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Communication Development by Sophie Alder

Communication Development by Sophie Alder

‘A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.’

Margaret Atwood

In 2018 Education Secretary Damian Hinds decried the ‘persistent scandal’ of children starting school unable to communicate using full sentences. He, alongside Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman, have attributed children’s poor language skills in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) to decreased educational outcomes and social mobility. A large-scale study by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in 2016 found that a third of children from disadvantaged backgrounds do not meet the expected communication standard by age 5. Research links this word gap in the EYFS to poor literacy, mental health and employment outcomes in later life.

At Woodhill Primary School our children come from a range of backgrounds, but most begin their Reception year with below-expected levels of language and communication skills. This academic year baseline data highlighted 76% of Reception children working below the expected communication and language standard. Of these children, 36% of children had an identifiable speech difficulty (one which places them in the 22nd percentile or lower). In the EYFS our data consistently demonstrates how children’s inhibited speech development has a detrimental impact on their progress in all areas of the curriculum.

‘Children express themselves effectively’

ELG03 Speaking, Development Matters

Speech is embedded as an indicator of success throughout the EYFS curriculum. Children’s speech provides EYFS practitioners with a window into a child’s knowledge and thinking. A child who cannot communicate their ideas is unlikely to engage in collaborative role play. A child who cannot speak in a full sentence is unable to write one. A child who cannot express their feelings is undoubtedly going to struggle to form friendships.  The current limiting pressures on NHS Speech and Language Therapists, combined with an increase in the number of children with complex language difficulties, led the Early Years team at Woodhill to consider ways to radically improve the ‘in house’ speech and language support offered to children. We developed a three wave process for supporting children to develop vital communication and language skills; excellent class-based pedagogy, targeted initiatives and specialised interventions.

1 Photograph 1

‘Children use everyday language to talk about size, weight, capacity, distance, time and money’

ELG12 Shape, Space and Measures, Development Matters

Our first step was to improve the EYFS team’s knowledge of how to support communication development through play and develop a shared communication-friendly pedagogy. A member of staff gained an ELKLAN Certificate in Speech and Language, the learning from which was communicated to all practitioners through a number of professional development sessions. One of the strategies teachers felt would have immediate impact was the ‘hand rule’ (ELKLAN).

At Woodhill practitioners in the EYFS use the ‘hand rule’ during all adult-child interactions. This provides a scaffold for children’s communication development by limiting questioning and providing rich models of language. We use one question within five spoken interactions to allow children to communicate in a pressure-free environment. We then use four alternative spoken interactions;

  • Repeating what the child has said
  • Expanding on what the child has said use one or two additional words
  • Commenting on what the child is doing
  • Explaining an idea or concept to the child

2 The hand rule3 Hand rule examples

‘They answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions’

ELG02 Understanding, Development Matters

As a school we have focussed on the value of effective questioning, largely through Bloom’s Taxonomy. While valuable, we felt Bloom’s did not allow us to successfully question children in the Early Years. As we limit questions through the hand rule, any asked must be powerful and pointed. Consequently, we sought an alternative, which was offered by the BLANK Language Scheme.

The Blank Language Scheme (Blank, Rose and Berlin, 1978) is a model of speech and language development which suggests four main areas of understanding; naming, describing, retelling and justifying. The NHS suggests that children at stage 4 (justifying) are well-equipped to enter a year 1 classroom.

At Woodhill we use the Blank Language scheme to formulate questions as part of our daily classroom practise. We aim to use questions which push children into the next stage of development. This target template is displayed around the setting to support adults’ question formulation.

4 Blank language prompts

This picture shows Blank language questions at all levels planned into an English lesson, as well as a plenary which addresses an identified speech need within the class.

6 Planning sample

 ‘Children talk about past and present events in their own lives’

ELG13 People and Communities, Development Matters

In January 2018 Woodhill’s EYFS SEND Specialist visited Pickhurst Infant Academy, Bromley, where the expectation is that all children answer questions in full sentences. What stood out was the confidence and ease with which children articulated their ideas and made themselves understood by adults and peers.

This idea was brought back to Woodhill under the banner of the ‘Full Sentence Initiative’. Our expectations are;

  1. All children will answer an adult-posed question with a full sentence.
  2. All staff will model using full sentences and correct children when a full sentence is not used.
  3. During child-initiated play adults will support the use of full sentences using questioning and modelled discussion.

Practitioners use four inclusive prompts to scaffold full sentence formation; they are embedded in planning, provision and resources. The team has an agreed script and sign for correcting children who have not used a full sentence.

7 Full sentence starters

In October Reception teachers led an open-morning for parents on how to support their child’s communication development. We shared the ‘hand rule’ and full sentence initiative with parents and then modelled how to practise these skills using the book ‘You Choose’ by Nick Sharratt and Pippa Goodhart. Parents were given a copy of the book to use with their child at home. We have taken You Choose on trips and keep a copy around the classroom to allow children to practise using full sentences.

In this video a child uses a full sentence prompt to articulate her understanding of 2D shapes.

‘Children explain why some things occur and talk about changes’

ELG14 The World, Development Matters

For some children, their communication and language baseline indicated that they needed additional support. These children were placed into small focus groups, working twice a week with an adult on a ratio of one adult to four children. These groups follow a program of speech development activities supplied by ‘Speechlink’, the online assessment tool we used on entry. In these groups children undertake fun, practical activities which target their specific areas of need. Each session is tracked, allowing staff to maintain a clear overview of children's areas of need.

9 Photograph 2

 ‘They demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read’

ELG09 Reading, Development Matters

The positive impact of these initiatives on children’s communication development is evident in the data this year. By the end of Autumn 2 40% of children were at or above the expected level for communication and language, a 67% increase from the baseline within a half-term. The data from the Spring term continues this trend, with 84% of children now working at or above the expected level in Communication and Language. 

In addition, 39% of the children who were identified as having a communication need requiring small group intervention have made sufficient progress to no longer require these sessions.

This video shows a child’s speech development over a half-term; their confidence to communicate and understanding of the adult’s questioning shows great improvement. The adult models use of the hand-rule and the use of full sentences while looking at the illustrations in ‘You Choose’.

Practitioners’ observations also demonstrate improvements, with children able to articulate their thoughts, ideas and understanding of learning.

11 Tapestry observation 112 Tapestry observation 2

13 Photograph to go with Tapestry observation 2

Children’s written work further captures progress in communication. Both of these children took part in small-group speech and language interventions as they placed in the lowest 20% at baseline. 

14 Book example 115 Book example 2

Parents have reported an improvement in their children’s communication and language skills at home through informal conversations with staff and their contributions to their children’s learning journals. A parent said, “We look at You Choose as a family after dinner. We love talking about the pictures and I can see a huge difference in my child’s talking. They use the full sentence prompts to make amazing sentences.”


The feedback from children, parents and staff indicates that at Woodhill our ‘in house’ communication support is providing children with the knowledge and skills they need to articulate themselves effectively. As a team we are always reflecting on our practise and regularly view share successes and identify next steps. Going forwards we would like to extend this provision into the upper year-groups, allowing all children to use and cherish their voice.

1 CategoryLeadership Learning
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