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What makes a communication supportive environment

We often use the term communication friendly or communication supportive spaces and this can conjure up different images to different practitioners. To some it may mean the physical environment and creating spaces for children to feel comfortable to communicate in. For other practitioners it is a much broader term. This blog is going to look at some of the aspects of a communication supportive environment, the research behind this and the role of the practitioner within this. 

The Better Communication Research Programme (BCRP) has been looking into how education environments support children's language and communication. Part of this programme has led to the development of Communication Supportive classroom tool. The research concluded that a communication enabling environment covers  3 aspects:

  • The environment
  • The role of the adult supporting language interactions
  • Opportunities for supporting language interactions

The tool draws together the themes of the enabling environment and the key elements of effective practice for practitioners. Although the tool is aimed at Reception upwards, it's useful to think about these three aspects when thinking about the early years environment too. A communication supportive environment is not a new concept in Early Years, as the EYFS refers to an enabling environment and the role of the practitioner,  encompassing many of these elements. We also have evidence about why and how these approaches support children's communication and learning. The Every Child a Talker (ECAT) programme and research around Effective Preschool Provision in Early Years (EPPE project)  found that the ways adults interact with children are vital for developing communication skills and self confidence.  More recently, the Early Language Development Project (ELDP) has been supporting practitioners to reflect on the ways that they interact with children with positive results.

Interestingly, the BCRP found that it was easier to make changes to the physical environment and more challenging for practitioners to develop the ways that they talk and interact with children. So maybe we should be thinking less about a communication supportive environment and more about communication supportive practice.

There are some  key strategies we can use to help children develop their communication and language skills when we play and talk with them:

Follow children's interests  - what they're saying and playing with

Why? This can support their attention and listening skills, enabling children to stay at activities for a longer time. Using this strategy also shows them that you are listening to them and valuing what they are saying and what they are doing. By following their interests during open-ended activities you are giving them time and space to think and communicate.

Adding language as you play alongside

Why? Children need to hear language in context for them to learn new words. Hearing the word 'train' over and over again as they play with a toy train allows them opportunities for repetition and multi-sensory learning. It is also how you comment while children are playing that adds that vital element of support, helping them to extend their opportunities for learning and getting involved.

Waiting  for children to respond

Why? Children need time to respond. They are trying to take in what you have said, make sense of this and then think of an answer. To do this they need to think of the words, put these together (if they are speaking at this level) and then co-ordinate the muscles to say the speech sounds. This can all take time - often about 10 seconds.

Expanding on what they say

Why? This is a really useful strategy for children who are beginning to combine words and say longer sentences as it gives them the language model for the next stage in their language journey. For example, if a child says 'car' you can add a word so that it becomes 'big car'; or 'fast car'; or 'drive car'. For children who are moving on to saying sentences you can add a word to expand this e.g. 'big car' becomes 'yes, you're driving a big car'.

Offering choices

Why? This can help children who aren't speaking yet or aren't able to verbalise what they want. It can also give them a way to join in and express their preferences. You can build this into many activities e.g. snack time, playing in the home corner, water, sand. Try saying things like ‘Would you like juice or water?’ or  ‘ Would you like the bucket or the spade?’.  The opportunities are endless!

Reflecting on practice

You may already be aware of and using many of these strategies. However, it's often useful to reflect on which strategies you use, when you use them and whether particular children respond to different ways of interacting with them.

It's also useful to think about how you know you're using these strategies and whether you can fine tune these skills. One key element that can impact on practice is peer mentoring - having someone video you and either watch it back together or alone. Once you have got over the fear factors this can be really useful for reflecting on how you interacted with children and how they responded. 

This blog has focused on the role of the practitioner in supporting language as part of creating a communication enabling environment. It has looked at some key strategies that we use when we interact with children to help create sustained shared thinking and develop those key communication skills.

For more information, visit the Early Years section of Talking Point. I CAN resources are available to PACEY Members at the PACEY shop. 

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