Improving communication and language skills

Written by: HTU | Published:

Faced with a new intake whose lack of speech and language skills meant they were still operating as toddlers, Clare Constant implemented a range of strategies to overcome this significant learning barrier

Last year I became deputy headteacher at a newly established primary free school in Tower Hamlets, east London, joining as it opened in September 2012. I had left a school in nearby Hackney where I was assistant head and had a clear career path ahead of me.

This decision was most certainly risky, so why did I do it? First, because there was a need – hundreds of parents in Tower Hamlets were told last August that their child did not have a place in school for the following September. 

Second, I did it for the opportunity to start a school from scratch (when at the beginning the senior leadership team comprised just the headteacher and myself).

I have always worked in challenging schools, ever since my first teaching role in London. As a result, I have become determined to narrow the achievement gap and reduce the barriers to learning for as many children as I can. 

When I joined Tower Hamlets, our first intake comprised largely of children who had English as an additional language (EAL). A challenge for these children was that they are still learning how to communicate in a foreign language, and so accessing the curriculum in English was far more difficult for them.

However, when they arrived last September it was clear that even in their first language they had extremely poor vocabulary and communication skills, and developmentally they were significantly behind their peers. This posed a far greater problem.

As well as being unable to converse in simple sentences, even in their own language, many did not understand simple instructions and it was clear that basic prepositions (such as on, under, behind) and adjectives were confusing for them. These children had not been to nursery, and it also became very apparent that they had received very little stimulation at home.

I had heard of a test that assessed the basic vocabulary of young children through simple pictures. We used the British Picture Vocabulary Scale (BPVS) to assess both our native English speakers and EAL children. The results confirmed what we suspected.

Many EAL children were significantly behind their peers in communication and language, a large majority operating as much as two years behind a child of a similar age. And for children of four-years-old, this gap was of great significance. 

Ultimately, we were opening a school for 75 children, many of whom were still operating as toddlers. I knew I needed to do whatever I could to close this gap, although I also knew that the real concern was how this problem came to be in the first place.

Gaining a place on the Future Leaders leadership development programme meant I was required to devise and deliver a whole-school impact initiative. Deciding what to do was simple, as this was such a glaring issue, so the goal I set was to make sure that as many of these children caught up with their peers as possible. 

I had to take everything back to basics. After ensuring all members of staff were aware of the problem and understood just how much support these children needed on a daily basis, I focused on demonstrating to teachers how to place vocabulary and communication at the forefront of everything we did.

A technique of “My turn and your turn” is a great practice to support children in their early language development – asking them to repeat what the teacher has said in full sentences, models sentence construction and vocabulary while also allowing the children to practise speaking aloud in full sentences.

And whether in assemblies, during lunchtimes or simply moving around the school, everyone was reinforcing talk. Gradually communication became part of our culture. You couldn’t walk through a door without a full rendition of “thank you” and “you’re welcome” – which was quite time-consuming when 26 children passed through at a time!

We also introduced many new guests and speakers to enrich the children and provide them with experiences to talk about at home. However, another challenge that soon became clear from this was that they didn’t know how to ask questions. 

After meeting with a speech and language therapist, we introduced “The Talking Box” to support child talk and questioning skills. Each weekend a child would take the box home and, with their parents, would write about something in a special book – perhaps something they had done that weekend or about a holiday they had recently been on. When back in school, the child then discussed what was in their box, referring to the special book and any pictures or memorabilia they had also put inside. 

Afterwards, supported by the teacher, other children would ask questions about what they had just heard. Although at first many of these questions were simply “was it fun?”, it was not long before we had children posing open-ended questions, and from this, real discussions started to happen.

Having my own class to teach on top of this was tough, and as deputy headteacher, I also needed to do a considerable amount of work to set up the basic systems of our school. This restricted my ability to support other teachers practically in the classroom.

To solve this, I invited teachers into my classroom whenever they had non-contact time so that they could observe me, and we arranged cover so that everyone had the opportunity to come in at different times. 

I arranged meetings with them all to discuss their development needs and then followed this up by modelling for them specifically when they came in (for example focusing on reinforcing maths vocabulary or highlighting the use of positive praise). 

By modelling to others through my own class, it ensured that I was always displaying best practice for others to observe and learn from. This included modelling behaviour-management techniques, classroom routines as well as teaching and learning. And out of class I continued to reinforce the explicit teaching of vocabulary throughout the school. 

At the end of the year I was both excited and nervous to retest the children using the BPVS, a test only used at the beginning and end of the year. I was hopeful, but also realistic. One class, which had had three new teachers during their first year, was always likely to be behind, and the test indeed reflected this. However, the results also highlighted a significant improvement for many of the children.

Across the three classes, 92 per cent of my class had made progress, and 80 and 72 per cent in the other two classes. It was wonderful to see children who were more than six months behind their peers jump to four or five months ahead, and others who started 24 months behind to be now only two months behind.

One child in particular was not secure in English or either of the two native languages of his parents (Serbian and Spanish) when he first joined in September. In fact, the only word he liked to say was rectangle with a rolled R! When we assessed him on entry he was 14 months behind the level expected for his age.

We spent a great deal of time working with his mother to set boundaries at home as well as developing his language skills. At the end of the year, as well as progressing to two months ahead of his peers, he was engaged in lessons and keen to be in school. 

Looking over the results for the whole cohort, it was rewarding to have evidence that the gap was closing, and this was all through talking with our children and supporting them to express themselves. 

Coming back to the present, we are aware that the journey has only just begun. As we grow by two more classes this year, we have new staff to train, but at the same time new staff to share ideas with and to learn from. I am also looking forward to focusing more of my time on closing the gap even further, having been able to lay some of the foundations of the school this year. 

And no matter what the results show, there is nothing more rewarding at the end of the year than walking around the school hearing comments from five year old children, such as “Mrs Constant, this lunch is mouth-watering, it looks so delicious!” or perhaps “Look Mrs Constant, I’m lumbering to school because my bag is so heavy!” 

Children are like sponges, particularly at this age, and I hope every teacher and parent remembers what a privilege it is to be part of those early years of development.  

  • Clare Constant is deputy headteacher of the CET Primary School in Tower Hamlets, London. She is also a graduate of the Future Leaders programme.

Future Leaders

The Future Leaders programme is a leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools across England. It offers a residency year in a challenging school, personalised coaching and peer-support through an online network of more than 400 Future Leaders. Applications for 2014 open soon. Register or nominate a colleague at For more information, visit

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