Imagine the scene. A parent and a young child wait for a bus. For ten minutes, they talk about where they are going, why the bus is late before distracting themselves by spotting the number of blue cars on the road. Vans don't count, but minibuses do.
Years ago, such scenes were commonplace as adults and children interacted whilst they cooked, hung out the washing and walked to the shops. Today when I see such scenes, I feel like cheering wildly. This type of interaction is the equivalent of a child winning the developmental jackpot! Conversations that last ten or so minutes especially when they are on a 1:1 or 1:2 build children's language. And language opens so many other life changing doors. The ability to think, for example, is grounded in language. Those little moments when you find yourself talking aloud is a glimpse of your thinking self. We use language to organise our thoughts, problem-solve and reason. Language is the route into abstract thinking and so gives us access into subjects involving logic and complex thought.
It is also needed to learn to read and write. When we talk about literacy, we are really talking about words that have been coded. Learning the code or the letter shapes and how they relate to sounds is a useless activity, unless children has words and thus language in the first place.
Language is also essential in controlling our emotions and socialisation. How often when faced with a difficult situation, have you 'told yourself' to be more patient or crucially not to say something as it will make things worse? The ability to control your actions through the power of thought and reflection is known as self-regulation. Children who have lower levels of language are unfortunately less able to access a wiser inner voice. They are likely to be impulsive and get themselves into trouble. One only has to look at the difference between a typically developing two year old and a four year old who is likely to be a fluent language user to see the impact of language on self-regulation. Gone are the tantrums and 'I see it, I want it' behaviours so typical of the toddler. Instead, we see children who can co-operate with others, concentrate and play in quite sophisticated ways. It is the ability of the child to use language that has allowed these developmental doors to open.
Given that language is so crucial to many aspects of children's development, it is not perhaps surprising that both Ofsted and Save the Children have focused on it in their recent reports about disadvantaged children. Whilst the Ofsted report, 'Unknown children: Destined for disadvantage', considers a range of factors that need to come together to reduce disadvantage, Save the Children have focused entirely on language in relation to boys' development.
According to Save the Children's report, 'The Lost Boys: How boys are falling behind in their early years', 90,000 boys are thought to be affected by having low levels of language at aged five. The report cites what the impact is on boys and comes up with several suggestions as to how to move forward. It is great to see that they view early years settings as part of the answer, although with some caveats. They urge, for example, that higher numbers of graduate level staff are employed citing the correlation between children's outcomes and the level of qualification of staff. It will be interesting to see whether the findings in this report will be taken on by the new Secretary of State for education, given that previous governments have toyed with minimum entry GCSE requirements alongside an increase in graduates.
Also in the Save the Children's report is a recognition boys may be missing out on language both at home and in early years settings, because they are not accessing activities that develop language. In terms of early years, I believe that early years practitioners needs to reflect carefully on this point. I suspect that in some settings there is a chicken and egg situation. Boys (and some girls too) with weaker language levels go to activities that do not require high levels of language. This is then construed by practitioners as an active choice rather a default position. I would urge any practitioner who routinely says 'we are following the children's interests' to think very carefully about the reasons why children are making certain choices. Could it be for example, that a child who does not access the book area, has not yet experienced the delights 1:1 story with a book at their language level. Or could it be that the child who is endless going round on the tricycle, not been invited to have a go at pumping up a tyre alongside an adult?
Early years settings also have a role in helping parents to understand that a few minutes conversation everyday can be the trigger for their child's success. There is no magic formula to the type and range of activities and conversations that parents need to have with their children. As long as it is enjoyable for both the child and the adult, simply chatting can be amazingly effective.
Finally, in my view whilst welcoming the focus on disadvantaged children by these two reports coming in close succession, I am disappointed that neither seems to focus on the need for more adults to be available for children. With the exception of childminders who have favourable adult-child ratios, some children are in settings which are staffed to the minimum legal ratio. This means that a three year old in a school nursery where the minimum ratio is 1:13 is unlikely to get several of those ten minute magical 1:1 conversations every day.