Learning Matters… “Feed a Brain Today!”

I don’t know if any of you remember the Sure Start programme? It was a government funded initiative targeted at children under the age of four, living in the most disadvantaged areas. The aim of the programme was to provide a host of joined up services to support families, as well as to provide a high-quality educational setting which children under the age of four could attend. These settings were aimed at being cognitively enabling or cognitively rich environments which would support children’s cognitive development from a very early age. So, there would be great play opportunities, lots of play resources and well-funded outside environments with an array of exciting equipment that children play with, in or on.

These environments were staffed with professionals and were rich in words, whether this was the spoken word, environmental print or books. This meant that children attending these Sure Start centres were being exposed to a rich and extensive vocabulary.

Why the focus on vocabulary? It is well understood that vocabulary development is a strong indicator of reading success, which in turn is a strong predictor of academic success, which in turn strongly correlates with personal and professional success in later life. The role of parents and the home is crucial to this development. Studies show that children mainly use words their parents and other adults use with them in conversation and acquire richer vocabularies when their parents use a greater range of words.

Not every child has the same exposure to vocabulary, some live in vocabulary enriched environments which are characterised by lots of talk, social interactions and lots of exposure to books. Others are exposed to much less talk, fewer social activities and fewer books. The differences between vocabulary acquisition of vocabulary impoverished environments and vocabulary rich environments are stark; research has shown that by the age of four, children from vocabulary impoverished environments are likely to have been exposed to around 13 million words, whereas those from environments with an abundance of words are likely to have been exposed to around 45 million words by the same age. By the age of four!

Hence the focus, amongst other things, upon vocabulary for the Sure Start programme.

What is also interesting about the Sure Start programme, was that the programme had a real positive impact upon families, children, and their educational outcomes, at the time they were attending the Sure Start centre. The research also shows that this impact dwindled over time and weakened significantly.

We shouldn’t be surprised, and as the education guru David Didau (https:// learningspy.co.uk) has commented, we should see intelligence/learning a little like health. If we want to be healthy, we might stop eating junk food, we might go to the gym, take to walking and so on. And this will help us to be healthier, but, if, once we have got to this healthier state, we then went back to eating junk food, and not exercising, no-one would be surprised if we ended up being unhealthy again. Intelligence and learning is like this, when the education stops so does the learning. We know schools are restarting and that formal learning is beginning again, after what has been a very long absence. I know all are looking forward to this restart. However, as we can see, not all important learning takes place in the school. Whether schools are open, or whether schools are closed, we can all play our part in providing an educative experience for learners of all ages.

How can you do this? The best way, really and truly, is to keep exposing your child to an ever increasingly rich vocabulary; encourage them to read perhaps have a reading hour at home, visit the library, turn off the tablet/ computer/TV/phone, hear stories being read (there are some great ones available on YouTube) read aloud to them yourself, have a ‘word of the day’ (www.wordsmith.org) eat family dinners together if you can and talk, play board games together – Scrabble anyone?

Vocabulary development relies upon social interaction, so social activities are key. This advice is advice for all ages, you are never to young nor too old.

It really is worth it. I like to think of every word as being a new idea, a new concept if you like, and when a new word is learnt a new neuron is born to house it, and that neuron reaches out to other neurons, making connections to theirs, which in turn makes more connections and so on. Words are brain food.

We know that vocabulary development is the difference that makes the difference.

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