Ready to read and write? Check that core skills are in place first …..

Reading Time: 5 minutes


Diana has presented research at speech and language therapy conferences both in the UK and in Europe, is co-author of the WellComm Big Book of Ideas (2010) and has worked as a Specialist Advisor for the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

Jo has worked with children with SLCN for 30 years. She worked as a senior manager in the NHS and undertakes management consultancy work for NHS Trusts. Jo has also worked as a Fitness to Practice Partner at the Health Care Professions Council, and is a Local Government Association Early Years Peer Reviewer.

The link between language and literacy is now widely accepted. Schools and settings talk confidently about ‘language rich’ environments and staff work hard to consistently use interesting and stimulating language.

For many children this is exactly what they need – exposure to a wide range of vocabulary with explanations as to what words mean: with some staff providing a veritable thesaurus of alternatives which enhances and enriches the teaching and learning process.

Staff understand what ‘narrative’ is. They understand how children draw upon their knowledge, experience and linguistic skills to sequentially organize thought to remember and recount, to plan and to choose what is relevant and what is not. Narrative is also an important precursor to good quality written work.

All good then! So – why doesn’t it work for everyone?
Soundswell therapists are frequently asked by staff about small groups of children who just don’t seem to make the expected progress. Children don’t just ‘learn to read and write’ because they are Reception-age. A number of other skills need to be in place – look at the model below – and then literacy will follow (hopefully relatively painlessly!)

Good communication skills are built on solid foundations and these foundations are not just about exposure to language. Something else has to happen too. Check out the foundation ‘core skills layer in the wall’.

There are 5 ‘core’ skills which are fundamental to any kind of learning. The words used to describe them are abstract and difficult to define. Here they are:

Think about the role these skills play in cooking for example, or PE, or a science experiment …. and when putting sounds together to build CVC structures. The potential list of examples is endless. In fact, even in adulthood, at home or at work, most of what we do requires these 5 skills to work well both individually and together.

It may come as a surprise that these are learned skills. Reading this, you may struggle to remember actively teaching children (your own or other people’s) to listen and attend. That’s because you didn’t … and you didn’t need to. Right from the very beginning, the optimum early environment is conducive to children being able to listen, to concentrate, to tune-in to what is important and to tune-out what isn’t, to remember what they see or hear, what happened when.

For the most part, by the time children enter nursery they are able to follow (2, 3 or more part) instructions, concentrate on an activity and see it through and play co-operatively with others, using language to talk about what is happening and to decide what will happen next.

For that small number of children who are not making progress, a pattern may begin to emerge:

Children with poor listening and attention usually struggle to remember what they see or hear (as their attention is elsewhere).

There is usually no sinister underlying reason for the lack of progress, no learning disability as such, no problem with receptive language. Successful sequencing (i.e. getting things in the right order) and discrimination (recognising and responding to the differences between things seen or heard) depend on listening and being able to remember. These children just haven’t had the chance to develop those critical core skills and until they do, a significant proportion of what teachers say will simply pass them by. The impact on learning is obvious.

Don’t despair! It’s never too late to introduce interventions which will accelerate the acquisition of core skills by actively teaching children what they need to know. For some, you are completely justified in including ITP targets which include work on core skills.

Successful attention and listening groups should be part of a range of strategies you offer at universal and targeted levels. Where there’s a need introduce them routinely in the Early Years but it’s also well-worth running a group in Reception if there are children who need. Remember – these are learnt skills and if a child leaves nursery still standing out from his peers because of poor attention, there is likely to always be a problem staying on task (unless you step in and effect a positive change).

Groups focus primarily on the attention and listening components and then introduce games and activities to support and develop auditory and visual memory, sequencing & discrimination: posting games, shopping games, sorting into categories, copying patterns and identifying musical, shaker and speech sounds which might be the same or different.

Good groups:

  • Are structured: always following a similar pattern, so that the least confident (or able) child/ren have multiple exposures to what to do before their own turn comes round. Every exposure is a learning opportunity
  • lend themselves to differentiation and offer activities that begin at the simplest level and gradually build, pulling together all 5 core skills so that children are increasingly confident to carry out more complex tasks
  • time-limited: once skills are acquired children move on to use those skills to learn more effectively

Children learn

  • ‘good sitting’ (bottom on the floor, legs crossed, arms folded)
  • ‘good listening’ which develops from ‘good sitting’ and ‘good looking’
  • what it means to be part of a group: they are encouraged to interact with their peers & to take turns

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