Why you should model everything and other great ways to create a language-rich early years environment, from Tasha Fletcher.

If children don’t hear about faraway enchanted castles above the clouds and magical wolves that blow houses down, how will they write stories about them? Children learn speech and language when adults talk to them. By having a better command of language, children will become more precise, detailed and expressive when they communicate and share the stories in their flourishing imaginations.

As an international early years practitioner for the past 19 years, I have discovered that the ability to speak and understand a child’s native tongue is a skill often undervalued by non-educators. This skill is especially important for educators who are caring for children that do not speak their native language and are bilingual – and in most cases as I have seen throughout the European Union, Asia and the Middle East: trilingual.

There is no one right way for children to learn or a set time for them to begin to speak; children reach speech and language developmental milestones at their own pace.

What does a language-rich environment look like in an Early Years international setting?

Did you say conversations?!

That’s right! Engaging children in conversations about things that interest them – like conkers, mud pies, tigers, water, giant leaves and worms is the best way to start vocabulary enrichment. Very young children need to have a lot of exposure to the sounds, words and grammar of the languages that they will one day use. Both quality and quantity matter. 1 High quality language exposure involves social interaction between children and other children, children and the adults in the environment, and through imaginative play, such as role playing a doctor visit or putting out the ‘Great fire of London!’

Imagination and role play

Provision and invitations to play, such as creating specific centres/spaces in or around the Early Years’ setting for role play scenarios, creates opportunities to provoke rich conversations where children can speak with confidence and fluidity. Putting new vocabulary into authentic situations is best done through pretend play with young children, such as my Reception class in Romania who were making stone soup out of salt dough “for a trip to the giant’s castle to save Jack, because he needs to be strong to cut down the beanstalk”.

Children learn a lot from each other and need to practise situations they have seen and heard through books and watching adults. The best way to develop this use of new language is through pretend play. As an Early Years Practitioner in mostly bilingual settings internationally, setting up situations in my classroom that provide opportunities to put new words and skills into practice daily, plays a tremendous role in the acquisition of language for the young children in my care. For example, after reading a book about taking care of animals, I would set up a veterinary clinic for pretend play.

While most Early Years practitioners would argue that this is part of everyday provision, opportunities for this type of continuous learning in international settings plays an even wider role in the enrichment and acquisition of language for young learners. This will not only give children an extensive range of vocabulary but crucially, help them understand how to apply it correctly.

What about modelling?

I do, we do, you do.

To me, the most important aspect of teaching language to young children is to model everything. Modelling helps support literacy in the classroom in many ways. As a facilitator, I am consistently modelling how to use new words in sentences through speaking and listening activities or giving instructions that require more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. I model how to use new ideas in pretend play and how to write words by tracing letters in the sand outdoors or mark-making activities indoors.

A classroom can be decorated perfectly and filled with the most expensive supplies, but unless the practitioner models how to use the materials and skills, those materials go to waste.

Putting the fun back into learning

Engaging young children in fun learning activities helps them to develop an excitement for learning language. For example, a trip outside in forest school to go on a bear hunt using language the children have heard during story time to find things in their local area, a scavenger hunt with pictures to help children recognise familiar objects while counting in Maths, or sorting seeds with colouring sheets that match the flashcard information, provides an artistic outlet that strengthens the connections between language and their understanding of the world and other common concepts. Building language learning into playtime and daily tasks will help young children absorb the language and build confidence.

Active learning through the arts

When we use singing and dancing (music and movement) to involve young children in a language, it reinforces concepts and connects sounds with words. For example, have you ever wondered why you may be able to sing a Spanish song you love without ever learning how to speak Spanish? This is because active learning makes learning the language come alive. It is the same for young children. As a child hears words put to music, they are better able to retain the information and immerse themselves in the learning process. For example, in an early years’ setting in Peru, I remember using familiar songs with English words to encourage the children to memorise longer phrases. Adding hand gestures and motions also helped to deepen the children’s ability to form a bond with the language.

Did someone say empowerment?

Young children are eager to learn and please adults, especially when learning a new language. Children naturally want to show off what they have learnt and are extremely proud of their accomplishments – and we should be too! For an Early Years practitioner, when teaching children something as complex as a new language, combatting frustration is key. Reinforcing these small accomplishments with enthusiastic praise leads to a feeling of empowerment for our youngest learners – plus, our own excitement is contagious and spurs the children on to learn more. This creates an even richer language environment; one in which everyone wins.

Setting goals and accomplishing those goals makes learning fun and rewarding, and it is through my own reflections and observations over the years spent in international settings that I have seen that the more we are invested in the children, the more likely they will be eager for more.

Children in the early years have unique and individual approaches to learning language. In addition to learning words, young children need to learn the differences in non-verbal communication, phrasing structure, humour and other aspects of communication for their language to become enriched. 

Providing an everyday context that intertwines language learning and life experiences will encourage young children to be receptive to learning in many different ways – and not just in print-rich environments.

References

  1. Byers-Heinlein, K. and Lee-Williams, C., ‘Bilingualism in the Early Years: What the Science Says’, Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6168212/?fbclid=IwAR3wlFtL_LnpK617lgAthredq-iuCM-Ud8i0Berj5fEIec25G7IoHRMXzog#R22 (Accessed 01/01/22)

Author

  • Tasha Fletcher

    Tasha Fletcher is an EYFS Head, mum of two boys, ELT Materials Writer, Podcaster, Teacher Trainer and Consultant, Travel Writer, DSL and a member of the GEC with 19 years’ experience in education, currently stationed in Tirana, Albania.

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