Friday, 28 March 2014

Language builders

The challenge of any setting is being able to address the communication needs of all the children concurrently.  You cannot achieve this using one single approach so you need to develop a group of strategies which have been tested and can be used without a drain on time, money or staffing.

Children should learn between 2000 and 3000 new words per year (Beck, McKeown and Kucan 2002) so this makes our job terribly difficult.  In order to achieve this we must deploy a range of strategies. 

The children in our setting enter at a very low level in the whole of the Communication & language strand.  We work very hard through an array of strategies to over come this and have varying degrees of success depending on the children and their understanding.

Don't forget to check out: Attention levels

Bilingual staff:

We have members of staff who speak the languages of the children in the setting.  Our two most prominent languages are Urdu and Bangla and we have 5 members of staff who speak at least one of these each.  This allows us to have conversations with children but also to help them to understand and conceptualise individual terms.

However having a staff member with home language is only useful if the child can understand the language being used.

So what we need to do initially is to build language up through language building strategies.

Non-verbal communication.

Over 80% of the communication we use is non-verbal.  We understand the need for children to use body language to communicate their needs.  Some of our children use body language when upset, e.g. pointing and crying; when they want something from another child e.g. snatching or hitting another child; or when they need the toilet e.g. bending their knees and holding themselves.  We dismiss some of this language (hitting, snatching) as problematic but its important to understand that that is a form of communication, albeit disruptive.  The key here is to encourage children to use their spoken language where possible or get others who are involved to understand why the children are hitting.

We re-enforce non-verbal communication through Makaton and this has helped some of our children to begin to communicate. 


I've mentioned more than once about how we use Makaton in the setting.  It is a vital approach in our setting and underpins much of our pedagogy.  We introduce individual terms to the children showing a sign and saying a word, e.g:

"Red" would be introduced with the sign for Makaton (running index finger along lip).
We would repeat this quite a few times before the children would begin to remember.  They also need to use this in context so ensure you follow through in play by asking "what colour?" etc.

We find that many children have responded exceptionally well to this strategy.  Our children have learned colours, shapes and nursery rhymes much faster due to the use of Makaton than they ever have before.  It has allowed us to use far more vocabulary and expand on their limited bank quickly.

ELKLAN: [Elklan website -
Please note this is a paid for strategy so I cannot list a great deal of information - but I highly recommend paying for and training for this programme.
We were first introduced to ELKLAN over a year ago.  It is underpinned by the communication chain but there are many elements which aren't as appropriate to our age phase as others but despite this it paved the way for change for many of us.  Many of the practitioners and teachers in our main school use this effectively everyday and it has changed the outcomes of many children.

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 strategies which we do use is Blank level questioning which I have listed below, other strategies I have listed at the bottom of this post.

Blank level questions:

Blank level questions were designed to allow you to engage children regardless of their level of understanding.  It derived from Blank, Rose and Berlin's (1978) Language of Learning model.
Starting at level 1 with basic "What is it?" questions all the way up to "Why?" questions at level 4.  
Here are some examples of each level question:

Level 1:  (Naming) - [look at it]
What is it?
What can you see?
Can you find one like this?
Is it a x? (yes or no)
Can you find me one like this (compare).

Level 2: (Describing) - [talk about it]
What is happening in this picture?
Where is x?
What colour is this?
How are these different?
Describe this.

Level 3: (Re-telling) - [think about it]
How do you think he feels?
What happened?
How did you do that?
How is it [Define]?

Level 4: - [reasoning]
Why did he sell those beans?
What should we do now?
Why can't we eat soup with a knife?

We can engage with children within the provision by asking appropriate questions, tailored to their level.  We accomplish this by having questions displayed in our provision areas which were drawn from planning (and interests) of the children. I made these whilst incorporating the colourful semantics scheme which we use in school (different colours for different words relating to the question words).

Vocabulary on display:

This is most common in all settings but is a tried and tested method of encouraging more language use.  You can download or make vocabulary very easily, laminate and display.  It looks effective but how useful is it?  I find the most useful vocabulary signs need to be accompanied by a picture of a child using/doing it. E.g. the word 'cut' ought to be placed next to a picture of a child using a knife to cut the playdough.

Think about the amount of vocabulary you have on display and whether or not this is an appropriate amount.  Having 50 words crammed onto a single display might be arranged very nicely but is not useful for teaching children words.  Consider 5 at a time and change these on a regular basis or make them 'topical.'

Contextualising new literary vocabulary:

We had some in house training about the vocabulary within stories and strategies for building this up.  Part of the training was talking about how to introduce a word to the children which would be new to them.  You could read your passage and stop at a new word.  You explain that word and then give an example of that word in another context, then continue with your story.

For example:

"then he nibbled..." "oh 'nibbled' is like eating something, so at snack time I 'nibbled' through my toast, munch munch munch,"

"then he nibbled a hole in the cocoon."

We choose 3 of these words per week from our core story and call these our 'wow' words - implying it would be amazing if they could use them.  We also share these with our parents near our 'try at home board.'
This strategy is only possible for children who already have a good understanding of communication and language - otherwise they will not understand the explanations which you are giving them.

1:1 vocabulary interventions:

All of the above strategies (except literary vocab) are appropriate for children at all levels of communication and language skills.  However sometimes you need to peel right back and start at the bottom for children with no language skills.  The following program has been very effective in our setting:

We had some fantastic training with a local S&L therapist.  She introduced us to a strategy of 'spoon feeding' language to a child one word at a time.  It was designed for children with very poor language skills who did not speak or make any effort at communication within their play.

You assume a position near a child (within immediate eye sight) and you sit down.  You don't talk at all or interact with the environment.  You wait for the child to engage with the provision and to look into your eyes.  Only when you receive eye contact do you talk to the child and you keep it simple.  You could say the name of the objects, e.g. "car."  The child will hopefully repeat back the word and continue to play.  The idea here is that the child is looking to you (making eye contact) for information and you give them this and they can add this to their play.  It may take many times before the child will begin to use it themselves in their play.  You continue to have these 10 minute sessions as often as possible and add to the vocab as their language increases, e.g. "red car" or "big car."

Visual timetables and Necklaces:

This evolved from a training session I attended with the Autism specialist team at my local LA. This wonderfully fabulous service introduced me to the use of visual timetables beyond what I had gleaned from twinkl and sparklebox.  Both their timetables are useful for a whole class but are not so valuable for children who struggle to understand a picture rather than a photograph.  
For example:
Child A is running around the setting screaming and touching many of the different resources.  Teacher 1 walks over to the children and shows them a photograph (not picture) or the water area and says, "water area." This provided direction to a child about where to go and satisfies both their visual and their auditory senses because you have told the the "water" area and you showed them a familiar picture. Showing them a watering can or a bottle would not suffice because they would need conceptualise the watering can, understand it is used in the water area and then process this before taking action.

The same can be used as a permanent timetable displayed in the class or a portable "now" and "then" timetable which provides only two steps (which is all that children should be given ideally). 

Other strategies:

This is one strategy which we don't currently use but we would like to introduce soon.  I have seen it being used in different settings effectively are are underpinned by what we already do in the setting:

Tiered vocabulary:

Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2002) argued of the importance of a 3 tier system of language/vocabulary.  They suggested that:

Tier 1: These words are the 'CORE' words which children use.  These are high frequency, used to describe objects (nouns) and rarely do these need to be taught.

Tier 2: DESCRIBING language are often descriptive e.g adjectives or adverbs and are usually explained by using easier, more familiar words.

Tier 3: These are SPECIALISED and are less frequent, usually associated with a new topic.

How this could apply to Nursery in a 'lesson' or 'activity' associated with building castles.

Tier 1: up, down, next to, behind, under, top, bottom.
Tier 2: quickly, hard, slowly, carefully, centre, 
Tier 3: castle, spire, turret, tower.

Other links:
Attention levels