Learning and Development

How to Plan Your Environment to Boost Communication

  • How to Plan Your Environment to Boost Communication

Juliet Clark explains how staff in the award-winning Foundation Stage Unit at Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School put speech, language and listening at the heart of everything they do…

At Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School we endeavour to ensure that all experiences for children are characterised by high-quality interactions – be they between children and adults, or children and other children. There are several ways that this has been achieved, and the following could all be applied to practice at your own setting…

The environment

The quality of the environment and how it supports communication is very important – it is, after all, the child’s ‘third teacher’. With this in mind, areas at Robert Mellors are arranged with low-level displays, and are inviting and ‘cosy’. Neutral colours are used throughout, for displays and furniture, to reduce over-stimulation.

We have taken a research-based approach to ensure the spaces we have provide the best opportunities for language development. They are designed to foster emotional security, which children need to become confident learners, and we took the time to listen to children’s opinions when setting them up. This led us to create a home corner area inside and a cosy area outside. Both areas were planned and made with the children, giving them ownership of the space and real-life learning experiences (e.g. measuring, writing labels and rules, etc.).

All of our practitioners undertake training, either ‘Every Child a Talker’ (ECAT), a national project to develop the language and communication of children from birth to five years of age, or a Nottinghamshire-based training course, ‘Let’s Interact’: a three-part course, run by speech and language therapists, that includes reflection on practitioners’ existing language and communication development strategies, and opportunities for them to learn new strategies.

Our curriculum approach is to observe the children first – then take the learning in that direction. For example, a group of children built some goals using crates outside and wanted to play football. We provided large pieces of paper for writing signs, team names and score cards, and supported the children to take turns being in goal. To extend children’s vocabulary, key words are modelled to the children and used in context.

Following children’s interests in this way gives them a strong motivation to learn and engage, and levels of involvement are high.

Assessment & intervention

When children join Robert Mellors, their speaking, understanding, listening and attention levels are assessed. Progress is then monitored throughout the year, and where a child is working below their typical stage of development, an appropriate intervention will be put in place – for example:

● Talk Boost, an I CAN initiative for children with delayed language, is delivered three times a week for 20 minutes as part of a 10-week programme.

● Listening and Attention Groups, designed by Nottinghamshire speech and language therapists. These small group sessions are delivered by a trained practitioner twice a week for 10–15 minutes, with a focus on developing the skills needed for good listening and also extending language development.

Early intervention is especially important, and emphasis is placed on ensuring that early, timely and appropriate interventions are used. These interventions are also reviewed regularly; they may be adapted for a group, if needed, or a child may receive a different intervention that is more suitable.

The ongoing and everyday assessments are important here; we don’t wait till the end of a block of sessions to change or adapt. Our everyday assessments include recording snapshots of language used by each child, which helps us to accurately assess speaking levels. Sharing these assessments with parents is also useful when discussing a child’s next steps.

Working with parents

Information around speech and language is shared initially on a home visit, which every family receives prior to their child starting school. Where speech and language therapy has already been put in place, we ask for parents’ permission to share that information, so we can work on the areas suggested and support the child.

The speech and language therapists will then come and work alongside us in the Foundation Unit, and some ongoing assessments take place here also. In order to build relationships with parents and model good language supporting strategies, we invite parents in to a weekly ‘stay and play’ session in the Foundation Unit, which run from the school hall. These have been particularly successful and wellattended. Weekly information is shared with parents about what the children have been doing and we provide suggestions for home, too.

Multi-agency working

Working closely with other agencies has enabled us to support children well. Our strong links with Sure Start and the children’s centre speech and language therapists resulted in the development of the weekly ‘stay and play’ sessions mentioned above.

Here, we can get to know families before they start and also work together to ensure transition is good. For example, we share the same ‘nursery rhyme boards’, used at group times for children to select songs. These are simple symbol cards, used to represent a nursery rhyme, which can be chosen from a selection on a board.

Part of the Sure Start speech and language therapist role in Nottinghamshire includes working with parents and the early years workforce to develop skills in providing language-rich environments for children.

In addition, there is a strong emphasis on early intervention and supporting high-quality interventions for children with speech, language and communication needs. We have also worked closely with health visitors, conducting joint home visits.

Improving communication

With the right focus on supporting communication development, children can make accelerated progress from low starting points. Remember that engagement with parents, carers, local authorities and your practitioners can make all the difference. Your staff, in particular, are extremely valuable, and with the right training, they are your strongest asset.

Language strategies

● Less is more – talk less and listen more.

● Observe what children are doing first.

● Comment on play rather than ask a question.

● Repeat back what a child says,adding a word.

Develop your practice

To access more advice on supporting young children’s speech and language, visit these websites:

● Nottinghamshire Language For Life – nottslanguageforlife.co.uk

● Talk Boost intervention – ican.org.uk

● The Communication Trust – thecommunicationtrust.org.uk

● Have you employed the SSTEW (Sustained Shared Thinking and Emotional Wellbeing) Scale for 2–5-year-olds provision, by Iram Siraj et al? For more information, visit birthtosevenmatters.co.uk

Robert Mellors Primary and Nursery School Foundation Unit in Nottingham received the Early Years Setting of the Year Award at the 2015 Shine a Light Awards. Organised by Pearson in partnership with The Communication Trust, the Awards celebrate innovative work and excellent practice in supporting children and young people’s communication development.