For parents of children who are starting primary school in September, now is as good a time as any to make sure your little ones are prepared for the big day.
Education secretary Damian Hinds has aired concerns that more than a quarter of children starting primary school are unable to communicate in full sentences. “This matters, because when you’re behind from the start you rarely catch up,” he said. “Your peers don’t wait, the gap just widens.”
So how can parents help to give their little ones the best start at school? We sought advice from experts in reading, communication and teaching.
Teach them to communicate
Basic communication is essential for children starting school. Offering examples of this, Mary Hartshorne, head of evidence for children’s communication charity I CAN, tells HuffPost UK: “Typically by the time they start school they should be able to sit and listen for a period of time, they should be able to listen to two or three instructions at a time, and they should be able to string their words together into sentences to ask for what they want, or say what has happened in simple stories.” It also helps if they are able to respond to their name.
She says language skills are important for a range of reasons, but mainly that it helps kids feel confident and puts them on equal footing with other children in their class. It also helps them on their way to learning to read and, on a personal level, is crucial in helping them make friends.
For parents who need extra support for a child with communication issues, it’s vital that you speak to the school ahead of term so teaching staff can be as prepared as possible.
Teach them the importance of listening
In order to ready your children for the classroom it’s important to work on their listening skills. Hartshorne recommends clapping a rhythm and asking them to clap it back to you, singing nursery rhymes together or telling stories to help develop these skills.
To get them used to sitting and concentrating for periods of time, try sitting them down at home to draw, do artwork or a puzzle, or play a game. The latter, if played with other children, can also help teach the importance of taking turns, waiting and listening.
Teach them new classroom words
Get them ready to be exposed to new routines, words and phrases too, Hartshorne suggests. Concepts like “carpet time”, “find a partner” and “assembly” will all be quite alien to youngsters so you should try to teach them about what these mean ahead of term - you could do this using pictures if they don’t understand your verbal explanation.
Help them become readers
Talking to your kids is one of the single most important things you can do to prepare a child to learn to read, says Alex Charalambous, head of educational development at The Children’s Literacy Charity. “Building strong language skills and a rich vocabulary is foundational to the skill of reading,” she explains. “Wonder out loud about the things you see out of the window or when you’re out and about on a walk.”
Once children are at school, they will learn to read with a phonics approach. To prepare children for this, practise listening to sounds in the ambient environment, “from the clang of the dustbins to the thunk of the washing machine”. A fun way to practise this is by going on a listening walk and thinking about all the different sounds you can hear along the way, she suggests.
“As a next step, you could try learning letters and practising the sounds different letters and letter combinations make. The Department For Education’s video Articulation of Phonemes is available online and is a handy guide to how the different letters and letter groups are pronounced.” It’s worth noting that children will be practising these different sounds throughout Reception and Year 1, so don’t worry if it’s not something they pick up straight away.
Reading to, and with, little ones can also get them interested in reading – Charalambous recommends books with illustrations and rhyming patterns. “Even 15 minutes spent sharing stories each day can make a huge difference,” she adds.
Teach them to go to the toilet unaided
Anne Swift, president of the National Union of Teachers and a former Reception school teacher, said it’s important to involve children as much as possible in school preparations - this includes encouraging them to go to the toilet unaided at home so they are able to do this confidently at school.
Teach them to dress themselves
Educating your child on how to great undressed and dressed (in a basic fashion) is a key lesson prior to them starting primary school. It’s likely they’ll need to know this in order to take part in physical education (PE), as this requires a change of clothes.
Get them used to the new surroundings
Parents of children who are shy or anxious should try to make school familiar to them by removing as many of the “unknowns” as possible. Swift advises walking the route to school during the holidays.
When they eventually start school, she recommends bringing a small toy or object from home that they can keep in their pocket and “touch for reassurance”.
She previously told HuffPost UK: “Ask the teacher what songs, rhymes or stories they will be using in the first few weeks and then use these during the summer so they’ll be familiar when the teacher teaches them to the class.”