Now We’re Talking has improved the oral language skills of children in early childhood education (ECE) centres in South Auckland and built the skills and confidence of teachers.
Ko Awatea and the Ministry of Education led the project, which brought together 20 ECE centres in socio-economically vulnerable areas of South Auckland.
“Oral language is the biggest predictor of literary success. If you were a good talker when you were little, you’re more likely to find learning to read easy,” says Emma Quigan, early language expert.
Literacy drives educational and economic success, equity and health literacy, which creates better health outcomes.
The aim of Now We’re Talking was to improve the oral language skills of children in ECE to at least a consolidating level, and for ECE centres to have high-quality language provision, by December 2016.
The project used Breakthrough Series collaborative methodology to teach staff from the 20 centres about tools and techniques they could use to create improvement. A key tool was the Model for Improvement, which asked centres to set specific aims and measures and then develop and test change ideas using plan, do, study, act cycles. Change ideas focused on the environment, teacher practice and engaging with children’s families.
“Quality improvement methods ask teachers to break down a change idea into small manageable chunks and then practise it until they get it right,” says Jilly Tyler, programme lead.
For example, one centre began introducing new language through food preparation and recipes. Teachers at the centre soon realised the children needed more extension. By the end of the change cycle, they were exploring the science of food with children using complex language: protein, carbohydrate and saturated fats. The teachers themselves had to work harder as the children quickly picked up new language and concepts, and families too became interested and took up the challenge of talking with children about food and meals at home.
Collaboration was a key feature of the project. Learning sessions, masterclasses, cluster meetings and teacher swap days provided mechanisms for centres to share ideas and learn from each other’s experience.
For example, one centre introduced a ‘kaumatua couch’ to allow community elders to spend time there listening and talking with children and adding new stories and language. This idea was refined in the first centre and then adopted by others, which were able to use the first centre’s experience to implement the idea quickly and efficiently.
The project helped staff at the centres learn to gather and analyse data to measure the success of their change ideas. They collected data on child outcomes, teacher confidence, the suitability of the environment, and feedback from parents. The data were gathered monthly and shared with other participating centres. For many centres, Now We’re Talking was their first experience of tracking data, and it provided a useful insight into their performance and practice.
As a result of Now We’re Talking, there has been an overall improvement in child outcomes, teacher practice and the ECE learning environment.
Child outcomes showed improved listening, understanding, speech and social skills. Information about children’s language development was based on the teacher’s knowledge of children’s language when playing at the centre. Teachers used a matrix to gauge the child’s oral language as emerging, developing, consolidating or secure in the listening, understanding, speech and social skills areas. All centres experienced an improvement in children’s oral language. On average, children at the 20 centres progressed their language skills from the developing level to a consolidating level.
Teacher practice was assessed by self-reflection and peer review. Initially, teachers had high confidence in their strategies to develop oral language, but this dropped markedly following the first masterclasses, as teachers identified gaps in their practice and knowledge. As the teachers built their capability during the project their confidence returned.
“Teachers are more confident when it comes to developing children’s oral language, and they’re more confident to have conversations with parents about oral language,” says Suzie Harris, an early language specialist with the Auckland Kindergarten Association.
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