Grannies are the solution

Trigger alert: this is a light-hearted post written in everyday, no-frills English. The messages within are quite serious though and you might get offended, particularly if you work in Early Years and think everything is just dandy.

I wrote a while back about this problem of children coming to school without even tier 1 words, some without the ability to say anything whatsoever. These children cannot access anything on offer in the EYFS reception year classroom; they fall behind and then suffer for the rest of their lives: poor grades at secondary school, increased risk of mental health issues, vicious cycle of poverty etc. E.D Hirsch was concerned about this, although much of the implementation of Hirsch’s wisdom has centred around providing a knowledge-rich curriculum for older children in primary and secondary schools, the more I work with younger and younger year groups, the more I feel that to truly sort this out once and for all, we need to tackle that word-gap head on – right at the start, and then the children will be on their way with that Mathew effect taking hold for all children, not just the lucky ones with excellent home lives (especially if we ensure that, very quickly, they all become readers too).

So what is the real problem here? Do all these children have diagnosable conditions and SEN? No. The problem is lack of quality human interaction, therefore the solution is more quality human interaction.

Let’s go back to the basic principles of ‘How to be good at anything’:

  • being taught well (explicit teaching, modelling etc – no woolly nonsense)
  • lots of practice in order to secure whatever has been taught in long term memory
  • frequent testing so that it doesn’t fall out of one’s head

Since this process applies to to the learning of pretty much anything and everything, then we can also assume this is how children become competent at communicating in basic English – learning the first few basic rules, vocabulary and phrases (plus pronunciation), facial expression and body language of polite conversation. I have heard that speaking and listening is something that comes naturally, apparently, but I think this dismisses the very deliberate teaching and modelling of English language and the rules of polite conversation that the parent provides – how many times have you said to your own children ‘Look at me when I’m talking to you!’ and then expected them to do this repeatedly until it became a habit. This is the explicit teaching, followed by practice, of a rule of polite communication.

The trouble is, your average nursery can’t provide what is needed. Why? Firstly, not enough people. Even if the nursery teacher sat down with 10 children and read them a story and then tried to have a bit of back-and-forth conversation with the children, only the children who could already speak would dominate. The ones who can’t speak would just fiddle with their shoes and even if the nursery leader did manage to coax a few mono-syllabic answers out of these children, they still wouldn’t be getting anywhere near enough practice (see above on ‘How to be good at anything’).

Secondly, just about everybody in charge is ideologically committed to letting little children explore the world through running around, painting, playing, enjoying The Forest School etc – even Ofsted reports centre around observing how the children are feeling, with a preponderance of ‘children enjoy…….’ statements that presumably mean inspectors are looking for happy faces quite a lot of the time. So, even if the little ones are hearing a few good words from their peers at the mud kitchen, it’ll all be drowned out by the natural din of items being chucked about, joyful screams, whoops, stamping, random humming etc. Besides, in the nursery that serves a disadvantaged area, peers won’t necessarily be the good little teachers that everyone hopes they will be.

At this point, many practitioners would jump in and shout about how wonderful they are at letting the children lead the learning, and how they surreptitiously sidle into various ‘opportunities’ as they arise, questioning and talking to children – but only one or two at a time – what about the other lot? Again, not enough teaching, not enough practice and then not enough ‘testing’ (the kind of test of real life conversation away from the nursery). I’m sure pretty much all EYFS practitioners are fantastic, hard-working, caring and dedicated people who are sensitive to the needs of all children, but all these personal qualities of a very small number of people aren’t enough mitigate against the sheer scale of what we’re dealing with here.

How about using technology? No. We all know that children spend far too much time glued to their iPads and even if there were a super-duper app that helped children to learn a few words and phrases, the other aspects of learning to speak and truly communicating would be not be taught.

Grannies are the solution.


Who’s got the words? Grannies. Who’s got the time? Grannies. Who’s got the patience? Grannies. Who’s got the good manners and well-honed conversation skills? Grannies.

What we need is a system whereby grannies (and granddads) become a standard feature in nurseries and EYFS reception year. What will their role be? To read a story to one or two disadvantaged children at a time and just talk with them, give them the time of day. Surely this should be the parent’s job? Yes, but let’s get real – the parents of disadvantaged children don’t do this and the reasons they don’t are varied (let’s not get into it lest we upset people even more).

How can this happen? There are a number of barriers. Firstly, recruitment to The Cause. We need charities and organisations to be set up to win the hearts and minds of good quality, educated grannies who want to make a difference. Then, we need to create a process whereby it is easy for said lovely ladies to come into the nurseries and reception years and be given a regular time to help those disadvantaged children on their way to joining the rest of society through being able to communicate. We will definitely need to buy a few special comfy chairs for them to sit on, and rearrange the classrooms, corridors and school library (if there is one) to provide truly quiet spaces. Disadvantaged children who have no words need a lot of teaching and even MORE practice – the very first barrier that needs to torn down is the one that exists in the minds of education professionals and it requires an honest admission that one teacher and maybe one or two TAs cannot ever truly replace the quality teaching of the first and most important teachers of those 30 children – the parents. If the parents cannot/will not do this, then we need the next best thing*: grannies.

Who’s with me?

*In many cases, even better – older generations have had a lifetime of reading and conversation which would mean that, for example, their range of vocabulary is huge and varied.



3 thoughts on “Grannies are the solution

  1. Yesterday I was discussing the problem of having good models of spoken English with a Lancashire primary school teacher, and she said that few of their TAs ever uttered a sentence that was grammatically correct. In fact, there is a tendency to talk down to kids who can barely speak. We agreed that teaching gps won’t do much good in these circumstances.

    Thinking back to an earlier post, someone commented on the success of Englemann’s Direct Instruction programmes in the Abt Asscociates evaluation of the Follow Through initiatives in the 1970s. Sadly, the profession closed ranks: before he became obsessed with education, Englemann was (of all things) an advertising executive. The Ford Foundation forked out for studies to discredit the Abt report, and it took a very brave teacher in a very tolerant school district to use his materials.

    All of the Englemann materials were designed to be used for whole-class teaching in schools serving disadvantaged pupils, but in the UK they were used mostly for small groups of SEN pupils. When I started teaching remedial literacy skills in the early 1990s, I relied heavily upon Spelling Mastery, largely because I didn’t much care for Corrective Reading or Reading Mastery. I used the former both for private individual tutoring, and for groups of up to 8 or 9 pupils who were reasonably well matched for spelling ability in a local comp. However, I soon found that in order to achieve an acceptable standard of performance, I had to write a lot of supplemental materials.

    Most of them were simply sentence dictation exercises–SM had a couple sentences with each lesson, but this was nowhere near enough overlearning for most SEN pupils. Strangely enough, my pupils liked them: for once, they were writing sentences that they weren’t ashamed of. After I dictated the sentences, I always made all pupils repeat the sentence. Many of the sentences had prepositional phrases or subordinate clauses, so they often needed two or three tries to repeat them verbatim.

    I don’t have any evidence that this transferred to other writing, but it certainly must have helped. Nor can I say whether my pupils’ behaviour transferred to other situations, but Direct Instruction is an activity with formal rules. That, along with the fact that children really do like being taught grown-up skills, goes a long way toward instilling a basic appreciation of the advantages of civilised behaviour.

    Sadly, I fear that the profession would be even less welcoming of grannies and granddads than it was of Sigfried Englemann.


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