"The more we listen, the more children will talk"I attended the annual FONT (Forum of Nursery Teachers) conference in Belfast at the weekend & the keynote speaker was Michael Jones from www.talk4meaning.co.uk. Michael is a speech therapist who then retrained as a teacher & has done lots of work in preschools in the UK.
His theme for the conference talk was 'Encouraging language in the busy classroom', an extremely useful topic for nursery teachers in N. Ireland where the staff child ratio is 1:13. Michael had lots of great practical tips for encouraging all children to contribute to a conversation at some point in the busy day and it was heartening to realise that we are already doing a lot to facilitate those who are quieter or have language delays in our classroom.
I was particularly struck by his use of the term 'The Planted Adult' - by this he talked about a 'spare' adult who could afford to place themselves at an activity with no chosen aim but to encourage the children to interact & perhaps chat if they wanted to. In an average nursery class with 26 children & 2 adults this would be a complete luxury but as Michael pointed out it doesn't have to happen every day & it can be a student or parent. I remember doing an assignment many years ago as part of my DASE on encouraging oral language in the classroom & the conclusion I came to then, was that it was more likely for a nursery assistant to be able to give the children undivided attention than a teacher who is always on alert & keeping an eye on the whole classroom.
This year in my class we have 27 children and 4 adults as there are a high number of children with statements of special educational needs, this means that there are times when we can have a planted adult, more so than normal. This year at lunch time we have enough adults for each table & I do notice that the quieter children who never chose to talk in the busy classroom will be most talkative over lunch when they know they have the undivided attention of the adult at the lunch table. This 30 minute period when all the children are seated eating lunch & chatting around the table is a perfect chance for each of the adults to sit without any pressure to being doing something else.
Michael mentioned that the book corner is a perfect place for conversations to be struck up & the quieter children to contribute but again, in a busy classroom it is a rare occasion that one of the adults can just afford to sit reading stories without getting distracted by what is going on in the rest of the room. However, I think that ironically good communication among staff is the key for good communication among the children. If the other staff know that today X is going to be in the book corner for 30 minutes then they know that will have to be the ones to answer the phone or doorbell or deal with any other issues or disputes that occur around the room.
As Michael also pointed out, it is sometimes much easier to be a planted adult outdoors than indoors. If your outdoor play space is properly set up the children should be much more autonomous than they can be outside - they need less adult interaction & therefore one of the adults can afford to just be 'in the moment' with a group of children. I see this happening on a regular basis when we are in Bear Woods or on a visit to the forest. It is much more likely to see an adult sitting with a group of children on the grass just being together & chatting outside than inside where there are too many distractions e.g. did that child put a label on their painting, have they got an apron, has someone spilled water on the floor etc.
Next week I plan to go in to school & on our planning day have a good chat with the assistants about freeing one of us every few days to be a planted adult to allow those quieter less confident children the chance to strike up a conversation with that adult or their peers.
One thing I heard at the conference that will stick with me is that it is the role of a nursery teacher to help children be part of a larger group & to learn how to interact with their peers.
I have always believed that it is the Personal, Social and Emotional Development area that is one of the most important in nursery & that this in turn will help Language Development & it was great to hear someone else with years of experience reinforce this belief. Getting along with others & learning how to actually converse with peers are life skills & way more important than anything else a child may pick up in their nursery year.