One of the first things I notice when I visit an early learning centre is the amount of language that is being used by the staff. It's usually quite a lot! One of the goals in my attainment nursery is to improve children's listening skills as this is an important pre-requisite to learning. My go-to book is "Teaching Children to Listen" by Liz Spooner and Jacqui Woodcock. This is a book designed for school-aged children but I've heard on the grapevine that the authors are in talks about an early years version, so watch this space! There are many transferable activities and ideas that can be used from the current book and most of my suggestions and examples have come from this book.

In the book, we are told that:

What we say to children makes a real difference to how well children listen.

Children switch off when:

  • There’s too much information
  • Ambiguous language is used
  • Specific / abstract concepts are used
  • ‘Trigger phrases’ stop a child listening to anything else.

The authors offer 8 strategies that improve listening. I've used them all and I'm telling you - they work!

1) Reducing the load

"In a moment it will be time to go for lunch so, before you line up at the door, I want you to go to the toilet and then wash your hands."
"Toilet, hands, line up."

How often do we use an introductory sentence when giving an instruction which doesn’t contain any useful information
"It’s nearly time to go to lunch, so I would like you to finish up your puzzle."
Which words in this instruction are important?
"Finish your puzzle"

2) Telling not asking

We often sound like we are asking a question when we are not! This is particularly important for children with social communication difficulties and where there is not actually a choice here!
Would you like to come and sit on the carpet?
Can you come and do your reading book with me?
Please can you log off the computer now?

Two problems with this....
Increases number of words used. (See strategy one!)
Implies that the child can choose. How would you feel if the child answers "no!"? The child is not being rude when you have asked them a question - they are just being honest!

3) Keeping it concrete

Idioms and non-literal language are not only difficult for children on the autistic spectrum but also for younger children who just don't understand these yet:
We’re running late (are they doing PE?)
He’s feeling under the weather (did he get wet?)
It’s driving me up the wall (something to do with a car accident?)

4) Minding your Manners

Modelling good manners is important BUT changes an instruction into a question, which implies choice
Please could you come and sit on the carpet?
Sit on the carpet. Thank you.

5) Avoiding Before and After

These two words change the order of an instruction without changing the order of the words. The concept of before and after is typically acquired by 6 years of age, so it's best to assume children in pre-school do not understand this yet.

Before you go for your snack, you need to wash your hands.
We are going out to play after we have been to the toilet.

Using ‘first, next’  avoids any confusion.

6) Avoid trigger phrases

Some phrases, when they are included, mean that the child listens to nothing else in that phrase.
These include:
Line up at the door
It’s nearly playtime
Time for lunch.

7) Giving whole class instructions

There will always be some children who do not respond.
“Can everyone and Matthew get their reading book.”
Sounds strange but eventually these children will learn what “everyone” means.

8) Use unpredictability

We often try to methodically go round all the children to keep things fair.
But when we do, children switch off once they realise they’ve had a turn and won’t get asked again.
Also, they don’t bother listening as they know they are going to get a turn eventually.
But! You need to be explicit:
Even if you’ve had a turn, I might pick you again.
Today we are going to do something different. So listen careful.

I wonder if any of these strategies have worked for you? I can't wait for the early years version of the book to come out as it really makes us, as early years practitioners think about what we say - I'd love to know what your favourite phrases are to keep your littles tuned in to you!