Working together to raise children’s language and emergent literacy

Issue: Volume 99, Number 2

Posted: 14 February 2020
Reference #: 1HA5Rc

An initiative that enhances language-rich environments in Tairāwhiti early childhood centres has resulted in a 60% drop in referrals to Learning Support from centres that have completed the programme.

In 2015, Ministry of Education’s Learning Support began to discuss concerns with the Gisborne Kindergarten Association (GKA) about the high number of referrals for Early Intervention Communication in the Tairāwhiti region.

“Our community was reporting some five-year-olds were arriving at school with low language levels, and that has an impact on literacy. We weren’t meeting the needs of the community and needed to do something different. The earlier we can address communication concerns, the better for our tamariki,” says Sarah Willson, Ministry of Education service manager for Learning Support in Gisborne. 

It was decided to take a systemic approach to offer all early childhood centres the opportunity to train in Learning Language and Loving it (LLLi), a programme designed to provide early childhood educators with practical, research-based strategies for helping all children build languages and social skills, regardless of their learning and communication styles. 

The programme aims to promote children’s language development using everyday activities, routines and play. It also encourages kaiako to become attuned to children’s interests, culture and identity, reflecting the evidence that a stronger focus on language and literacy enables kaiako to affirm children’s culture and identity and home language(s).

Fifty-one early childhood teachers and five new entrant teachers in Tairāwhiti have taken up the opportunity to train in the LLLi programme.

Sarah says strong language foundations are essential for the development of literacy skills. “The focus of the programme is to support all aspects of language development and weave aspects of literacy throughout. For example, turning book reading into a conversation where children can use visuals and their experiences to story-tell,” she says.

Successful partnership

The Gisborne Kindergarten Association uses Ministry of Education funding to support other Early Learning Services in the region. The association’s professional leader, Christine Taare and senior teacher, David Spraggs, became LLLi facilitators in 2016 and have co-delivered the programme to ECE teachers in the region along with Learning Support speech language therapists (SLT).

Referral rates for early intervention communication dropped 60 per cent between 2016 and 2019 in centres that completed the LLLi programme.

“It’s a win-win when you are able to have two sets of expertise working well together.
We run the programme with a speech language therapist. They are able to share all their expertise, and with our knowledge as kaiako and kaiawhina, we can link that learning right back into the teachers’ practice,” Christine explains. 

Video coaching powerful

The LLLi programme includes video coaching, which brings about the biggest change in teacher practice.  

“Teachers go through stages of adult learning development where they reflect on their practice and implement changes using the strategies. By the end of the programme, with support from the facilitators, teachers become confident and competent in creating a strong, language-rich environment for all tamariki,” Sarah says.

The programme aims to make communication between teacher and children more balanced. 

“When we compare videos 10 weeks later, you notice the balance of communication has become really even. Children find ‘this adult is attuned to my interests and needs’ rather than being in a teacher-led environment. This is more empowering for tamariki,” explains Sarah. 

The strategies eventually become second nature and kaiako now report they feel very confident about providing language development strategies.

Kete of strategies

The LLLi programme offers a kete of strategies to support teachers to develop enriched language environments. 

The programme aligns with early childhood curriculum Te Whāriki (2017), which outlines the expectation for early learning services to provide a rich curriculum that includes opportunities for children to express themselves through gesture and words. 

As such, the LLLi programme provides these rich opportunities for children to develop their oral language and social skills and supports kaiako to build on this growth as described in Communication | Mana Reo strand of
Te Whāriki. This strand encourages teachers to take the time to listen and respond to children so that they learn that their ideas are of interest; research shows this has a positive impact on a child’s oral language development. 

Through LLLi, teachers learn to observe, wait and listen – which can be challenging but helps them follow a child’s lead – and then offer a few appropriate words to encourage the child to engage in the conversation. Teachers encourage children to kōrero about what interests them at the language level they are at.

“Sometimes when we are trying to create a really enriched language environment, it can be overwhelming for some children as people can actually talk too much. It’s important to create opportunities for children to communicate back – that’s a really fine balance,” explains Sarah.

Time for kōrero

Christine says LLLi reminds busy early childhood teachers to be totally present and focus on the quality of their conversations with tamariki.

“Some key aspects from the programme are about building relationships and quality interactions that grow language by following children’s lead and extending their verbal and non-verbal communication.

“Teachers from our rohe say it has really improved their interactions with children. It’s all about developing emerging literacy within the play environment and looking at conversation as a key activity to grow language by following children’s lead and learning how to extend conversations,” she says.

Building a language-rich environment can be woven into every aspect of the day. Sarah suggests making opportunities to spend quality time with small groups of children, whether it’s having a conversation at kai time; or a teacher staying inside with a small group, even if it’s just in 10-minute intervals. 

Language and wellbeing

The kindergartens and early learning centres have seen enhanced emotional and social competencies due to LLLi, says Christine.

“That is one of the key things – it’s not only focusing on language development, but also helping teachers to manage and support children with positive strategies. If they don’t have the words to communicate and become frustrated because adults are not understanding their needs, unwanted behaviours sometimes occur.

“If we can help to create more language-rich environments early for children, it sets them up for school and kura much more successfully,” adds Sarah.

“Communication and behaviour tend to go hand in hand. We find that older children who can’t communicate very well may need our behavioural services if we haven’t addressed communication concerns earlier,” she says.

The LLLi programme also aligns with He Māpuna te Tamaiti, a new Ministry resource that supports kaiako to use proactive and positive approaches in teaching practice, including a strong focus on strengthening children’s oral language and communication capabilities. 

Language enrichment ideas

  • Start with some non-verbal play to build relationships and trust with tamariki before you begin to kōrero.
  • OWL – observe, wait, listen; give children time and space to talk and be heard.
  • Don’t pepper children with questions: use the ‘hand rule’ with one question
    (the thumb) for every four (the fingers) comments. 
  • A short amount of language-rich conversation with small groups can be very effective.
  • Pair children with similar or slightly advanced language levels so that tamariki gain confidence and have an achievable role model for language.  
  • Video coaching is a powerful tool to provide real-time insights into adult interactions and learning opportunities with tamariki. 

Cultural pride helps language development

In recent years the Gisborne Kindergarten Association (GKA) has focused on upskilling teachers in their knowledge of te reo Māori, tikanga and whakapapa for better outcomes for tamariki and whānau. The association has provided professional learning and development (PLD) such as regular noho marae (marae stays) for all teaching teams to immerse them in te reo Māori and tikanga marae.  

Christine Taare says the PLD is helping teachers to strengthen bicultural practice and become deeply connected with iwi, hapū and the local community.

“Language is an important part of one’s cultural identity and heritage to grow pride, mana and dignity. It’s important for kaiako to go to tamariki marae to meet whānau, learn waiata and their history. When they go back to the kindergarten, it all comes alive because kaiako, whānau and tamariki can collaborate and share their experiences and stories. Whānau are now a lot more willing to share because they know it’s going to be appreciated and it’s not just tokenism.

“Our teachers are passionate about what they are seeing when children are feeling strong about who they are. Tamariki and whānau feel a strong sense of pride and appreciation that teachers are taking the time to learn, respect and appreciate Te Ao Māori. It’s a key foundation for children to be strong in their language, culture and identity,” she says.

Connecting with the region’s various marae helps kaiako and whānau to develop authentic and localised curricula that reflect the stories, history and values of iwi within Tairāwhiti.

“Tamariki are more engaged because of the work we have been doing and I think this is also reflected in the lower referral rates to Learning Support,” she says.

Teacher kōrero

Meredith Stewart from Rutene Road Kindergarten in Gisborne has completed the LLLi programme, first as a teacher, and then as a facilitator.

What did you like most about the LLLi programme?

The programme is interactive; by attending workshops with other teachers we share experiences, gain new knowledge and understanding. I like having support from the facilitator visiting my centre and observing my teaching practice as I am using the strategies. 

This valuable feedback helped strengthen my overall practice. The programme provides new thinking and reflection, from what roles teachers play, the ways children learn language and how to effectively support the growth of all children across a range of language developmental stages.  

Has LLLi improved the literacy of tamariki at your centre? If so, how?

Yes it has, hugely. As a team, kaiako have gained the foundation knowledge of what makes an effective communicator and understanding of the roles we as teachers play in language development and conversational styles. With this knowledge, kaiako are able to observe and reflect on the language we use when engaging with tamariki. 

Has LLLi enhanced the emotional and social competencies of tamariki at your centre? If so, how?

Definitely. Through the programme, kaiako are more tuned to the different conversational styles of tamariki and are able to engage in language to support them. We were aware that frustration to communicate can create behavioural challenges. As a team, we are consistent with the language strategies we use and are seeing the benefits throughout the kindergarten environment.  

We have seen growth in tamariki who know we are listening; they are understood, valued and are learning new ways of communication. We are supporting them to develop the language skills to support them for their future learning and life journey.

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BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:33 am, 14 February 2020

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