With reception children entering school with the language skills of toddlers, Clare Constant had to act fast to help them catch up...
When I became deputy headteacher at a newly-established primary Free School in Tower Hamlets back in 2012, I was ready for the challenge. We had been expecting a high percentage of EAL children, and when the school opened that September, this certainly was the case.
These children were still learning how to communicate in their mother tongue, so accessing the curriculum in English was always going to be challenging. However, what worried me most was that many had extremely poor vocabulary and communication skills, even in their own language. Some children had not been to nursery and many received very little stimulation or encouragement at home.
My starting point was to assess all children using the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS) and the results confirmed our initial fears. Many EAL children were significantly behind their peers in terms of communication and language skills – some functioning two years behind a child of a similar age. I have taught in nearly all primary year groups and can safely say I have never experienced children aged four to five communicating like toddlers. It was saddening to think these children were at a major disadvantage before they had even turned five years old.
So we opened our doors to parents and began to gradually build relationships with them. I’ve always enjoyed chatting to parents because, no matter how different your personalities may be, you both always have the child’s best interests in mind. Ultimately, parents just want to know the school cares.
Through these casual conversations, it was clear that parental education would be a huge factor in moving forward. I couldn’t believe the comments I was hearing: “She’s easy as she doesn’t talk much”, “Oh, I thought he was just slow”, “Reading? No, he likes to just sit and watch cartoons”. The lack of communication between adult and child was glaringly obvious. Sharing this knowledge with colleagues meant everyone understood just how much support these children needed on a daily basis.
I then turned my focus on demonstrating how to place vocabulary and communication at the forefront of everything we did. ‘My turn and your turn’ was a great practice to support language development. By asking children to repeat what the teacher said in full sentences, we modelled sentence construction and vocabulary, giving children essential practice in speaking aloud. And we didn’t restrict these strategies to the classroom – we took them into assemblies, the lunch room and corridors. Gradually, communication became part of our culture. No child could voice an opinion without the teacher asking “Because?” to encourage them to build on their response. Soon, children were supporting and prompting each other, exclaiming “Because…? You didn’t say why!”
One day after a visit from Water Aid, I asked the children if they had any questions. The visitor was then bombarded with comments such as “My brother leaves the tap running when he brushes his teeth”, or the entirely unrelated “I think your hair looks pretty”. Questioning was clearly a skill the children had not mastered.
After taking this problem to a speech and language therapist, she suggested I use ‘The Talking Box’ to support children’s questioning skills. Each weekend, a child took the box home and, with his parents, would write in a special book about something interesting he had done. Back in school, the child discussed what was in his box and referred to the special book. Afterwards, supported by the teacher – with a key question word display of Who? What? When? Where? Why? – the other children would ask questions. At first, many of these questions were simple: “Was it fun?” and “Did you eat lunch?” But it was not long before children were posing open-ended questions and real discussions started.
At the end of the year, re-testing children with BPVS highlighted an improvement for many. It was truly inspiring to see children who had initially been over six months behind their peers jump to four or five months ahead. Others who started 24 months behind were now only two months behind, and were catching up quickly.
Our journey is still in the early stages, but I now feel confident we are moving in the right direction. It really is a privilege to work with reception children, helping to ensure the gap between them and their peers gets smaller, rather than bigger, as they progress through their school life.
Future Leaders is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. It offers a residency year, personalised coaching and peer-support through a network of more than 300 Future Leaders. To apply, nominate a colleague, or find out more about the programme, please visit future-leaders.org.uk/teachprimary