Jules Pottle explores how to embed subject-specific language at an early age…
Teachers are in conversation with children all day long. My voice is often croaky by the end of a school day, not through ‘teaching from the front’ but through being in constant conversation: listening, explaining, questioning, checking in with my children’s wellbeing.
In educational settings, we are constantly communicating and using vocabulary. We clarify and refine what children are saying to us and sometimes we playfully get it wrong to elicit more conversation with the child.
In my first few years as a teacher, I remember reading to the whole class from a text that was completely accessible to most of the children. One child, however, kept stopping me with questions, to the point where the flow of the story was completely lost.
I said, albeit gently, “Just listen… see if you can work out what is going on in the story,” to which she replied, “But there’s so much I don’t know!” That little voice has stuck with me.
As teachers, we need to make sure that children are immersed in language, in vocabulary and discussions about the meaning of those words. Conversation with children, where their words are listened to, respected and responded to thoughtfully, is what encourages children to keep talking.
We need to use as many words as possible, using them time and time again, from birth, to really give our children the best chance at accessing texts and thereby succeeding within our education system.
The early years classroom is the one place where a child’s personal interests can lead their education.
So, the first thing we need to do is listen to what a child is interested in and then seek to keep the conversation going, seeding that talk with vocabulary for the child to try out for themselves. There are particular questions which lead to conversations whilst others close them down.
Consider these two approaches to answering a child’s question:
Child: “If I put an ice cube in the puddle, will the whole puddle turn to ice?”
Adult 1: “No.”
Adult 2: “I don’t know. I’ve never tried. Shall we have a go? Where do you want to put the ice cube? What happened? That’s interesting – what would you like to try next?”
Which of these answers will do justice to the child’s question? Which will lead to the most conversation? We must all remember to keep the conversation going, like adult 2.
This has a particular importance when we consider science. There are many factors which contribute to our young people’s success in science at KS5 and beyond.
A recent study by the EEF and the Royal Society (2017) reported that: “...in correlational studies of science learning, the strongest and most consistent predictor of pupils’ scientific attainment has undoubtedly been how literate they are.”
It also reported that “the mediating role of reading comprehension between SES (socio-economic status) and science attainment is independent of measured intelligence.”
So, exposing all children, of all abilities, to a vocabulary-rich environment will raise attainment through improved reading and comprehension.
Reading stories with the language of science or history embedded within them will help children to access the vocabulary they need through their educational journeys, but non-fiction texts also play an essential role, even if they don’t seem as cosy when choosing a bedtime story.
The process of acquiring science-specific vocabulary needs to begin as early as possible to give every child the best chance at achieving their academic potential.
In short, there is a huge benefit to simply filling the environment with vocabulary, so listen to what children are saying and keep the dialogue going. Introduce science-specific words as early as you can.
There are many three-year-olds who can correctly use the names for dinosaurs. Why not extend this to plants, insects, types of material, science equipment, names of planets or words for processes like dissolve, melt, heat or freeze?
Fill the environment with books that will spark curiosity and conversation, setting those words in concrete memory, even before they are fully understood.
Jules Pottle is a teacher and author whose books include Jasper the Spider (Artful Fox Creatives, 2021).
Jules has worked on 1,000 Words STEM (DK, 2021) and 1000 Words Nature (DK, 2022). DK also has an Early Years Collection of books selected to support all areas of the new EYFS Statutory Framework.