Joanne Haine, foundation stage coordinator at Baring Primary School in London, describes how innovative use of ICT made assessment exciting for children and practitioners alike.

This is a practical guide to one way of recording children’s language development in the nursery and offers the potential for creating a record of achievement throughout the Foundation Stage and into Key Stage 1.

Why is there a need to record children’s spoken language skills?

According to the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage:
‘The development and use of communication and language is at the heart of young children’s learning… The ability to communicate gives children the capacity to participate more fully in their society.’ (Page 45)

As part of our ongoing development of recording and assessment in our nursery, the nursery nurse and I felt the need to develop a more effective way of collecting evidence to support children’s achievements in communication, language and literacy. This evidence would support us more efficiently in recording children’s achievements through the stepping stones and towards the early learning goals and allow us to identify next steps for learning in a more informed way.

As a school we had become very aware that many children were entering our nursery with poor language and communication skills – knowing few nursery rhymes or songs and displaying an extremely limited vocabulary, often displaying methods of non-verbal communication to express their needs.

While we kept detailed observations from the earliest stages of their time in nursery we felt that these did not give a clear picture of the children’s ‘baseline’ achievement in this area. Also, with a large number of our children having a home language other than English when starting nursery, we felt that we were not able to make a full record of their home language skills, purely their English language skills. We knew that children made very good progress with their language development in nursery but felt we needed more evidence to show exactly how much progress they made and how they could be supported to progress further and achieve the early learning goals.

Many of the stepping stones for CLL listed in the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage are linked to children speaking and communicating about their own real-life experiences or things that are important and meaningful for them. Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage states:
 “Young children’s learning is not compartmentalised. They learn when they make connections between experiences and ideas that are related to any aspect of their life in the setting, at home or in the community.” (Page 45)

Stimulating quality talk with PowerPoint

We felt we needed to provide children with an enjoyable experience that would also give us the opportunity to create a record of their spoken language. After wracking our brains for some time and trying out different ways of recording children’s achievements – using tape recorders and written observations – I was fortunate enough to attend a course run by Lewisham Early Years and Resources Network (LEARN) on Developing ICT in the Foundation Stage.

One of the ideas shared on the course was to use the computer program Microsoft PowerPoint to create virtual books based on the children’s interests or known texts. These could include clip art, sound effects and music and could be accessed and enjoyed by the children supported by an adult.

I found this idea new and very exciting and was keen to put it into practice in the nursery setting. The children, particularly the boys, were highly motivated and were keen to read the books. With support and guidance, they were quick to learn how to click on pictures and icons to make noises and how to turn the ‘pages’.

It was while observing a small group of children reading one of the PowerPoint ‘books’ and seeing the amount of quality talk generated by the images on screen that we began to see the potential for using this highly motivational program as a tool for providing evidence for assessment – both summative and formative – of children’s language skills.

Something new and exciting at the computer

We began by setting up a PowerPoint ‘book’ template containing several photographs of our class mascot Malcolm the Monkey on our class trip to Greenwich Park. They were all photographs of him engaged in activities that the children had enjoyed – playing on the swings and climbing frames, feeding the ducks, looking at the flowers and having his lunch! We then used the microphone to record ‘Malcolm’ talking about his experiences and inserted each sound clip into the appropriate page in the ‘book’. The children then had the opportunity to come to the computer and help Malcolm to read and listen to his book.

The children quickly became familiar with Malcolm’s story and the photographs generated huge excitement and lots of talk about the trip and which parts were favourite for different individuals.

Next came the tricky part! We set up a ‘book’ for each child in the nursery, ranging from those who had just arrived in the setting to those who had been with us for almost 4 terms. Each book contained between five and seven photographs of the child, either alone or with other children and adults, engaged in activities around the nursery or taken while out of school on a variety of class trips.

Each child was then encouraged to come to the computer and share their book with an adult. As each page showing a new photograph was revealed, the child’s immediate response was recorded using the sound recorder and open questioning was used to extend the speaking opportunities available. These speech recordings were then inserted into each page with the appropriate photographs and saved as evidence for assessment.

The child was then helped to open his book, turn the pages and activate his own voice by clicking on the correct icon. This in turn provoked further talk which was recorded in the form of a general observation.

In addition to asking the children to record their reactions to the photographs we also requested that they choose their favourite nursery rhyme or song to sing and record, providing us with further evidence for assessment.

The children were quick to spread the word that something exciting and new was happening at the computer and we were soon besieged with hoards desperate to record their voices for posterity and to take part in a new and very different challenge.

Even children who were generally more reticent and spoke very little during their time in the nursery each day surprised us by speaking aloud when met with a photograph of themselves flickering on the computer screen. In a matter of hours, some children had learned how to open the correct folder and select their book, or that of their friend, and to read and listen independently!

Using the information

As the books were completed the nursery nurse and I sat down together to update the children’s Individual Profiles with the new assessment information that we had learned from making the books. This was combined with the information we had already gathered from general and focused observations in the setting. We listened to the children’s recorded speech and assessed against the stepping stones that we had identified earlier in the process. Although our written observations informed our assessments, we found that having a recording of a child’s voice talking about a photograph of himself engaged in an activity provided a much more accurate representation of that child’s language skills. We then used what we had learned from the recordings to identify how the children needed to progress next and the steps by which we could scaffold their learning and development towards these goals.

These steps were then included in our planning process. While we had expected to gain additional information from the recorded speech, we were surprised at the extent to which children gave us evidence of reaching the stepping stones across all the areas of learning.

More uses for the virtual books

All the PowerPoint books were saved on the computer for the children to access independently or with adult support according to their knowledge of the computer. As well as viewing and listening to their own books, many of the children were fascinated to hear their friends’ voices coming from the computer and the whole thing gave the computer area a new lease of life. We were amazed at how quickly the children learned to access the books and control the mouse with enough skill to turn ‘pages’ and activate sound buttons. They were very keen to share what they had done with their parents and carers, many of whom commented on how they enjoyed having an additional insight into their children’s time at nursery.

Bearing these comments in mind, in addition to saving the books on the computer we also copied each child’s book onto two CDs – one to be filed with the children’s Individual Profiles and the other to be sent home to parents. This was accompanied by a printed version of the book and instructions about how to save it onto a home computer. Parents and carers without access to computers were told that they could use the nursery computer to view their children’s work.

We also came to realise quite quickly that as well as providing excellent visual and spoken evidence of individual children’s learning and experiences at nursery, the books as a collection were extremely effective evidence of our nursery provision as a whole. Together, the photographs and speech told a comprehensive story of a year in our nursery.

Next steps

Two terms later, the saved books are still very popular with children in the nursery and continue to stimulate language and talk.

We intend to repeat this assessment activity in the spring term as part of the school’s book-making project [editor’s note: this article was written at the end of 2005]. After careful thought and reflection have decided to make the following minor changes to the process:

  • Making shared books including the voices of more than one child, speaking individually and in pairs or groups. This will offer more potential for assessing children’s language and communication skills in a social setting
  • Involving parents and carers in the process by recording exchanges between them and their children.
  • Including short clips of video taken using Digital Blue Movie Maker cameras as well as still photographs.

Ideally we would also like the children who made books last year and are now in the current Reception class to repeat the activity, creating an ongoing record of their achievements in language and communication. In the future this could perhaps be extended into Key Stage 1 by which time some of the children would have developed the ICT skills to take more responsibility for the recording and importing of sound and pictures.

All in all we have found this to be an interesting, informative and worthwhile tool for the assessment of language and communication skills in the nursery setting.

This article is abridged from Julie Haine (2005) ‘Children’s language for thinking and communication in the nursery setting,’ Literacy Coordinator’s File, 24.

For further details of this publication go to www.pfp-publishing.com

Making the assessments

This example is the favourite nursery rhyme of a three-year-old girl with one term’s nursery experience. English was not her first language but her vocabulary had increased quickly during her time with us.

‘Incy wincy spider Clumbered in the floor Down in…

Whoosh… the spider out.’

From this piece of evidence we assessed that the child had achieved early stepping stones in the following areas and aspects:

  • Personal, Social and Emotional Development: Dispositions and attitudes
  • Communication, Language and Literacy: Language for communication; Linking sounds and letters.

The next steps we identified were:

  • Sharing rhymes daily 1:1 and in small groups, using props, puppets and pictures to support learning
  • Encourage the child to join in with singing along to nursery rhyme CDs during child-initiated play.

Reference

QCA (2000) Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage QCA/00/57. London: QCA

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