Spoken language at the time of transition back to school

In recent weeks it seems every news website has articles about safety of staff and students, child mental health and the ‘post-covid attainment gap.’ And as we all work out how to sort through the multitude of issues it is worth considering the role of spoken language and its impact on the transition.

As they return to school children will need to learn new rules and routines. To understand these rules, children need to understand the language. Being told the rules over and over again will not help a child who does not understand the words.

Many children will be anxious, and support mechanisms are (rightly) being put in place. To express how they feel and to access mental health support, children need language. This is often overlooked but being able to reflect upon emotions and problem solve requires high level spoken language skills.

Children will be re-establishing relationships with peers, as well as school staff. To do so effectively, children need language. Many will be out of practice, particularly with dealing with larger groups. Rebuilding relationships is dependent on what we say and how we respond, so once again places demands on language skills.

And as they ease back into learning, children need to understand what is said to them as well as understand what they read, so once again it is language that underpins it all. The language we typically speak at home is less formal and simpler than what is used in the classroom, and so whilst many children will have had lots of talking time they may not have had that extended language that is required in the classroom.

The government has announced a number of initiatives aimed at diminishing the attainment gap, such as the Early Years support package (details here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/early-years-support-package-to-help-close-covid-language-gap) and the National Tutoring Programme (details here: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/covid-19-resources/national-tutoring-programme/) but what happens in the classroom will still be key. No one knows exactly what we are facing, but my plea is to think about spoken language as we move forward.

Here’s some general points to consider for spoken language:

  • If the information being conveyed is important, then make the language simple and visual. Include pauses and repeat. This is particularly important when introducing new rules or other non-negotiables. If you can, write social stories, take photographs or videos that show children what to do but require less language. They can be watched or read repeatedly. Involve families so they can repeat the rules as well.
  • Consider children’s emotional states even more than usual. When we are stressed or anxious it is harder to take in new information. If you’ve ever been given some unexpected bad news at the doctors’ and then walked out and thought ‘I can’t remember what she just said’ and ‘I should have asked so many questions’ you’ll be able to relate to anxious children who can’t interact optimally. Child need to be at ease to take in complex language.
  • Related to both of these points above is the need for routine. Establishing strong routines from the start reduces children’s working memory load as they can follow the same patterns automatically, but also makes them feel safer and so anxiety is reduced. Make the routines visual and repeat.
  • Reading to children of all ages exposes them to rich language and allows them to experience a range of emotions in a safe manner. It may be worth going at a slower rate than usual and leaving more opportunities for reflection and discussion. This will allow children to get back into the habit of extended listening as well as extra time for processing emotions.
  • Provide opportunities to develop social skills. It might be as simple as a one minute chat to a peer, role plays or small group talking challenges. Increased structure, reflection and feedback will support children to develop these skills. Find more ideas at https://noisyclassroom.com/primary-oracy-activities/
  • Language is linked to behaviour and many children with language difficulties express themselves through their behaviour. Under that façade of anger is often an unnoticed spoken language problem. But we must also pay attention to quiet children. There are children who naturally say less but have the words when they need them. There are also those who do not have the words we would expect. We need to know the difference. Seek out one to one conversations with quiet children. It might take a while to build rapport, but you will get a better feel of their spoken language skills. Information about supporting the most reluctant speakers is available at selectivemutism.org.uk

Spoken language will not solve every problem we are facing but giving it due consideration will ensure that more children are able to make this transition back to school more successfully.