs the language to describe what he has seen, smelled, felt, heard or tasted (hopefully he isn't eating it).
That is a HUGE task.

We ask these types of questions every day but forget what children need to be able to answer.  How many times have you said, "Why did you do that?" to a child who has done something rude or unkind? How are they able to actually process their reasons and their feelings before and after the event and communicate this to you in the time you want it (I doubt any of you give your children 10 seconds to explain themselves when they've just cut someone's hair..

A big part of ELKLAN and these levelled questions is ensuring you give children at least 10 seconds of thinking time.  These processes we talked about above can take a long time (longer than 10 seconds) and only get faster with practise.  For the first few months of using these levels of questions your children will take longer to answer than they will later in the year.
Some of my children take up to 20 seconds to answer a question.  20 seconds in teaching may as well be 3 hours...  But be patient, you get to know your children and how long they take and you know they will come out with something fabulous!

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