Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Supporting communication and language in the early years

A recent report in the Telegraph states that thousands of children who are starting school ‘struggle to speak properly’: they cannot ask questions, use full sentences or follow simple instructions and they lack the basic communication and language skills needed to make themselves heard in a busy classroom. This is worrying, especially as we are told that vocabulary knowledge in the early years is a strong predictor of academic success.

We know that, to consolidate any new skills including communication and language, children need to be given lots of time to practice. They need plenty of uninterrupted time during the day to chat to friends and adults, repeat and use new words, ask and answer questions, be involved in small group activities etc in the early years provision and at home.

In early years provision, observation suggests that children with poor speech and language often choose to play with other children rather than engage in adult led activities where new language can be taught and current language scaffolded: built on during sensitive interventions by practitioners who know the child well.

A discussion paper from the Literacy Trust looks at some of the most common explanations as to why quality interactions might not be happening in children’s home and family lives and points to parents work patterns, smaller family groups, lack of family time spent together eg eating at the table or adults playing with children as some of the reasons.

Tracking progress

In the early years, providers should be consistently tracking children’s progress in communication and language (listening and attention, understanding and speaking) and should note if a child is at risk of ‘falling behind’. Progress tracking (including completing the statutory 2 year progress check) allows practitioners to ensure children are making good progress and alerts them to concerns when they might, for example, advise parents to ask for intervention from other agencies or professionals.

Ongoing tracking should be completed using Ofsted’s tracker of choice - Early Years Outcomes. A copy of Early Years Outcomes should be in each child’s file and observations should show the child making good progress. It is important to note that Early Years Outcomes is not and was never intended to be a tick or checklist.

Further tracking information, if providers are concerned about a child’s communication and language, including social communication guidance, is available from Every Child a Talker (ECAT).

English as an additional or second language

A survey of London schools in 2000 revealed that more than 30% of all schoolchildren speak a language other than English at home and there are more than 300 languages spoken and a further report from 2013 states that there are more than a million children between 5–18 years old in UK schools who speak in excess of 360 languages between them.

It is highly likely that this percentage has increased in recent years both in London and across the country.

When tracking the progress of children who do not speak English as their first language, EYFS (2014) requirement 1.7 states that, ‘practitioners must assess children’s skills in English. If a child does not have a strong grasp of English language, practitioners must explore the child’s skills in the home language with parents and/or carers, to establish whether there is cause for concern about language delay.’

The EYFS also states that practitioners must support children’s home language and teach them English, providing children with ‘sufficient opportunities to learn and reach a good standard in English language during the EYFS.’

If parents want to track their child’s progress at home, there is a free communication and language progress checker for parents from Talking Point which can be used alongside the activity ideas in ‘What to Expect When? A parents guide’.

Early intervention

Interventions in the early years setting might include daily storytelling and song sessions, with children working in small groups to gain the maximum benefit from adult interactions. Targeted communication tools are also available, such as these Toddler Talk cards.

During our recent Ofsted inspection (April 2016), our inspector asked to see evidence of how we use Letters and Sounds with our pre-school children.

I have written Information Guides for gold members about Letters and Sounds Phase 1 and was able to show the inspector how our planning and children’s observations links to the Letters and Sounds games we play in the provision – and ideas for children’s home learning which we provide for parents of pre-school children.

Daily routines should be organised to allow time for communication and language: activities with adults playing alongside them and guiding their interactions; adult-led activities where adults model language; meal and snack times when adults sit with children, play games and chat to them; times to sing and dance together; practitioners who are always available to the children, playing their games and being interested in what they are doing.

High quality resources are an important part of supporting children’s communication and language development. Of course, the most important resource is the playfully engaged adult who chats, asks open-ended, interested questions (and waits for answers) and takes an interest in what the children are doing.

Resources that promote imaginative play help the children to make sense of their world and can be great for supporting communication; activities such as messy play times allow practitioners to sit and play alongside the children, modelling new language and building on previous learning; sequencing toys allow practitioners and children to work together, solving puzzles and developing critical thinking skills (characteristics of effective learning).

Activities can be targeted to support communication and language across all 7 areas of learning in the EYFS. For example, puzzles or baking will support children’s maths language; repetitive child-friendly books and comics which feature children’s favourite characters will build a love of literacy; singing songs and listening to CDs will promote learning across different areas of art and design; puppets will build imagination and bring stories alive etc.

Sharing activity ideas with home

It is, of course, important that parents are fully involved in their child’s time in the provision – daily diaries, emails, blogs, secret Facebook groups etc can all be used to engage them.

The EYFS also states that we must provide parents with ideas for home learning. This poster from the communication charity I Can might be displayed in the setting and displays might be put up on the parents noticeboard, suggesting one communication and language tip every month to catch parents attention and further engage them in their child’s learning.

Further activity ideas and games for parents linked to Letters and Sounds Phase 1 and children’s current interests in the setting might be shared with parents during daily discussions.

Pre-school children might enjoy taking a book bag home each week - put together a small cloth bag which contains:
• An A5 writing book
• A pencil case with a rubber, sharpener and a few coloured pencils
• A few stickers for parents to use in the writing book
• A ‘reading with your child’ activity sheet
• A letter for parents explaining that their child will bring home a book each week and you would like them to draw a picture and write a story about the book in their own words.
Each week let the child/ren borrow a book (ask parents to sign a list of who has which book) and encourage them to write and draw pictures about the story after their parents have read it to them.

At the same time, you could display different ‘reading at home’ tips each week or month for parents to support them at home and website links such as this one from Book Trust on ‘how to share books’ are useful to give to parents.

I hope you have found some useful ideas in this blog to support your communication and language planning and tips for sharing activity ideas with children’s parents.

Thank you! Sarah
Knutsford Childminding

Monday, 30 May 2016

Observing the learning characteristics

I have written lots of blogs about the learning characteristics ... here is another one! I keep trying to share the information in different ways so that it is accessible to everyone.

Observing the characteristics of effective learning
Each of the learning characteristics is split into 3 sections – and there are examples of observations you might spot given for each section. The 3 sections help you to describe, in your paperwork and when chatting to parents, how the child is learning. You can then use what you have observed in your planning.
Let’s look at the characteristics in more detail –

Characteristic 1 - playing and exploring – you are being asked to observe the child’s engagement in activities. What does ‘engagement’ mean? Engagement describes when a child is curious and wants to learn more about what is happening. They have their own interests (schemas and learning styles) and they are positive about challenges.

Finding out and exploring Playing with what they know Being willing to ‘have a go’
• The child is curious about what is happening around them;
• The child explores using their senses;
• The child enjoys activities for the sake of them – not just because there is an end product;
• The child uses a schema • The child role plays by themselves – using the buggy, making tea etc
• The child uses a block or banana as a telephone
• The child pretends to be someone else in their play
• The child joins in with other children’s role play • The child involves other children in their play
• The child wants to challenge their learning and understanding
• The child is positive about what they are doing and keeps trying
• The child takes risks to try something new

Remember – not all children display all learning characteristics at the same time. Think about your own learning characteristics – do you prefer to read a book or listen to an audio book or watch the film? Children are just the same as you – they have favourite learning characteristics which you can develop and support through your planned and free play activities (routines) and any extra planned learning activities you provide for them. Have a look through the characteristics and see if you can work out some links -
• Jane talks about an outing at the weekend with her family… links to playing and exploring - ‘finding out and exploring’;
• Janet makes a cup of tea… links to playing and exploring - ‘playing with things they know;
• John struggles but carries on and finishes… links to active learning - ‘keeping on trying’;
• Jane says that if you add water to the oats they ‘might go fluffy’… links to creating and thinking critically ‘making links’.

Characteristic 2 – active learning – you are being asked to consider whether a child is motivated to learn. Do they want to learn? Are they interested in what is happening around them?

Being involved and concentrating Keeping on trying
Enjoying achieving what they set out to do
• The child can concentrate for longer periods of time when they are enjoying something
• The child is fascinated / involved / excited in their play
• The child sits and works something out
• The child looks at things around them in detail / points things out • The child does not give up, even when the going gets tough
• The child tries to do things in different ways
• The child copes with a problem and tries again
• The child struggles but refuses to give up
• The child asks for help and is determined to finish a game or work something out • The child is proud of their achievements
• The child is proud of trying – not just succeeding
• The child copes with disappointment when something goes wrong
• The child enjoys challenges – not just to get a sticker or praise – but challenges for their own sake

Remember – you are less likely to spot learning characteristics in a very little one – aged under 1. While the EYFS expects us to use the learning characteristics for all children, you need to think about how you can provide experiences to help little ones develop the characteristics.
For example, you might –
• Provide lots of sensory play to help a child enjoy exploring and using their senses;
• Introduce challenging games and support the little one to try – even if he doesn’t succeed just yet because he is too small;
• Talk about what is happening and point out places and things of interest so babies learn to look carefully at the world around them;
• Take babies on outings and plan lots of outside play so they learn about the world around them – expose them to the weather (not extremes obviously) but let them learn what rain and sun feel like on their faces;
• Encourage little ones to guess ‘how many do you think?’ or ‘what do you think is happening?’ in stories and when watching television;
• Provide activities that stimulate all the senses so babies learn to use them all;
• Praise a little one for trying as well as succeeding;
• Help little ones to make choices and ask them what they prefer to do / wear / eat etc, even if they cannot respond clearly yet.

Characteristic 3 – creating and thinking critically – you need to think about the ways the child thinks and how you can use these to support their learning. We all think in different ways – some children are leaders and others prefer to follow… some children talk a lot about home and family life while others are more reticent to share information… some children work out how to do things while others get quickly frustrated… what sort of thinkers do you look after every day?

Having their own ideas Making links Choosing ways to do things
• The child thinks up new games
• The child finds new ways to solve problems
• The child watches other children and learns from them, trying out new things in their own play
• The child wants to add something new to a game to change the play
• The child thinks up new ways to do things • The child uses learning from home or another setting to solve a similar problem
• The child can predict / guess what might happen next
• The child tests their ideas eg they try to do something even if it might not work.
• The child learns about cause and effect – if he does xx then yy will happen • The child can plan their time
• The child solves problems by thinking them through
• The child can make choices
• The child makes decisions about what they want to do
• The child recognises he might need to change how he is doing something
• The child can review and consider how well / badly things went

Remember – it’s not just about spotting a child using a learning characteristic in their play. It’s also about using your observations of the child’s learning characteristics to plan for future learning. So when you observe a learning characteristic, think about how you can plan.
Here are some examples…
• Jane is learning through a transporting schema – provide lots of baskets, bags and small toys that she can transport in the house – and a buggy and dolls in the garden (playing and exploring – finding out and exploring);
• Janet enjoys playdough – and next time you play with it she says she wants to add the lavender scent she smelled in the garden (creating and thinking critically – having their own ideas);
• John tries to get the jigsaw piece into the space over and over again before deciding to turn it another way (creating and thinking critically – choosing ways to do things / active learning – being involved and concentrating);
• Jack picks up a block and pretends it is a telephone. He makes a call to mummy to tell her about something he has just done in the garden (playing and exploring – playing with what they know).

I hope you find it useful. Chat soon, Sarah x

PS E-book 59 'Characteristics of Learning' contains a lot more detail. You can buy it for £3.99 from my Knutsford Childminding website. Thank you.

Planning for play and learning

Here at Knutsford Childminding we believe that providing a child with fun and playful learning experiences is far more important than completing lengthy paperwork – and our Ofsted inspector agreed with this ethos during our recent inspection, awarding us both an outstanding grade (April 2016). Our inspector didn’t want to see hundreds of observations or complicated planning – she wanted to see how we were supporting each child to make the best possible progress towards school readiness.

We are 2 childminders who work together. During our outstanding inspection (April 2016), our Ofsted inspector focussed on –

Routines and how well we support the individual child. We explained that we ask parents for lots of information before a child starts in our care and update the child’s ‘All about Me’ document regularly as they grow and change.

Starting points – the focus of the ‘teaching, learning and assessment’ part of our Ofsted inspection was on how well each child is making progress from their starting points so we showed our inspector how we ask parents to provide us with really good starting points - and we do our own baseline assessment during a child’s first few weeks in our care.

We use Early Years Outcomes when we are doing all our tracking of children’s progress because we know that it is Ofsted’s tracker of choice and we noticed that our inspector looked to see we had a copy for each child in their file.

We also provide parents with the parents guide to Early Years Outcomes from Foundation Years called ‘What to expect, when?’ – we email a new version when a child is moving through the ages and stages as well.

Observations and how they link to the child’s individual planning – we are watching and listening to every child all day every day and we don’t feel the need to write down everything we see and hear! We use our play plan to note a few key observations through the month and our ‘next steps’ / individual planning sheets link to our play plans (more information to follow).

Group planning and how it teaches children about the world in which they live including local and global festivals and celebrations. We inform parents what group planning we are doing with the children in our newsletters and always include ideas for activities families might like to follow-up at home. We are very flexible with our group planning and adapt our learning environment, outings, resources etc to accommodate children’s interests and changing needs.

We share our group planning ideas with gold members here – they can be easily adapted for the individual child.

Tracking and how it shows children are making progress – we update each child’s tracking every term (December, April and August). Parents can see their child’s tracker at any time – it’s in their Learning Journey file – and we provide parents with a short summary every term so they know how their child is getting on.


Our play plan

Note - this play plan has been written by me – Sarah Neville. I share it freely with other practitioners to support their CPD – everyone works differently and I expect it to be changed / adapted but I do not want to find it on eBay!

Every week / month we complete a play plan for each child. We add parents comments about their child’s home learning as well. The first page of the play plan talks about –

- The main ‘next steps’ we are currently working on with parents and the child – linked to previous observations, the Early Years Outcomes guidance and the document ‘What to expect, when? A parents guide’. We email parents every term with a scan of their child’s next steps sheet which contains things we are doing here and ideas for activities families might want to try at home.

Note – the statutory requirements of the EYFS tell us that we must focus on the prime areas of learning (communication and language, physical development and personal, social and emotional development) until they are established – that’s why we record them on a child’s play plan – to help us focus on the most important skills they need for starting school.

- The things the child has enjoyed doing during the week – toys or books they have read, games they have chosen to play, things they have explored and learned etc. We cannot possibly tell parents everything each child has done during the day – that would mean writing instead of playing! We aim to give parents an overview and there is more information in the child’s daily diary (up to the age of 2 / 3) – and parents can always ask us if their child says something at home that doesn’t make sense!

- How we have supported the child’s learning – including activities and experiences we have planned especially for each child. This doesn’t record everything we have done with every child over the week of course – that would be impossible – it just focuses on one or 2 activities each child has especially enjoyed.

- The child’s wellbeing and involvement in activities generally through the month. It is a requirement of the EYFS (our statutory framework) to note if a child’s wellbeing changes so we find it useful to make a quick note every month.



Baby aged 1 year – 12 months
I have enjoyed – standing to walk (PD); joining in at song time waving my arms around and laughing (C & L / PSED); pointing and shouting to get the attention of other children (PSED).
Supporting learning – we have put photos of little one and parents on the wall and in a little photo album (focus on PSED – promoting a sense of belonging).

Child aged 3 years 2 months – 38 months
I have enjoyed – making train tracks with friends (PD / PSED); role playing with small world toys (PSED / A & D); reading favourite books from home (C & L).
Supporting learning – minibeast week – we have been exploring minibeasts in the garden and at the park – amazing artwork attached! (focus on UW and maths - patterns).

The second page of our play plan includes -

- A few short observations linked to Early Years Outcomes – we chat about observations and ask each other – are they meaningful? What do they tell us about the child? Are they showing the child making progress?

- A note about any learning characteristics we have spotted during the observation. Learning characteristics note how a child learns – you will find more information in this blog.

- A note about the child’s wellbeing and involvement during the activity we have observed.


Before we write an observation we ask ourselves – is it meaningful? Does it tell us something about the child’s learning or development? Is it worth writing down and sharing with parents? Observations come from all over the place – inside the house, in the garden, on outings, at home and in other settings the child attends.


Baby aged 1 year – 12 months
Observation – we were playing with balls and baby rolled a ball to me and I rolled it back again. Baby was very excited, clapping her hands and squealing. We carried on the game for quite a long time!
Main EYFS links – PSED (taking turns); physical (handling); C & L (communicating through noises and actions).
Learning characteristics – playing and exploring (engaging in activities); active learning (sticking with an activity).
Engagement and wellbeing – high.

Child aged 3 years 2 months – 38 months
Observation - we went to the park with our magnifying glasses, the camera and some binoculars to look for minibeasts. The child found lots of woodlice under a log, spotted butterflies with beautiful patterns on their backs and watched a bee dipping from flower to flower collecting nectar. On our return the child wanted to make a butterfly - we used paints and chalk.
Main EYFS links – maths (patterns & symmetry), physical (handling), understanding the world (the world).
Learning characteristics – playing and exploring (engaging in activities); active learning (fascinated by learning); creating and thinking critically (making links in learning).
Engagement and wellbeing – high.


Other ways we document each child’s learning

I have talked about the next steps sheet we write every term. We are constantly thinking about what each child might enjoy learning next both here and at home. We aim to keep it simple and – that word again – meaningful. We use a combination of different types of individual / next steps planning including each child’s daily routines, their current interests and learning styles, next steps linked to observations and parent comments – our planning is always flexible and totally child-centred.


We often add a page with a few photos and notes about what each child was doing / saying – the photos are usually chosen by the child. The number of photos we include in each Learning Journey file varies depending on what we have been doing during the month. Parents can also see photos in our group activity albums which we aim to update regularly.

Every term we write a short summary of each child’s progress (see tracking), highlighting the things they have achieved or done and their current age / stage linked to Early Years Outcomes. It is important we monitor each child’s progress regularly so we can let parents know when they are making progress and, of course, spot any concerns quickly. We talk to parents about their child’s summary assessment and share their child’s tracking.

It is a statutory requirement of the EYFS to write a 2 year progress check for every child between the ages of 2 and 3, regardless of whether they are full or part time in the provision. We write our progress checks for children at Knutsford Childminding at 26 months.


Throughout the year we think about how each child’s learning characteristics are evolving and reflect on ways to support them through our planning. We will share these observations of learning characteristics with parents and ask about what characteristics children are using currently at home. The more we know about each child’s play and learning at home the better!

We use ECAT (Every Child a Talker) to support children’s communication and language – ECAT is a nationally recognised way of tracking to ensure children are making good progress.

You can find more information about ECAT on the Foundation Years website here.

For school starters, we have a year of activity ideas which we send parents monthly by email through the year leading to September. Our planning helps us to work closely with parents and any other settings children attend, focussing on different areas of learning each month. We aim to ensure each child is well prepared for the next big adventure in their life – starting school!

When a child leaves our care we write a short transition report and give it to parents, asking them to pass it on to their next setting. As you can see in the example above, we use the same templates for our termly summary reports, 2 year progress check and transition report so we can clearly see the progress each child is making throughout their time with us.

Supporting colleagues

I write and sell a range of e-books for early years providers who want to know how we do things here at Knutsford Childminding! The e-books are well priced – my aim is to ensure they are accessible to everyone. Some of my e-books which are relevant here include 'Learning journeys' (e-book 28), 'EYFS observations' (e-book 14), 'Characteristics of effective learning' (e-book 59), 'Summary reports' (e-book 64) 'Next steps planning' (e-book 65)... and mini e-books including 'Children's starting points (mini 59), 'Children's learning styles' (mini 74) and '2 year progress checks' (mini 78).

I also write a range of Information Guides which are free for gold members on the website.

Further Provision Planning guides focus on the 7 areas of learning and how they can be used to enhance teaching.

Please contact me through my website, on the Childminding Forum or Independent Childminders Facebook group if you have any questions.

Early years providers - you will find further information for all early years professionals including childminders on my Independent Childminders website here.

Parents - you will find advice for parents about various aspects of the EYFS and how it is used on this blog.

I provide a training and consultancy service locally on all aspects of the EYFS and early years - you can find information about the courses I deliver here.

Thank you. Sarah.