Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the United Kingdom Reading Association (EY 29)


  The United Kingdom Reading Association is a long established professional body of teachers, researchers, lecturers, teacher trainers, psychologists and others concerned with teaching, research and development in all aspects of language and communication. We are also affiliated to the International Reading Association and to the European Reading Association, and these contacts involve us in a wide ranging international network providing us with valuable insights into other countries' practice and theory relating to Early Years education.

  We number many Early Years teachers and researchers among our members and are probably the only language association in this country which brings together so wide and diverse a range of professionals concerned with this area of learning. Many members of our Association are also involved in the implementation of the National Literacy Strategy, some at quite a high level, and others, including last year's president, have considerable experience of research and evaluation in the area of literacy standards. We therefore feel well placed to comment both on the content and methodology of the Early Years curriculum, and on the effect of Early Years practice on literacy standards in later schooling. For the moment, however, we will restrict what we have to say to the Early Years language and literacy curriculum, with some brief comments on appropriate teaching methods.

  The first seven paragraphs are concerned with our comments on the newly published Early Learning Goals. Paragraphs 8-14 constitute an outline on our submission to you on what we consider to be the most important issues currently confronting Early Years language and literacy education.


  1.  We sent a short but detailed comment on the consultation document which preceded this to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and have been pleased to see that many of the points to which we objected have been removed and that, in particular, the document now includes a clear statement on the importance of play and that the extension statements which we considered to be highly inappropriate, have been removed.

  2.  We remain concerned about the lack of a single, coherent, model of training for all adults across all Early Years settings. We are particularly anxious that all those involved in the education and care of young children, including parents and child minders, should be made aware of the central role played by language in Early Years education and the strategies by which children's early language learning should be maximised.

  3.  We are also concerned at the continued absence of detailed statements about teaching strategies (other than the modelling implied in bullet point 7 on page 24). We are conscious that the range of teaching strategies which underpin the National Literacy Strategies (sharing, modelling, and scaffolding) have not been given more prominence. These are the ones which are also employed in early language learning and we feel that there is a need to make clear the distinction between the organisation of teaching (as in the Literacy Hour) and the teaching strategies which characterise its components. The former is totally inappropriate for children at least up to the age of five plus. The latter are central to early language learning and, if properly disseminated and linked to existing activities in good Early Years classrooms, would support high quality and consistent teaching across all settings.

  4.  We welcome the strengthening of speaking and listening but the pre-eminence of talk, together with play, at the foundation stage is still not sufficiently clearly stated. It is not enough to allow for opportunities for children to communicate or for extra time for speaking and listening to be set aside for those experiencing difficulties: adults need to make opportunities for talk in all learning activities, to model different way of talking for different audiences and purposes, and to provide the appropriate scaffolding for children to develop a wide range of talk forms, including appropriate and inventive vocabulary. This is not to say that talk is the only form of representation which children should be using but it has a special relationship to the development of thought, language and literacy which is central and cannot be ignored. We need a detailed statement here which is equivalent to that on play.

  5.  In addition to this, there are particular aspects of speaking and listening which are still insufficiently pointed up:

    —  the need for children to have opportunities for talk across a range of contexts and genres building on their existing real life knowledge (for example, in role play);

    —  talking to express themselves (bullet point 5 on page 27);

    —  the invention, as well as the retelling, of narratives;

    —  opportunities to hear and say rhymes, note alliteration and use analogy in speaking rhymes and in spelling;

    —  opportunities for independent reading and writing which are child initiated and controlled. The statements about writing, for example, although well intentioned, could still allow for the process to start and continue with copying;

    —  in reading, the omission of prior knowledge, contextual and pictorial cues as important elements in developing understanding in young readers and listeners;

    —  there is also a continuing lack of statements about bibliographical knowledge (author, title etc) in reading.

  6.  We deeply regret the absence of any reference to media education and ICT use with reference to language and literacy or communication (or to anything else in the document, for that matter). Yet we know that most children come to school with a wide range of knowledge of both which can, if properly supported, greatly enhance their knowledge of language forms and uses. If we ignore this vast reservoir of largely unexamined knowledge and skills, we run the danger of not only wasting golden opportunities to exploit children's experiences and begin to develop a critical understanding of them, but also of distancing the school curriculum from what is undoubtedly (and perhaps sadly) the prime literary and imaginative experiences for many children.

  7.  Lastly, we regret the lack of a statement about the importance of the imagination in young children's learning. Living inside a story, playing out roles, pretending that situations are other than what they are, wondering "what if", are the cornerstones of children's physical and verbal play. Together with creative response, imaginative games of all kinds enable children to explore their own potential long before they are intellectually or emotionally capable of achieving it. Some early educators are highly skilled in this area and we should be using their expertise to support others.


  8.  The central role played by the co-operative shaping of early oral language by carers and children and the importance of adult modelling in early learning, have been outlined in the first paragraph. Together with play, especially where this leads to the encouragement of children's enjoyment, exploration and manipulation of language, these form the basis of early language learning. Where children have experiences based in these understandings, they will quickly come to see language as something powerful, exciting and within their control. No amount of direct instruction in the formalities of written language can replace the sense of pleasure and ownership which a rich initial oral language curriculum can instil where it is combined with adult understanding of the means of successfully delivering it.

  9.  The first requirement of an Early Years language and literacy curriculum is, therefore, that it is based on the development of spoken language. It should be accepted by all educators that for the initial years of primary schooling, children should have much more experience in using the spoken word than in communicating through its written representation. This is not to say that they do not need to learn written forms and how to communicate through them but only to stress that, if they are taught the importance of representing thoughts and feelings in order to live and learn, they will need to do this initially through an increasingly sophisticated use of oral language, and be explicitly taught how to translate this into the concepts and forms of the written word. The spoken word is not complementary to writing in the early years but the prime means of communicating by, and to, young children. It is therefore central to the Early Years curriculum in a way that is never true of mainstream education thereafter and should be explicitly developed especially through attention to the following:

    —  the need for children to speak, and listen, to different audiences and for different purposes in play and real life situations;

    —  provision of opportunities for talk across a range of contexts and genres building on their existing real life knowledge (for example, in role play);

    —  the need for children to talk, and engage in, representational play and drama, to express themselves;

    —  inventing and playing with language;

    —  developing a wide range of appropriate and challenging vocabulary, including technical vocabulary.

  10.  The forming of an explicit bridge between spoken and written language should also form part of the spoken language curriculum and the initial teaching of literacy, for example by adults:

    —  making reading and writing enjoyable and purposeful experiences;

    —  emphasising the phonemic structure of the language through word play, saying and hearing rhymes and noting alliteration;

    —  providing purposeful opportunities for independent and child initiated writing and reading;

    —  adult modelling of writing which serves children's real life experiences;

    —  sharing and developing meanings in written texts through the explicit use of prior knowledge, contextual information and different cueing systems;

    —  raising awareness of the structural forms of stories and non-fiction texts;

    —  raisng awareness of differences between texts and being critical of them;

    —  drawing attention to bibliographical detail in written texts;

    —  drawing attention to the purposes of different written forms and how these can be different from those for spoken language;

    —  drawing attention to significant aspects of the written language, including letter forms and sounds.

  11.  The use of ICT and media texts is central to most children's contemporary experience and this should be exploited. These texts have the great merit of pulling together symbolic systems which children are familiar with, being easily referenced and cross referenced to texts which are a compelling part of many children's daily lives; and, especially in the case of computer technology, being controllable without an intimate knowledge of the sound/grapheme system of the language. It is possible for children at this stage to develop a much higher level of meaningful response to media and ICT texts than to those written texts they can handle independently and the potential of these means for recognising existing achievements and raising standards of understanding should not be neglected.

  12.  None of the above runs counter to the aims of the National Literacy Strategy and indeed the range of teaching strategies employed are exactly those deployed in the Literacy Hour. What is different at this stage is the centrality of oracy, to which literacy is complementary, and the recognition that, for young children, a substantial proportion of learning is child initiated and demands a particular teaching response, often on a one to one basis. Language associations such as ours, must, therefore support moves towards the provision of sufficient staff in all early years settings to enable all children to have high quality individual attention in the course of their ordinary play for at least a few minutes each day.

  13.  This need for personal attention is often seen, and deplored, as part of young children's egocentricity. In fact, it is a necessary stage in their development as meaning makers, whose early language use needs constant confirmation and reshaping if it is to form a secure basis for later learning and the development of a personal and confident language style. This is why the organisation of the literacy hour is generally inappropriate for young children while its teaching strategies, used throughout the teaching day, are the corner stone for most good early years provision.


  14.  Lastly, we feel it is appropriate for us to make a brief comment, in the context of language learning, on the age of entry to compulsory schooling. We feel that this is not so urgent an issue as the age at which the foundation stages, the content of its curriculum and the teaching methods and organisation of groups employed to implement it. It is our view that children up to the age of six should be provided with a language curriculum consonant with what we have outlined, with increasing attention within it being paid to the making of written representation, its understanding and mastery. It is not morally defensible that some children should have access to such a curriculum and it be denied to others and therefore there must be uniformity of provision across the country. If this can be achieved without raising the age of compulsory schooling, that would suffice for the moment.

United Kingdom Reading Association

January 2000

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