ERO found variability in how well early learning services and schools were supporting children’s oral language learning and development.28
The early childhood curriculum includes goals that are specific to children’s oral language learning and development. Most of these goals are expressed in relation to the communication strand of Te Whāriki. However, the other strands of Te Whāriki also include reference to children’s oral language learning. This is not surprising given that oral language is pivotal to children’s learning across all aspects of the curriculum.
The Ministry publication Much More Than Words: Manuka takoto, kawea ake29 is a resource developed for families and whānau, early childhood teachers, and health professionals. It includes information about typical communication development in young children and ideas for supporting them. ERO found that some of the services in this evaluation were using this resource to help them identify children needing additional oral language support. The ‘parts of communication’ framework of this resource (see Figure 1) provides a useful framework for discussing the findings of this evaluation in early learning services.
Source: Much More Than Words: Manuka takoto, kawea ake. p.5
This framework highlights communication as being much more than words, noting that “speech, language, social interaction and early literacy skills are all parts of a child’s communication”.30
In most services, where teachers noticed concerns with speech, they or the parents sought specialist support to work with children and their families.
In some of the services, leaders and teachers understood the connections between oral language and social competence. This was often the alert to an oral language delay or other concerns. Participation by some teachers in Incredible Years31 professional learning helped with strategies that promoted social competence and oral language learning and development.
ERO found considerable variability in the extent to which services in the sample designed and implemented a curriculum that gave priority to oral language as an integral part of early literacy learning. Leaders and teachers in many services need to strengthen their understanding of the connections between oral, written and visual literacy, especially because eighteen months to three years of age is a critical period for oral language development.
ERO found very few services where teachers had a clear and shared understanding of expectations for children’s oral language learning and development. This lack of understanding impacted on the quality of their curriculum, including the quality of interactions, resources available in the environment, and the priority given to oral language in planning, assessment and evaluation processes. Often the main focus of the service was limited to issues or concerns related to speech.
These findings suggest that further guidance, in addition to Much More Than Words,32 is needed for services to increase awareness of the importance of oral language in the wider context of the curriculum and expectations for children’s learning progression. Leaders and teachers need to know how children’s oral language develops, provide meaningful experiences and use teaching strategies that are effective in supporting children’s oral language learning.
Internal evaluation, done well, is key to improving the quality of each service’s curriculum to support oral language learning and development for all children. However, internal evaluation was not a strength across many of the services.
Most schools in this evaluation focused on getting to know children’s oral language strengths and needs in their first year at school. Some schools continued to respond appropriately to the range of oral language learning needs across Years 2 and 3 by providing a suitably resourced language/arts curriculum, implemented by capable staff and suitably monitored and evaluated.33
The ‘well-focused’ schools identified key needs and provided a variety of planned speaking and listening activities for students across Years 1, 2 and 3. Teachers in these schools linked early literacy developments (reading and writing) with a rich oral language programme and developed the language capability of staff and students. They applied this to learning and teaching across the curriculum.
Schools with ‘some focus’ tended to focus on oral language in Year 1, with more attention paid to reading and writing in Years 2 and 3 than to oral language. These schools also gave less attention to systematically building capability of staff and students than the well-focused schools.
The schools rated as having ‘limited’ or ‘no focus’ paid little attention to oral language learning needs or developmental possibilities after school entry.