Mastery in Language: it starts with words!

Following my theme of mastery as the highest level of school learning and how children can achieve it – this blog focuses on language. What is language? I’ve started with an extract (below) from my second book in the series: Parents Help Your Child Succeed: ‘Supporting Children at the Early Years Foundation Stage: a guide for parents,’features an entire chapter on language because it is so important.

Language and communication
Many children fail to achieve because their spoken language lets them down. While speaking and listening form part of the National Curriculum, emphasis is often placed on reading and writing. It is often assumed that children leave the EYFS ready to develop into effective speakers and listeners. Many children don’t. As a team of horses leads a carriage – speaking and listening jointly lead reading and writing. Without spoken language, literacy does not stand a chance. Without language and literacy combined, other learning becomes severely limited. So pre-school language is important!

Why do we need to speak and listen? Can we think and work out problems without words? Can we reflect on the past or consider the future without words? Words are essential to our lives – they help to identify and differentiate who we are. Listening and speaking are about communication; members of your family, people at work, in the bank or at the shops and so on. Our lives are based around talk. So imagine if you couldn’t talk! What if you couldn’t form words properly or you can’t find the right words when you need to? We take talking so much for granted that we can’t imagine what it’s like for people who find listening and speaking difficult or have a disability that affects talking.

Language, then is the combination of listening and speaking – as communication. It underpins EVERYTHING else. So, let’s start with the words themselves – vocabulary. Children who begin the Early Years Foundation Stage with a good, extensive vocabulary have the best start. Why? Apart from the early talk that takes place at nursery and reception level, words enable children to access reading. Imagine being presented with a first reading book and not even knowing what the individual words mean.

Words fall into two main groups: firstly, there are those that contain inherent meaning per se – and those that support and give further meaning to this first group. Confused? So are many children.

Meaningful words include: table, book, light, cup, run, chocolate, boy, eat, skip, television. For these kinds of words, a child can form a clear mind-picture. The second group features words that have little meaning per se. Their function as part of language is to add to the meaning of the first group in order to form sentences, for example: their, said, should, can, is, are, come, in. These words have meaning only when they are combined with words in the other group.

Readers of my previous blogs on reading will now recognise this second group as the tricky words that occur in children’s reading books, often called ‘high frequency words’ because of their importance in children’s early readers. But back to language. Good listeners and speakers gradually come to understand how these two groups of words work effectively. Young children who can combine both sets of words into sentences have a head start in reading, writing and all other learning.

Language supports learning from babyhood and through the EYFS – but that is only the start. Language is for life, as my next blog goes on to explore.

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