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Expert view: Language development

Professor Rhona Stainthorp explains the important aspects of language in early years of education, and how this can impact learning later on in life.
Hello, I’m here with Rhona Stainthorp, Professor of Education at the University of Reading, and we’re going to be talking about language. Rhona, can
you explain what language development is. Well, language development is not just talking. Language development involves listening, as well as talking. So, what has to develop is a vocabulary, the ability to articulate the words to make the sounds so that other people can understand them. To get the words in the right order because you don’t just say them in random order, and to be able to translate ideas into language that you can then produce. It takes a long time to develop that.
In education, clearly it’s very important to learn to read. But unless you have good language development at the start, your ability to read is going to be compromised. We are pre-programmed to develop the ability to communicate and to understand, that takes place in fact in the left hemisphere of the brain. That is going on, certainly
from the point of birth. At some point or other, somebody decided it would be a really good idea to use some squiggles on a page, to stand for language, that has to be taught because that’s not going to happen automatically. You need to have a supportive linguistic environment, with people talking to you and helping you develop your ideas linguistically. Without support you won’t develop language, without language you will find it very difficult to learn to read.
It takes a considerable time to learn to handwrite effectively. We live in an age of a computer and some people say you don’t need to handwrite anymore you just use computers. But that is not the case. As you learn to handwrite, you learn how to form letters. You learn something about what words look like. But, unlike language, unlike reading, handwriting is also a motor program. You have to learn how to form the letters. It takes a few years, in the early years of education in key stage one, to learn how to form the letters. It takes a few more years to get really efficient at doing that in Key Stage 2.
If you get to be efficient at doing that, then it takes virtually no processing capacity and you can think about what you want to say and write down. Now there are some children who get to secondary school who are still in the process of becoming automatic handwriters. That means they are still learning how to write quickly. Secondary teachers need to check on that because if people can’t write efficiently and automatically, they won’t do as well in their exams.
If you don’t have a wide enough vocabulary. Then when you are trying to convey subtle
meanings, you won’t be able to do it because you’ll only have one or two words. We have some very very strong evidence, from the America, in fact done by a very important researcher called Lee, who followed some children through from the age of 2, through to the age of 11 and what you find is that the number of words that you know, your vocabulary, at the age of two, predicts how well you will do in education at the age of 11, and that is frightening.
We hope that children will come to school with a range of words and the ability to communicate, but the words that they hear in, sort of, general life are often somewhat limited, relative to the words they could use. So, for example, you know a child might stand there and say ‘oh I stood on the road and I watched the water going out’ now that’s quite limited vocabulary. Another child might be able to say ‘I stood on the promenade and I watched the tide going out’. That’s better language, that explains things more. The wider your vocabulary, the more you can express your feelings, your understandings and the more you can understand what other people say to you.
By the time you get, certainly into Key Stage 2, teachers have got to be working on what is called a Tier 2 vocabulary and those are the sorts of words, that aren’t specific to any particular curriculum area but will enable them to explain more things. So you might have, you might say the caterpillar, we know what a caterpillar is, is coming out of the lava. The teacher might say ‘yes it’s emerging’. So, what the teacher is doing is expanding on the child’s language, accepting what the child says but giving them an extended vocabulary.
In a science lesson you might be talking about a Bunsen burner to ignite the Bunsen burner ‘ignite’ is a Tier 2 word ‘Bunsen burner’ is a specific word to science. Imperialism, cardiovascular, we
could go on and on. In my area of reading, I might talk about orthography and people will look at me and say ‘what is she talking about?’ when I’m talking about orthography, I mean the way the letters are used to spell words. Now, I could say the way the letters are used to spell words but orthography is specific. Tier 3 words are specific to curriculum areas. That’s why vocabulary is so important in secondary school because in secondary the teachers are constantly introducing new words. And if you don’t explain the words you’ve lost the children.
Anybody working with young children working with any learners, needs to be conscious of vocabulary, and needs to be conscious that when they ask a question, it takes time to answer. And you’ve got to give the children time. They’ve got to ask them questions which are called open questions. You don’t say ‘what’s that called?’ But ‘can you tell me about that?’ So, you’re offering the child an opportunity to speak. Throughout education
that should be happening that we want to help children to expand their vocabulary, which will enable them to have a greater understanding of whatever it is they study.

In this video, Helen meets with Professor Rhona Stainthorp, from the Institute of Education at the University of Reading, where she discusses the important aspects of language in the early years of education, and how this can impact secondary school success for individuals.

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