Eleanor Milligan, Lecturer in Education, University of East Anglia, UK
The importance of language skills
It is well evidenced that children’s language development in the Early Years leads to better outcomes for children. Law et al. (2017) showed that communicative development in the Early Years affected not only later language learning but also academic success. We also know that the benefits go far beyond this: good language development in the Early Years not only leads to better outcomes for children in schools, but also impacts on mental health, later employability and lifelong chances (Law et al., 2009).
The importance and impact, therefore, of all interactions, including those within Early Years settings as well as in the home learning environment, cannot be underestimated. Critically, however, it is not just the quantity of language that a child hears but, as Weisleder and Fernald (2013) clarify, it is the quality of those interactions that counts.
This identification of quality interactions was further explained and defined through the work of Siraj-Blatchford et al. (2002), where they introduced us to the term ‘sustained shared thinking’. This has been widely accepted as an important element of effective Early Years practice. In their international comparative study of Early Years pedagogical approaches, Wall et al. (2015) noted that where there were frequent episodes of sustained shared thinking, children made greater developmental progress.
Practitioners also need to be aware of the interconnectedness of children’s language and emotional development. Bloom and Beckwith (1989) suggested that situations of great anxiety or excitement might impair children’s language development, especially if they are prolonged. This link has been further exemplified by the work of Laevers (1994), who determined that a child’s wellbeing is critical to their ability to be deeply involved in any form of learning.
How can we start to improve our practice?
There may be discrepancies within classrooms, across schools or within multiple-setting groups in knowing how to define, identify, monitor and ensure a consistency in those important adult-to-child interactions. Early Years practitioners and leaders need to be confident in their understanding of what constitutes effective practice in order to observe, reflect upon and critically analyse their current practice, enabling them to identify areas for professional development.
Whilst the study by Dockrell et al. (2015) found that high proportions of classrooms were set up in communication-friendly ways, they identified a large deviation in the quality of individual interactions with adults. They specifically noted that data from both their own and other studies suggested that the frequency of language learning interactions between adults and children and interactive book reading were less than desirable.
A starting point, therefore, needs to be found in evidence-based tools that give clarity to defining effective practice and that support understanding of which strengths and areas of development exist, so that practitioners and leaders can be clear on how to move forward.
What tools or resources could be used by schools?
There are a number of useful and effective tools that offer evidence-based indicators and descriptors of quality practice and provision. These include:
- the Better Communication Research Programme’s ‘Communication Supporting Classroom Observation Tool’ (CSCOT) (Dockrell et al., 2013)
- The Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) Scale (Siraj et al., 2015)
- the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-3) (Harms et al., 2015).
While not exhaustive, these examples have been chosen as they have been developed through research and recognised for their In assessment, the degree to which the outcome of a particul... and In assessment, the degree to which a particular assessment m... in evaluating the quality of Early Years practice (Howard et al., 2018; Melhuish and Gardiner, 2021; Dockrell et al., 2015).
The Communication Supporting Classroom Observation Tool (CSCOT)
The CSCOT has three sections that take separate focus, namely the language learning environments (LLEs), language learning opportunities (LLOs) and language learning interactions (LLIs). Each of these sections looks at the specific strategies that practitioners employ to encourage and respond to language interactions in the setting. Dockrell et al.’s feasibility study (2015) indicated a high reliability of the tool, while a later study also indicated its validity in being used by classroom teachers (Law et al., 2019). As a freely downloadable tool, the CSCOT is easily accessible. It also benefits from being housed within the I CAN charity webpages, where it is accompanied online by a wealth of supportive professional development resources, which may be used to further enhance practitioner subject knowledge.
The Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Well-being (SSTEW) Scale
The SSTEW (Siraj et al., 2015) has five sub-scales that look in more detail at a combination of social and emotional skills, wellbeing, language development and thinking skills. They are:
- building trust, confidence and independence
- social and emotional wellbeing
- supporting and extending language and communication
- supporting learning and critical thinking
- assessing learning and language.
Each of the scale items depends on communication between the adult and child and gives examples of the full range of practices that may be observed, from ‘inadequate’ to ‘excellent’. This tool goes beyond the basic strategies of how practitioners talk to children to explore those characteristics that influence children’s developmental outcomes (Howard et al., 2018).
The Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS-3)
Similarly, the ECERS-3 has sub-scales with examples of practice, including specific sections on language, literacy and interactions, but also sections on learning activities (fine motor, art, music, movement, dramatic play, nature, mathematical activity, The recognition of individual differences in terms of race, ... and technology), which identify and give examples of how staff support these aspects of learning and development with their comments, explanations, questioning and constructive conversations (Harms et al., 2015).
How might individuals or groups use these tools?
Each of the tools comes with clear instructions on its originally intended purpose and design, and is expected to be used during a normal setting session, taking in typical practice and provision. In this way, the tools offer a considered view from a fixed period. With this in mind, they are not cataloguing a comprehensive, all-encompassing narrative of everything that possibly goes on, but offer a clear indication of those most embedded practices – the strengths in the setting.
These tools have commonly been used by researchers or external agencies to provide evidence or measurements of practice for studies. However, as Law et al. (2019) argue, there is a clear role for classroom practitioners to be an active part of the process, in order to respond effectively to what is identified. As practitioners may not readily observe themselves, there may be a need to draw on their professional communities in working supportively with one another, such as through peer observation. Alternatively, there may be scope to develop new ways of using the criteria in the tools for practitioners to reflect upon as part of a self-evaluation exercise.
From these possible starting points, staff can build positively on their practice and may be able to identify some strategies for further development. Ideally, tools such as these are employed as part of a whole-setting quality-improvement process (Early Years Coalition, 2021). As part of a whole-school or multiple-setting resource, these tools offer a common language and clear criteria for discussion, as well as a potential vehicle for monitoring progress over time or evidencing the impact of professional development.
While it is advised to allow three hours to complete a whole ECERS-3 or SSTEW observation, this may not be achievable in all settings. There is scope, however, to break these tools down into a more manageable workload by focusing on a selection of sub-scales, which may reflect your setting’s priorities or already identified areas for development.
Before starting with any of the above tools, it is important that all staff are aware of the process and understand the supportive and developmental aims. Grenier (2020) also notes that it is important for any professional development programme to have a clear focus, evidence base and ongoing support; professional development activity such as this is not a ‘quick fix’, as much as a process that will take time to embed. Users will need to fully understand the content and be clear that the tools and associated professional development activities or cycle will address the needs of the staff and children within the given context. To support this deeper understanding, each of the authors have provided supplementary notes to clarify and exemplify the criteria.
The strength of these tools comes in the fact that they do not prescribe a particular curriculum and can be used across the wide range of Early Years settings, regardless of their context or specific ideas on curriculum content. They illustrate those aspects of teaching that research has shown to be most effective with young children, providing objective standards to explore, reflect upon and implement.
With the use of these tools, school leaders, Early Years coordinators and classroom practitioners can work to ensure that quality interactions take place in their settings and to facilitate effective language development for the children in their care.