Talk matters

This week, I was working with a teacher on a thinking activity for Reception children. We were carrying out a classification activity involving cards with pictures of six different mother and baby animals in six different colours and we were trying to encourage the children to verbalise their thinking by asking them to explain what they were doing. A child with autism and very limited language was in the group and the teacher was pleasantly surprised to hear him using animal names for the cards. When asked to pick three cards that were the same, he picked a random collection and the other children helped him put some back and make a collection of green animals.

Then we moved on to the tricky part of the activity – how to organise the cards so that all the colours were together and all the animals were together, essentially creating a two-way classification. This was tricky! Some of the more verbal children began the grid and slowly but surely, each child added a row, sometimes needing to move the odd card, so that colours were in rows AND animals in columns. Throughout, we asked them to explain what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Finally, there was one row left and the little boy with autism, who seemed to have been away with the fairies for most of the session, and certainly didn’t seem to have been listening, was given the blue cards one at a time. At first, repeating the word ‘rabbit’, he put his blue rabbit next to the cats. Another child explained to him why he was wrong and helped him move it next to the rabbits. Mouthing ‘dog’ he put his dog next to the ducks. Another child explained why this was wrong and this time, he moved the card himself to the correct location. And he then proceeded to place each of the additional four animal cards in the correct location, naming each one correctly. At which point his teacher wept with joy – she’d never seen him engage so successfully with learning.

We reflected after the lesson on what had helped this child engage with this very challenging activity.  We both believed that our careful interactions with the children which focused on getting them to verbalise their thinking, had helped him access the activity. He hadn’t seemed to be listening, but he obviously was.

Later on my way home, I read a new research report which analysed the impact of the implementation over three years of a child centred curriculum in Wales. The report showed that, whilst the new approach had raised attainment and improved wellbeing over all, there were some underlying issues with the quality of its implementation that seemed to link to lower attainment gains for certain groups of children, and specifically those from deprived backgrounds.

Whilst all schools studied claimed to believe in a child centred approach, there was variation in terms of the degree of child centred-ness – and the less child centred a class was, the less improvement there was to attainment. Believing in it was different to actually operationalising it. In schools with a more deprived intake, children were more likely to experience ‘didactic’ teaching, with closed instead of open questioning. There was less peer collaboration.  Interactions between teacher and children, and between children, were less likely to be characterised as ‘warm’, with more giving of instructions than praise and encouragement. The report notes that this kind of interaction would be more likely to form the backbone of a ‘traditional’, rather than ‘child-centred’ teaching approach.

There is an argument raging in the Twitter-sphere about the merits of ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’ approaches to teaching. Is it really the approach that makes the difference to children’s learning?  Or is it about the way we manage interactions within that approach?  How do we make sure our interactions with children are ‘warm’, that they encourage listening, talk and collaboration and that they extend thinking and vocabulary. This is what really enables high quality learning, and we saw it live in the classroom!

Find out how to extend children’s vocabulary at our next Journal Club, where we will be unpicking the excellent Closing The Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley  – join the session for free!

Explore what quality talk looks like in the Early Years classroom on our new programme for Early Years Teaching Assistants.

Watch the video of the lesson described in this blog here.