Thursday, 4 February 2021

The value of books and reading for children’s mental health

children's mental health weekIt’s Children’s Mental Health Week. Sadly the impact of Covid has made the week more vital than ever before. It feels appropriate to explore the benefits books and reading can offer.

There is a proven correlation between reading, mental health and wellbeing. Here are some key research findings:

Books and reading can help children feel good about themselves. The finding that they can reduce stress is so pertinent right now. These views come from children of 7, 9, 12, and 15 years of age:

I love reading books. They cheer me up.

I read sometimes to get out of the real world or if I am unhappy.

I like reading books a lot. I can get away from reality for a while and enjoy myself.

Reading takes you away from real life for a bit. I just love it.

A survey carried out in the first lockdown found that audiobooks also support children’s wellbeing.

Books help children realise that they are not alone. These words from Frank Cottrell Boyce very much resonate with me:

A book is not a learning resource. It’s the knife that picks the lock of your isolation.

I concur with this too, from Emily Drabble of Booktrust:

Story characters can be models for your child, which can help foster coping skills and build confidence.

Children’s author Tom Perceval says this:

It’s important for children, and their parents, to be offered books that might help them navigate their emotional journeys.

I agree. Books are powerhouses of emotional support. They build resilience too.

I mentioned research about reading and empathy. Empathy impacts on well-being, and reading is a great way to strengthen it. Here is Malorie Blackman:

Books allow you to see the world through the eyes of others. Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.

This reflection comes from a child in year 5:

When I feel empathy in stories, I slow down; sometimes I stop and think so much more.

Books and reading develop children’s (and adults’) understanding of themselves, of others and of the world. Children’s author and ex-headteacher Bernard Ashley makes this point:

Books can answer questions we do not know we’re asking.

Books can challenge attitudes and change views. Author SF Said says this:

Children’s books can be bridges connecting people, showing them that however different someone else might be, the things which unite us are greater than those which divide us. And that difference can be a source of richness: something to be celebrated, not feared.

My final quote is from a child in key stage 2, in a review of Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy:

This book has inspired me to follow my dreams.

There is no doubt that books and reading aid children’s mental health. I will blog soon on the sorts of books that can make a difference to their wellbeing, and effective ways to use them. Meantime, I recommend these links, the last three particularly for school librarians:

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

The value of picture and story books for developing mathematical understanding and progress in the early years and key stage 1

IMG_5680These much-loved picture books first and foremost deliver joy of reading. And they do very much more besides, not least helping young children absorb concepts, including mathematical ones. They are just two out of hundreds of books I could have chosen that make notions like number, shape and size interesting, engaging, relatable and understandable.

This aspect of numerous picture and story books is surely the reason why study after study links books with mathematical progress. Decades ago Research into Bookstart, the book-gifting scheme, showed that when the first cohort of Bookstart children reached school age they were outperforming their peers, not only in language-based subjects, but also in mathematics, and that they stayed ahead as they got older. (We also know that reading for pleasure continues to aid mathematical progress in key stages 3 and 4.)

Late last year the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) produced a report on improving mathematics in early years and key stage 1. This is not something I would normally blog about, but it caught my eye because of its finding on the value and importance of using books to support mathematical teaching and learning: ‘The use of storybooks in mathematical teaching can have a large impact on young children’s attainment in this subject.’

Specific guidance includes this: ‘Mathematics can be explored through different contexts, including books, puzzles, songs, rhymes, puppet play and games. Using storybooks to teach mathematics can be particularly effective, through providing an opportunity for mathematical talk and questioning. Much of this evidence comes from studies where practitioners were explicitly supported in promoting mathematical discussion from the story, for example, by being provided with notecards displaying prompting questions and discussion points that they could use. Practitioners should therefore plan how they will use storybook resources to discuss mathematical concepts.’

The guidance document contains valuable ideas for developing mathematical talk using picture books. I was very pleased to find out about Maths through Stories, an extremely useful website which was new to me.

Wednesday, 9 December 2020

Supporting communication, language and literacy with children with English as an additional language in the early years #3

Tower Hamlets class visitMany thanks to Tower Hamlets Idea Store and Libraries for this lovely photo. The perfect illustration for the final blog in my series on communication and literacy with children with EAL, this one looking at stories, books and reading.

I want to start with story-telling and reading aloud, because their impact is so enormous. Please tell stories and read aloud as often as possible – one-to-one, with small groups and to the whole class. A brief explanation before sharing a book the first time will help children with EAL, and others too, so they have an idea of the context and of key vocabulary. The biggest focus though should be on making story and reading times special. Use lots of oral and facial expression, big body movements and different voices. Repeat books and stories as many times as the children want. They learn so much from repetition, and love it. Provide opportunities for children to join in. Use puppets and props. Leave the books and the props around for children to play with afterwards. Create activities that tie in with stories and books, not least artwork, role play and re-enacting books. All these strategies send strong messages that stories and books are fun. And all hugely aid vocabulary, comprehension and literacy skills.

As much as possible, share books and stories in children’s home languages, calling on the prowess of staff and parents and carers. They can record themselves at home if they feel unable or nervous to perform live.

Make sure there are literacy opportunities everywhere and all the time. Reading, mark-making and writing are mutually supportive. Book-making, including in children’s home languages and dual languages, scribing children’s words where necessary, is great for developing literacy skills.

It’s well worthwhile to embed books and reading and writing routinely and imaginatively in everyday activities and topic work. There are lots of literacy opportunities to be found with cooking and construction for example.

What sort of books help when sharing with children with EAL, and for them to read for themselves? Actually, the same range as for everyone. Every setting should have a good range of culturally appropriate books that authentically represent children’s experiences. All children need and deserve books in which they can find children like themselves. All need and deserve books that provide opportunities to learn about how other people live. (For more on this topic, see the article I wrote for the English Association ‘Using inclusive books in the early years and key stage 1 – why, what and how?’) We should scrupulously avoid and get rid of books that reinforce stereotypes. What else? Books with clear illustrations help understanding and provide respite from the hard work of reading. Wordless books enable children to formulate thoughts in their home languages and to behave as readers. Dual language books are extremely valuable. Books with rhyme, rhythm and repetition build enjoyment, involvement and skills. Books with predictable story patterns make reading easier.

Please make sure to have cosy and attractive reading areas. Children with EAL – indeed all children – will be more inclined towards books and reading if they feel comfortable and safe.

And what about when children with EAL start to read? A big focus on phonics, needless to say, is utterly crucial. Don’t forget that depending on what their home language is, children with EAL may have to learn new sounds and sound groupings, a new script or alphabet, new sound-symbol relationships. Remember too all the new grammatical structures and the huge amounts of new vocabulary they are coming to grips with. Pre-teaching vocabulary makes a big difference. And of course, lots of support, positive feedback and praise for language and literacy progress, so that children with EAL experience success, something everyone needs.

In fact, the more I reflect on what is good literacy practice for children with EAL, the more I realise that it is good literacy practice for every child.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Supporting communication, language and literacy with children with English as an additional language in the early years #2

ORd5#This photo is of an inspiring Enfield Libraries early years session I was lucky enough to attend. Most of the participants had English as an additional language.

In this second blog in a series on developing language and literacy skills with children with EAL in the EYFS I am going to concentrate on effective ways to support spoken English. Unless children have a good grasp of this, all aspects of communication and literacy will be a struggle.

Nurturing children’s home languages is crucial for aiding English language acquisition. I explored its importance, and methods that help, in my previous blog. Below I discuss the benefits of songs and rhymes, and next time I will talk about sharing stories and books. While I’m still on the topic of support for home languages, let me stress the benefits of bilingual story-times and rhyme sessions, involving practitioners and, if possible, parents and carers. Any who are daunted about performing live could record their contributions at home. Children with EAL will gain enormously from this valuing of their home language, and exposure to a range of languages and scripts is to everyone’s advantage.

Most children go through a silent phase when first learning a new language, sometimes lasting months. Despite not speaking, they gradually understand more and more. There are many ways to build their confidence and expertise. They need thinking time to process what they hear. They need interaction with English-speaking children. They need support, including visual support such as photos, illustrations, artefacts and visual timetables. They need encouragement. Value children’s non-verbal responses, their responses in their home language, and of course their utterances in English, as they begin to speak it.

Learning English as an additional language is hard work and very tiring, so give children with EAL time out from English and provide opportunities for them to express themselves in their home language some of the time.

Make sure there is always plenty of talk, even when there is no verbal response. Provide a running commentary as children play. (It’s worth knowing that children with EAL may speak more in outdoor play. In fact this applies to most children.) As children start to speak in English, build on their utterances, modelling English language use. If a child says ‘I goed home’ the practitioner might say ‘you went home and then ….’. Make open comments and ask open questions. Closed questions like ‘what’s this called?’ don’t develop language skills.

What else? Children with EAL need active teaching of vocabulary. They need to know survival words like yes, no, toilet, hello. They need language used in meaningful contexts. They need attention drawn to letters and sounds.

Songs and rhymes are excellent for developing language, and help lay the foundations for reading. They build speaking and listening skills, phonological awareness, vocabulary and comprehension. Lots of songs and rhymes have repeated words and phrases, and this, combined with a compelling rhythm, help make language stick. Aid children’s enjoyment and understanding with action rhymes and props and puppets. As I mentioned earlier, there’s great value to rhymes in children’s home languages. I find Mamalisa a good source.

Stories, books and reading aloud are far too important to cover in a couple of paragraphs, which is why I’m going to devote my next blog to them.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Supporting communication, language and literacy with children with English as an additional language in the early years #1

Pol17I took this lovely photo at a meeting of a Polish under 5s group in Enfield. It was a snowy day, hence the snowman book. As well as books, there were songs, rhymes, discussion and activities in a seamless meld of Polish and English. The children – far more than just the four here – were enthralled. So were the adults.

I was delighted to give a webinar for Liverpool early years practitioners last week on current thinking and advice relating to children with English as an additional language (EAL), and inclusive strategies and resources for developing communication and reading. In this first of a series of blogs I’m concentrating on the benefits of bilingualism, the importance of supporting children’s home languages, what children have to learn to become proficient in a new language, and official guidance on supporting children with EAL in the early years.

For many years now it has been recognised that bilingualism is an asset and should be valued as a positive skill. Bilingualism not only aids the learning of English and other languages. More broadly it develops concentration, cognition and memory as well as empathy, self-confidence, self-esteem and wellbeing.

We know it is vital to support children’s home languages at home and in settings. The EYFS Statutory Framework and the EYFS Reforms Early Adopter Framework contain identical guidance: ‘Providers must take reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning, supporting their language development at home.’

‘Children will learn English from a strong foundation in their home language’ in the words of the new Development Matters. Both the original Development Matters and the new version are adamant about the importance of encouraging families to use their home language.

‘Talk to parents about what language they speak at home, try and learn a few key words and celebrate multilingualism in your setting’ says the  new document. It is worth unpicking and adding to this sentence. It’s crucial to spend time with parents and carers finding out about children’s abilities and experiences in their home languages. Crucial too to ensure children can hear and use their home languages in settings. Bilingual staff should be valued and involved. Children with the same home language should be enabled to play and talk together.

It’s invaluable to learn a few key words in children’s home languages: hello, goodbye, toilet for instance. Everyone should respect children’s home languages. How important it is to pronounce children’s names correctly.

None of these are new ideas and recommendations. They are all emphasised in the original Development Matters too.

In terms of celebrating multilingualism, the environment should visibly reflect and value cultural and linguistic diversity. This is often taken to mean settings should have lots of notices in a range of languages and scripts, but inclusive play equipment, displays and books send out stronger messages to young children.

As the following list makes clear, there are many things children with EAL may have to contend with in order to learn a new language. (This comes from a valuable overview and checklist by my Early Education colleague Julie Cigman.)

  • a new set of sounds and sound groupings
  • new intonation patterns
  • a new script or alphabet
  • a new set of sound-symbol relationships
  • new vocabulary
  • new grammar
  • new non-verbal signals
  • new rules about social conventions and language
  • an ability to relate to people and express feelings and emotions in a new language

It’s important to make no assumptions. All children learn differently and the rate of language acquisition is very variable. Understanding is likely to be well in advance of spoken language for most children learning English as an additional language. Many go through a silent phase, and for some this may last months. It’s crucial not to pressurise children to talk before they are ready to.

I will blog soon about more ways to support spoken English, vital for all aspects of communication and literacy, as well as self-confidence and wellbeing.