Seb, aged 3.5 years, enjoys the details of the book ‘In The Night Kitchen’ with his mother. But Seb is also learning about the structure of stories, about beginning, middles and ends, about twists and turns and characters, about description of events and dialogue, what the characters actually say. Out of choice, Seb re-runs the story through his pretend play, with his play dough and his own baking oven made out of a cardboard box.
When young children have had plenty of experience of songs and rhymes, they start to make up their own. Ava, at just 3 years of age, encourages her friend, Esther, also 3 years, and Mum to join a song that Ava has created. Ava understands how a song should work, the repetitive nature of different lines in the song and the fact that you usually have movements that accompany the different lines as they are sung. She is able to use her spoken language in a deliberate and playful way and has a sharp ear for rhythm and flow. It is very endearing to listen and watch as young children make up their own songs and tuneful ditties. It is also worth standing back and admiring how much they have learned in order to create in this way.
Sumaya, aged 3.5 years, is adept at talking out loud for her story making. Sumaya is speaking in her family language of Arabic. Like many young children across the UK, Sumaya is tackling more than one language within her early childhood. Young children’s brains are programmed ideally for learning language. Being bilingual or multilingual only seems to be unusual, or an inevitable problem, to adults who grew up monolingual. However, children like Sumaya are very busy learning vocabulary from more than one language. Sumaya will also soon be aware, if not already, that her family language is written in a completely different way from English. Her early years practitioners need to be fully aware of the learning task for Sumaya, and other children who are or are becoming bilingual.
As well as respect for her 3-year-old fluency in Arabic, Sumaya will benefit from friendly attention to help her extend her English vocabulary. However, Sumaya is not a baby or toddler; she is talking and thinking like a 3-year-old. So any conversation, and making clear links between words and their meaning, needs to be closely connected with her likely understanding and interests. Of course, if you do not speak a child’s home language, then you cannot make an informed judgement whether she or he is speaking and listening up to their age. You certainly must not judge their language ability exclusively by English, especially if children have not long started to take this language on board. It will be important to get a reliable idea of a child’s ability in their home language. If parents are bilingual, then you will be able to have a conversation with them. If not, there will be very good reason to find a bilingual practitioner, even if not from your own setting, who can give you a more accurate view. That practitioner should also explain to the child’s parents why you have asked for some help in this way.
At home, Jamie (4.5 years) is active in talking out her story about the dolls, how they are going to bed at night but need to be locked safely in the cage. Jamie shows how familiarity with fairy stories and the structure of this kind of tale enables children to imagine their own plots. Early literacy is supported whenever children are keen to weave stories: talking out loud, creating plots and characters. When young children’s mark making moves towards letter-like shapes, stories are sometimes what they most want to ‘write’. Children who have created lots of narratives through play are adept at planning their story.
In her nursery Tope has equivalent relaxed time to create the narrative around the pretend office which she has established with her friend. (The girls are 3.5 and 4 years of age.) Tope shows her grasp of the usefulness of writing and, through her pretend play, how she understands why you might want to write. Tope and her companion in the pretend office look like writers and they will have gained a broad understanding of why people write something. 4 and 5 year olds should have plenty of relaxed experiences, such as you see following Tope’s play in the film, that enable them to fine tune their skills and understanding so that they will become poised to be taught how to write, as well as to read.