Talk Talk! Knock, knock. Who’s there? Kanga. Kanga who? No, it’s kangaroo!

By | children's health, Education, environment, Language, numeracy skills, reading

Jokes often narrowly miss the mark, but children love them. In amongst the less serious context of joking and any play on words, is a more complex business which plays a much bigger role in our children’s early development than we could ever believe.

Children who are taught about the complexities of the English language through language-rich conversations with their parents or siblings are the same children who get ahead of their peers. As a child soaks in the rich talk at home, they become more adept at sensing intonation, playing with tone, using words in the right context and increasing their chances for a vocabulary advantage in their school. In the last ten years, there has been extensive research about language quality and early talking and how they significantly impact each other. The quality of a child’s language environment has a huge impact on their relationship building, their early reading skills and therefore their access to the curriculum.

“Yes, yes” we hear you say, “but how can we help?” we hear you say. Before they even step through the school gates, some children have been exposed to five times as many words as some of their peers. There are many reasons for this, and we could analyse the amount of time a parent/carer spends on their devices whilst ‘humouring’ a child, or how long a child plays on a device, or plays alone. However, analysing is not the vital thing here, talking is! So significant is this issue that the government have launched an initiative on helping to close the vocabulary gap. Helping every child to have the early advantage of successful language development is likely the best educational priority we can select.

So, what can we do about ensuring every child sees the benefit of the early vocabulary advantage? The remedy is actually so much simpler than you might think. You simply cannot talk too much to your children. I used to explain it as a running commentary when asked what I meant about lots of talk. As breakfast is being prepared, a commentary on the routine will expose your child to the most commonly used vocabulary and when you later go for a walk and see all the natural things around you, your vocabulary may become more complex with new words starting to penetrate their sponge-like brain. For example, “Look Louis, the deer are rutting and making extraordinary noises. Can you see how their antlers can be used to warn away the other male deer? They are called stags.”
This introduces more infrequent words, helping their vocabulary grow more quickly.

There are many activities that you can do with your children in order to help them with their vocabulary:
• Turn-taking.
The quality of our talk is obviously crucial and balanced turn-taking is vital to not only holding the attention of young children, but seeing them develop their language.
• Expanding and modelling.
When your daughter/son says “It’s big car” – you can expand upon it and model the grammar a little too, “Yes – it is a big, red car – isn’t it enormous?”
• Extending and explaining.
Explaining events, such as what is going to happen at the shops, or what happened on holiday last year, is the type of extended talk and language that has a positive impact on a child’s vocabulary developing successfully.

For many of us this is a normal part of parenting life, but for some of us we realise all too quickly the times when we are not talking or even more importantly, actively listening to our children. A really useful tool is using picture books as a stimulus or prompt. Story structure, pace, prediction and vocabulary are all useful spin-offs to a picture book. How often have we as parents flicked through a story at bedtime, our eyes almost closed, skipping pages so that we finish earlier. We have all done it. But, some of those conversations are vital to that ever-growing vocabulary sponge in every child and it is our job to water it. There is no such thing as too much talk.

Tracey Chong is Head at Surbiton High Boys’ Preparatory School, an academic independent IAPS School.

Education, work and learning – do they go together?

By | Education, Language, numeracy skills, play, Playing, reading
by Dr Ian Cunningham
SML College

If we take the average 16 year old school pupil, their working week may be longer than that of their parents. Past generations struggled to bring in laws to limit children’s working in factories and other settings. Yet we now find that if we add a young person’s time on schoolwork to their homework and exam revision, then it is not uncommon for them to put in more hours work per week than a parent.

Another factor is that this work is largely imposed, with the individual having little control over the work pressure. What we know from organisational psychology is that long working hours where the person has little control over the work can lead to severe stress and anxiety. The research shows that stress and anxiety in children is increasing.

It was common in my school for teachers to chide pupils who were not working. Working meant working at a prescribed task from the teacher. Also, in modern parlance, there is reference to having pupils ‘on task’. If you are not working at a prescribed problem or task, then it is assumed that you are not learning. Often, when I was criticised in school for not working, I would be thinking about something not to do with what the teacher was prescribing – but it was productive thinking as far as I was concerned. The notion that working and learning must go together doesn’t make sense.

One of our students spent time doodling in school and was criticised for this – but actually it was her way of learning since she had dyslexia and ADHD and she found that drawing was more suitable for her. She described herself as a visual learner. When she came to our College aged 13 she spent a whole year doodling and drawing cartoons, making figures out of plasticine and seemingly nothing else. It may not have appeared that she was learning but she was. Two years later she published her first graphic novel. It’s a novel that has received much praise and sold well. The publishers were quite shocked that a girl as young as 15 (and diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD) was able to produce such mature material. She learned a great deal to do this – but she didn’t see it as work.

Many writers have indicated the importance of play in learning. Educationalists head to Finland to find out about their education system because it is seen as successful. One thing they seem to miss is that children in Finland do not go to school until they are seven. The importance of the kindergarten experience and play seems to get missed. For instance much of the social ability valued by employers is learned through play.

Another use of the notion of work is in the imposition of homework on young people. Note that it is not about home learning. The assumption is that person will work on school-directed tasks while they are away from the school. What we do know is that young people learn a huge amount within the home and from people they interact with outside school. One example from our research on both young people and adults is the value of travel. Unfortunately, schools in England fine parents who take children out of school to travel in term-time.

In our College (for 9-16 year olds) we encourage parents and students to travel, because it provides valuable learning. A good example was a 14-year-old student, whose parents were working for a few months in India. She was able to go with them and carry on with her learning. A lot of the learning was, of course, about the culture, language and norms of another society. For the two months she was away she remained in contact with her group via a weekly Skyping session. Her group was regularly able to engage with her while she was sitting on a beach in India with her laptop.

What has been interesting is how ex-students refer to what they learned at our College. For instance many talk about gaining the social skills that make them highly employable. Now we don’t teach social skills. We create a learning community where students learn to interact freely with others. Some of the learning comes from structured experiences such as the fact that each student gets the chance to chair our morning community meeting. However, much of this learning is from the seemingly non-working side of the College – learning through engaging with others and learning what works and what doesn’t. So long as students learn why should we be bothered about how they do this?

Dr Ian Cunningham is Chair of Governors, SML College 01273 987629

Dyslexia and foreign languages

By | Education, Language

by Helen Abbott
Banstead Prep School

How can a child with dyslexia be expected to cope with a foreign language? If children are struggling to learn to read and write in their own language, why should we expect them to learn another?

In every school I have been in, both secondary and primary, I have been told by at least one parent (not asked) that their child is dyslexic and therefore ‘will not be able’ to learn another language. What amazes me is that I have never, not once, been asked specifically what I do to assist dyslexic children during lessons. The assumption seems to be that there is nothing I can do. Dyslexic pupils may have a slightly longer path to fluency than some others, but the idea that they cannot learn a language is both absurd and nonsensical (which mean pretty much the same thing but repetition is a useful tool in anyone’s learning). I am hoping I can clear up this misconception and answer the question I have never been asked: how can a child with dyslexia cope with a foreign language?

Language learning today is no longer about sitting with a textbook in front of you, reciting conjugations of verbs and learning reams of vocabulary off by heart. Variety and pace are the key and the best language lessons are filled with a range of multi-sensory activities, especially kinaesthetic ones which involve moving around the classroom and manipulating objects physically. In other words, methods that have been proven to help children with dyslexia in their learning. Various studies have shown that ‘overlearning’ is helpful for dyslexic children and to this end, multi-sensory learning, where children experience a piece of vocabulary or even grammar through the different senses is very useful. Colour coding is also helpful, as is associating words with pictures, sounds or even tastes and smells. If the child finds listening difficult, then having a word repeated in a plethora of different ways can help. Enter today’s language classroom and you should find one or more of these activities being demonstrated at any given moment.

To me, it seems obvious that the topics studied in languages lend themselves to a range of that sensory learning that is so important for anyone who finds words on their own quite scary and off-putting. Café and restaurant role-plays are surely asking for a taste experience (croissant anyone?), while learning about colours immediately suggests bringing in a rainbow of sweets for the class to try (or is that just me?) The topic of transport is great fun when you add sounds to it, as is the animal kingdom with the range of beastly noises associated. All of which are invariably accompanied by visual images with words next to them as this is often the starting point for any language learning and pictures are usually easier to remember than the word.

However, the overall winner in my view is kinaesthetic or tactile learning, in which activities all involve some kind of physical action. Wandering around the classroom on a treasure hunt adds an element of fun, while rearranging chopped up vocabulary into sentences is an activity often mentioned in guides to help dyslexic children remember word order. Games of snap, dominoes, pelmanism or Kim’s game involve handling and manipulating objects physically as well as using pictures with or without words that implant a visual memory in the brain. These are all typical language learning activities.

Finally, even the dinosaurs amongst us in language learning must recognise colour coding as an essential tool in remembering grammatical ideas such as genders (yes, it’s still blue for a boy, pink for a girl!) or to differentiate nouns, verbs and adverbs. Additionally, using different shades of colour or presenting information on a coloured background aids understanding, eases access to the content and reduces the visual stress so often suffered by dyslexic children.

Is that sufficient or do dyslexic children need more help? Clearly it depends on the individual as every child learns differently regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. Most dyslexic children should also be provided with scaffolded worksheets where they have to write the minimum amount required to make good or excellent progress. We must remember that writing is only one of the skills required in learning a language and in my view the least important – how many times as an adult have you been required to write down your food order in a foreign restaurant (or an English one for that matter?) Spelling mistakes should be corrected less frequently and all activities should be supported with another sensory option (for example, listening with a written prompt; speaking with pictures; reading with phrases highlighted in clear colours).

The argument persists that dyslexic children often have word retrieval problems in their own language or a weaker working memory and can therefore remember fewer words. It is completely unnecessary for them to learn a huge quantity of language on one topic. A range of topics is good – a couple of useful adjectives, some adverbs to add flavour. Twenty words for animals instead of two or three – why? They simply do not need to learn to say that they have a hamster if they don’t have one! Focus should be on committing essential vocabulary to memory, rather than confusing matters with an indecent amount of terms that will never realistically be used. Common sense could and should prevail!

Who wants to deny any pupil the opportunity to participate in activities that will develop their communication skills, their social experience and will raise their awareness of other cultures and communities? Let us not forget that language learning has very little to do with success in exams and much more to do with being able to travel to other countries and have a more intimate experience of the values and beliefs of another society. Teachers aim to instil a love of learning in each and every child and it should not matter how children reach their goal or even how close they get to it, as long as they enjoy the process. Make languages fun for all and you will reach children whatever way they learn best and surely, that is the ultimate goal.

Banstead Prep School is a co-educational prep school and nursery for girls and boys aged 2-11 where there’s more to a
good education than learning.