Helping children dive into the ocean of language

Our Head of Schools Programmes, Fiona Evans, welcomes the news that the Department for Education will be making 32 primary schools ‘English hubs’.

Words, letters and sounds are the smallest components of what is a huge and wonderful ocean of language in which children can splash and paddle.

When you’re three years old, or four or five, exploring words forms a large part of your life. Every day you’re learning new words and discarding old ones, reading words in a book, writing them on a page and discovering how to use and play with them. You’re working out how words fit together in a sentence to make meaning and using them in songs, conversations, stories, jokes and arguments. You’re starting to understand how other people use words and want you to use them, particularly in nursery or school — which might be different to how you use words at home or in the playground!

At this age, children also start to encounter how different sounds can make up words and how these sounds can be represented by shapes (letters) on a page, on a screen or on a shop sign. Your teacher might call this ‘phonics’ and, to labour my earlier metaphor, it’s an awful lot easier to learn to swim — to master the phonic code — if you’ve had plenty of opportunities to play in the ocean of language and gain confidence and familiarity with words.

Yet in England, far too many children are starting school without the words and the language skills they need to flourish. Last year, 1 in 5 children started primary school without the reading skills expected for their age. For those from the poorest backgrounds, this gap was even greater, with 1 in 3 children falling short. This is a gap most won’t recover from during their school life, and one which our research shows can make these children more vulnerable to poverty, unemployment and poor health as they grow up.

“Early education can have the greatest impact on children from disadvantaged families and is crucial in narrowing the gap in development and attainment between groups of children.”

Melhuish et al., 2017

To help young children develop their language and literacy skills from the earliest stage, speech, language, communication, phonics, reading and writing should be conceptualised as one inter-related and reciprocal meaning-making and message-getting system. This is something that sits at the heart of the National Literacy Trust’s work with early years professionals and primary school teachers, and something that the Department for Education believes is vital for enabling more children to start school with the literacy skills they need to succeed.

In an effort to improve early language and literacy skills for the thousands of children who start school every year behind their peers, the Department for Education has named 32 primary schools from across England who are to become English hubs — schools that will promote a love of reading and support other schools in disadvantaged areas across the country to provide excellent phonics and early language teaching.

Many of the schools selected for their excellence in phonics teaching are already working with the National Literacy Trust and are now poised to share their expertise with other schools in challenging circumstances. We have worked with these schools to provide training and CPD, programmes and resources to help them develop an integrated, whole school approach to language and literacy.

Not only does our work support teachers and pupils with the transition from nursery to Reception and on to Year 1, but it also helps education professionals gain the skills and confidence they need to work with parents to help them understand the importance of the home learning environment in a child’s language development. For example:

· Our Helping Early Language and Literacy Outcomes (HELLO) improvement framework helps early years settings and schools improve their communication, language and literacy provision by evaluating their partnerships with parents, practitioner skill levels, and how enabling the environment is.

· Our Early Words Together programme trains early years professionals and volunteers to work with parents and children aged three to five to build parents’ confidence so that they can support their child’s communication, language and literacy skills at home.

· Our new CPD course helps early years practitioners in Ipswich — a government opportunity area — to improve their skills, knowledge and confidence in the areas of early communication, language and literacy as well as social and emotional development. It also enable practitioners to feel more confident supporting parents to develop an effective home learning environment.

· We support schools to deliver evidence-based small group literacy interventions, such as ABRA — a reading intervention for Year 1 pupils to address decoding, fluency and comprehension.

Early intervention is not only cost effective but crucial for narrowing the early literacy and language attainment gap. The recent injection of funding from the Department for Education in this area is to be welcomed and the successful solutions that others have implemented in their schools deserve to be acknowledged, shared and disseminated widely and effectively.

For more information about how the National Literacy Trust can support schools with transition from early years to Key Stage 1, visit: