Thursday, 9 July 2015

Language structures

Over the last year years our school has been developing the use of language and communication.  We have tried lots of different strategies which have all been successful and have led to our school receiving the 'communication friendly' status.  

In Nursery we have introduced Elklan and Blank level questioning to help children develop their understanding.  Key strategies include the 10 second rule, asking open ended questions (and repeating rather than requestioning if you get no response) and getting down the level of the child.  Full explanation of ELKLAN and Blank level questioning can be found at the bottom of this post.

When we introduced the blank level questions we also designed a 'provision map' to go into each area. This mapped out the journey children could take within the provision based on the four levels of questioning.  We also tied these into the 7 different question words which our school had always used (colour coded).  This way the adults knew what questions they could ask in the provision so long as they knew the question level of the child.  

Next we introduced Makaton. Makaton is child-friendly sign language which helps children to add a further dimension to their learning. I had always considered this as adding Visual learning to a conversation which is traditionally Auditory.  However I was recently told (quite rudely, I might add) that the concept of VAK should not be applied this way.. However - I find that the children who I would consider as visual learners (the majority) have benefitted from the use of Makaton, so I'm not convinced.

Makaton was extremely successful last year as it was embedded throughout focus activities and the children began to use the Makaton themselves during conversation. This year it has not been as successful due to new staff, but I hope we are getting there.  

Lately our literacy co-ordinator and head of DSP (our language pioneer) introduced Language structures to us.  They were designed by Tower Hamlets in London in a bid to improve the spoken and written language of the children in their area.  It involves modelling (as do all new concepts) ways of saying or writing particular sentences.  Easy, right? Not so much...

I say this because we went into this full steam ahead. I initially thought that these concepts could easily be applied to the posters we had in all of our areas.  I did this:

We have (to some extent) been using these in our provision areas to ask children questions. We have tried to model the correct language to children and focus on a single language structure during focus group times.  In theory it seemed so simple and since I touched on it at certain times it seemed to work quite nicely.
But then this week the DSP head came to video me working with children whilst using language structures. 
(Even as middle management, observing people all of the time I still get nervous when I am observed) 
When I sat and looked at our posters and also thought about the language I am asking, I realised that the language structures are vital for children's development (especially for those with EAL and for me thats 99.9%) but they don't fit into 4 boxes.  The language structures are more of a spectrum where the most basic statements 'It is...' rests at the one end with our 2's children (some 3's, 4's and even 5's!) all the way to the language for the year 6 children. But we have children in our setting who use powerful language and are ready for year 1 structures to be modelled to them.  

Next I went away and had a think. I do love a good reflection! I realised that the staff, myself and the children were never going to engage with the structures in the current form. The top end children are not hearing new structures being modelled because they are not on display for staff.  Similarly the middle group of children are actually being left behind. So..  I worked and developed this:

So this is the new poster we have on display at the moment in three different areas. I will update this with how it works but the structures themselves are a very valuable way to scaffold new language to children. We included Year 1 and Year 2 structures as well because many of our children need to be pushed much further than those outlined for Early Years.

Please note: Both Makaton and Elklan are strategies which your school or setting would need to buy into. I have not written this as an advertisement but I would recommend using them if your setting can afford them.  I cannot give more information on either strategy because they are copyrighted, however a good google might enlighten you further;) 

[Extremely] Useful links: 

Elklan blog post (1) (2)  

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