Developing confident speaking and listening skills and play is crucial to improving early literacy skills which is an integral part of becoming literate. Literacy check-up tools help teachers get this done.
Communication is the most influential tool we possess. This significant developmental stage begins at birth, and rapid progress is made until the age of 5. The more confident a child is with their conversational skills, the easier they understand texts they read as they progress. Effective communication is learned and developed by engaging in a very of social interactions with others. The Australian Education system understands the value of being an effective communicator and identifies five key components to achieving the outcome:
- Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes.
- Children engage with a range of texts and get meaning from these texts.
- Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media.
- Children begin to understand how symbols and pattern systems work.
- Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking wi
Learning how to become confident in communicating thoughts and feelings comes from interactions and conversations they experience daily, showing them how to use words correctly and properly construct sentences. As communication is a developing skill, they require ample opportunities to explore and practice using it accurately. Children who experience vast opportunities to talk will increase their early literacy skills. The more words in a child’s vocabulary, the more confident they communicate their thoughts and feelings. The more confident they are at sharing their thoughts and feelings, the easier it will be to express themselves in written form.
Difficulties in developing communication skills
When assessing children’s early literacy skills, it is imperative to identify their communication capabilities and challenges. It has been found that many communication difficulties can be overcome through research-based interventions. Education settings that prioritise implementing strategies to support children struggling in areas of early literacy will bridge the gap between their peers.
We can easily forget the challenges that EYFS children can face when sharing their thoughts and listening to others. Developing early literacy skills can be hindered through speaking and listening difficulties, issues pronouncing letter sounds and words or knowing letters. Children not exposed to valuable language exchanges will face delays.
Struggling with early literacy skills during preschool can signify future literacy delays as they progress through school. 90% of children who experience language delays at the age of five will have literacy difficulties ten years later.
Poor communication skills can negatively impact educational achievements, reading and writing, behaviour, attention, spelling, mental health, forming and maintaining relationships. It is viewed as the most significant factor that underpins all aspects of learning.
Australia is a multi-cultural country with more than 300 languages spoken, with 20.8% of the population speaking another language, including Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Italian and Vietnamese. Children for who English is a second language should be encouraged to continue using their home language. This is an essential element for developing early literacy skills. Preventing children from embracing their first language and confidence to communicate will cause longstanding issues in education, social, emotional, occupational and economic outcomes.
Children who possess a strong foundation in their first language will be better positioned to learn English as an additional language.
It is crucial to note that young children who demonstrate difficulties learning English as a second language but are competent in their home language do not have communication difficulties. Their barrier is likely to be a result of inadequate exposure to English interactions.
Using the Talking Table to Improve Student Communication
The Talking Table was an initiative created by Fleur Griffiths in England following concerns from Ofsted regarding Early Years language assessments. This strategy focuses on teachers providing dedicated child-centred opportunities to practice their early literacy skills through play.
It is accessible for all children, not just those at risk of not developing secure early language skills. There are no extensive planning requirements or the need for elaborate resources. Allowing time to engage children in the Talking Table eliminates the pressure of answering questions and worrying about being correct; there are no wrong answers.
Children lead the conversation with teachers assisting in extending the language used by offering suggestions like, ‘I wonder,’ instead of questioning them. Teachers have the opportunity to focus on supporting children to develop confidence in their language skills, experiment with their vocabulary, learn new words and sounds.
A small group of children are invited to sit around a table or circle of cushions with a large sheet of play and a selection of writing utensils. Within this circle, placed in enticing boxes, bags or parcels, are a small selection of pocket-sized toys or objects, such as personal treasure and stuffed toys and materials.
These objects are passed around the circle, and the development of imaginative stories about them ensues. The pens and materials are used to develop imaginary worlds for the toys and objects to explore. This is not a typical ‘Show and Tell’ experience; the teacher’s role is to ensure that the children can fairly share their thoughts in a round, modelling active listening and supporting the children to express their story ideas.
Once completed, the story compiled on the sheet of paper is rolled up and placed in an area accessible to the children to return to it as they wish and retell the story to their peers.
The valuable experience of talking is the key to opening up so many opportunities, and we must be patient and offer encouragement as they develop their new skills.
How to Improve Early Literacy skills Through Play
Early literacy is a crucial developmental phase where children learn the foundational skills needed to progress from learning to read and beginning to read to learn and grow. It must not be mistaken with teaching a child how to read books but teaching the skills required to become a successful reader.
The critical interactions with adults help form their literacy foundations; therefore, we must ensure that we provide every opportunity to experience valuable modelled language. The most valuable opportunity a teacher has to model language and encourage early literacy skills is through play.
Early Years teachers don't just play
Early Years teachers (I was one for eight years), are often accused of ‘just playing all day’ even by teachers across different grades. Even though this perspective is frustrating as our roles are much more, modelling play should be our priority. A play-based pedagogical approach to learning should influence our strategies when considering all aspects of children’s development. As teachers, we should always make time to play and utilise our classroom as a third teacher focused on language development.
Children develop their early literacy skills from exposure to rich language heard in their environment; they are little sponges that soak everything in. Literate environments that implement effective play strategies and immerse children in everyday language can strengthen early literacy skills when needed most. Children must experience immersion, demonstration and engagement for essential language skills to develop.
Play has been identified as the most influential aspect of early literacy development; it plays an essential role. There is a clear correlation between language behaviour in play and the development of literate language. Children’s language during play is similar to the language they will later use when developing reading and writing skills. Providing children with the chance to work collaboratively in a comfortable and safe environment will facilitate language development.
How to make time for play in your classroom
Working in an early years classroom is intense; it can be quite easy to focus on other aspects of leadership expectations and not having time to actually play with the children in your class. But by doing so, we are missing key opportunities to encourage early literacy skills through modelling listening and interactions within their environment during uninterrupted play. Early literacy skills will naturally evolve through authentic and purposeful play experiences. Children who communicate through play learn how language is used and how to interact with others confidently. These valuable communication skills and reading and writing experiences will help children make links with formal written language.
Learning early literacy skills through play is not a new theory, with theorists like Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Brian Cambourne noting the importance of this approach. They theorise those first-hand experiences with the world around them, where they have the opportunity to perform uninterrupted actions, will help cement their learning. The key is providing rich and productive surroundings where children don’t even realise they are absorbing essential early literacy skills through their actions and repetitive play. If a child is provided with an environment they want to interact with; natural learning will occur, transferring their skills from one context to another.
Teachers should immerse their classrooms in literacy-related objects for their children to play with. Linking meaningful and purposeful early literacy opportunities through socio dramatic play is incredibly beneficial when related to real-world goals. Children can create and explore imaginary worlds and the variety of literacy opportunities related to them.
Utilising socio dramatic play within your setting
Socio dramatic play is more than imaginative play. It involves children acting out creative situations focused on various times, places and characters with others. Socio dramatic play is fluid and follows a child’s ever-changing interests. Children follow their own stories, dialogues, interactions and roles amongst each other.
Your role as a teacher during socio dramatic play is dependent on the children’s requirements and how you wish to support the advancement of the children’s knowledge; it can be child-led, guided, adult-led learning or very minimal indeed. However, you mustn’t disrupt the flow of the play unless absolutely necessary; your presence should be intentional but minimal.
You may decide that your role is to not engage in the aspects of play but offer the children suggestions and ask questions about their actions. It is then up to the children whether they enhance their play in that direction. Should you decide that you are needed to take on a role within the children’s play, you can facilitate further learning by extending their play or introducing new concepts without controlling the play’s flow.
A critical part of your role during socio dramatic play is providing creative and purposeful early literacy opportunities. During their socio dramatic play, you should give a selection of text and materials to support their interest and engagement in a variety of literacy purposes.
It is advised that you model how to use these varieties of texts, scaffold their understanding and learning opportunities through skilled open-ended questioning; this will support advanced language skills used during specific situations or social roles. When introducing socio dramatic play to your classroom, consider the learning intentions, for example.
- What new concepts and words linked to your theme would you like to embed?
- How can you support skills in joining in, sharing, and taking turns?
- How can you encourage the use of language to take on roles as different characters?
- How can children be supported to overcome conflict and develop problem-solving skills?
- What props, costumes, and pictures can you provide to prompt storytelling or re-enactments?
- How can you encourage children to create their own stories?
- How can you use questions to encourage children to share their opinions?
- How can you model ways in which to use language creatively?
How to Complete a Literacy Skills Check-Up in Your Classroom
There has been a significant decline in Australian children achieving the early literacy skills required to become literate adults in later life. There are multiple barriers to learning; English as an additional language, poor attendance, family difficulties, student engagement, school and teacher abilities, and learning difficulties or disabilities.
As teachers, it is our responsibility and duty to develop strategies to help overcome these barriers; we must adapt our teaching and classroom to better support these children.
A literate child can read independently and not shy away from complex texts, communicate and share information in speech and writing, think critically and analyse what they are reading, and independently seek answers to meaningful questions or information that interests them.
Children who develop proficient literacy skills will command higher-paid employment. 85.3% of adults who achieved a high literacy level secured employment compared to 56.8% who achieved a low literacy level. There is also a significant connection between poor literacy skills and incarceration.
The recent disruption caused by school closures related to the COVID pandemic will, more than likely, add an additional layer to the barriers children face. They have failed to benefit from the exposure to daily reading, writing, critical thinking, and communication opportunities available within a classroom.
Remote learning brought with it issues linked to accessibility to technology, home environment, and computer skills. There is an even greater unknown challenge ahead for teachers when fostering the development of these missing literacy skills.
So how can you check that you are providing your students with a classroom that fosters the development of high literacy attainment?
What to look for in the Classroom Environment
The classroom environment is the most influential space your students will be exposed to; it is where they spend the bulk of their school day. It is essential that, as facilitators, we bring the world of text to children.
The first step in achieving this is filling their environment with books. Real books that they can smell, feel and turn the pages of, not the electronic books that are quickly taking over. That is to say that there is nothing wrong with electronic reading resources; they can certainly add to a learning experience, especially with reluctant readers and boys.
However, nothing can beat the real thing. The false belief that children are more likely to read using a digital tool has caused some schools to reduce the number of books available or, even worse, remove them altogether.
I love my classroom library but it isn’t just about placing a basket of books in one corner of the room. It is essential to consider whether your library contains the correct number of books and a wide selection, as well as a variety of formats and ability levels.
A classroom library should also have a designated area with suitable storage and attractively arranged to pull your readers in.
Are you providing an environment that supports the development of highly literate children? Download this Google Doc classroom library check-up tool to see where you are going right and what you could do to improve.
What to look for in Reading Instructions
Critical reading skills are embedded during the early years of a child’s education. Ineffective teaching that does not follow evidence-based research on how children learn to read is a huge barrier. If effective practices are put in place during the early years, there will be a noticeable reduction in the number of children that require costly and time-consuming additional support later in their schooling.
A classroom that fosters reading instructions is bursting with oral and printed instructions to support children in deciphering the links between spoken and written language. Word acquisition comes from repeated exposure to rich vocabulary within the classroom and a teacher who brings words to life.
Initially, teachers should consider what they do to develop vocabulary. Whilst it is impossible to teach every word in the English language, we must think about how we decide on the words to teach.
This can be achieved by looking at the three-tiered approach to vocabulary.
- Tier one contains basic early reading words.
- Tier two includes words found during mature conversations.
- Tier three has subject-related and academic words.
Children tend to start school with an understanding of tier-one words or quickly develop them through interactions with their peers. Tier three words are often too advanced for school-aged children. However, tier two words are often forgotten as they are so familiar to teachers, so teaching should be focused on this tier.
Some children learn to read by memorising sight words but I find that most best learn to read by decoding words phonetically. I’ve used the Thrass, Soundwaves and Letterland phonic systems with English as a fourth language learners. I found that Letterland was the most effective in the early years. Language learners need the visual learning. In grades two and up EFL students moved into the Soundwaves phonics program. I’ve successfully used both programmes with my own little twists in Australian classrooms too.
Without phonics, your students are missing vital parts to how their brain learns. Teaching phonics increases the chances that all the children in your classroom will become fluent readers. They learn to connect the sounds with the letters so they can create meaning. Educators have concluded that Literacy needs to combine phonics and word meaning if children are to become effective readers.
As children progress through school, it is then appropriate to evaluate how you are using effective reading instructions through activities such as guided reading. It is an excellent opportunity to model and scaffold reading. It supports smaller groups of children and their individual needs to engage independently through practice and consolidation of their early literacy skills.
As with your classroom environment, spend some time considering whether you provide ample opportunities for effective oral and printed instructions. Download this Google Doc Early Years and Elementary check-up tool to see how your classroom fares.
What to look for in Writing Instructions
Using language and constructing sentences to express feelings and thoughts through writing is vital for becoming literate. Developing these skills along with phonic awareness and handwriting starts in the early years of education and must be taught through explicit instructions.
Teachers should possess a detailed understanding of how to deliver phonics using a recommended high quality, evidence-based structured and systematic phonics program.
Facilitating the development of writing instructions is predominantly influenced by the attitudes of both teacher and child. By using a structured, guided writing framework, teachers can work with small groups offering targeted support as each child writes their short but complete piece of text.
Teachers who model writing using guided writing opportunities and demonstrate writing through innovative ideas will find their classes’ attitudes towards the activity positive. Children experience high-level teaching focused on the use of language, sentence structure, phonemical awareness, and punctuation.
As teachers, we understand the importance of evaluation, so consider whether you are providing effective reading and writing instructions within your classroom. Download the Google Doc check-up tool to see how you could improve your teaching to increase early literacy skills.
To Improve Early Literacy Skills
I would highly recommend exploring the use of the Talking Table within your setting to develop your classes’ confidence in being effective communicators and achieving their early literacy skills.
A child’s ability to talk well has a tremendous and long-lasting impact on their attainment. Children accessing thought-provoking opportunities that encourage practical communication will feel listened to and appreciated, and confident in exploring other aspects of early literacy.
The key is to remember that play is a child’s favourite pastime where they thrive and learn. Ensure you emphasise all play opportunities that support high levels of social interaction and demonstrate to your school leadership team the benefits of developing early literacy skills through play within a school environment.
We must give our pupils a plethora of reading opportunities throughout the school and provide access to a vast selection of reading materials to spark their interest.