Making an impact with chatta in Bellfield Primary School, Hull

Bellfield Primary is a popular and vibrant school at the heart of its community in East Hull. The school has 244 pupils, including 38 children in its nursery unit.

“It’s quite normal for children to come into nursery with speech delays and difficulties with language,” says Anna Howard, assistant headteacher and early years foundation stage leader. “It’s something we are seeing more and more across the city.”

Bellfield staff were understandably keen to focus on these language issues in nursery children and got in touch with chatta, excited by the company’s emphasis on language development as the vital bridge between thinking and writing in early years.

Devised by former city teachers Chris Williams and David Andrews, chatta is a powerful programme that uses audio-visual technology to help children build their language skills – vital if a child is to become confident in reading and writing. Staff use the chatta app on tablet computers to capture images or video of a child’s learning and play activities. These are later used to prompt a discussion between the child and the adult. The conversations, which involve the adult first describing the image or video  – ‘modelling the language’ – and then asking the child to respond, are recorded and attached to the file.

These recordings – called ‘chats’ – can be used in other sessions, providing a starting point for a discussion that will introduce new vocabulary to the child. The chats can also be shared with other practitioners and emailed to parents and carers, giving them a valuable insight into their child’s progress and stimulating further conversations in the home.

Anna and her team soon found that chatta wasn’t just suitable for supporting language development in their early years children. “Our original intention was to use chatta for our pre-school and nursery but I could also find benefits with our SEN children and children with English as an additional language (EAL),” she says.

The chatta approach is now being used with 20 children at Bellfield – in nursery and reception classes and SEN children from reception to Year 4.

Anna offers an example of the powerful impact chatta can have with EAL children: “We have a four year old girl who was very quiet when she came to us in September. She was finding language very difficult, especially positional language. She needed something to encourage her to start talking so I used the chatta programme one to one with her on a few occasions. She loves cats so I showed her images of a cat in different positions around the room and asked her to say where the cat was. She would try and I would then model the language, saying the cat was on the sofa and she would repeat it. This saying, modelling and repeating approach over several sessions has really helped her in her language development.

“Now she is only a small step behind the other children. You can hear the progress she has made in the way she talks to the other children. She may need further support once she is in Year 1 so we’ll use the chatta programme with her then.

“The approach gave her an opportunity to talk and it gave her confidence. And because it involved an iPad it had a fun element for her. I had her complete attention.”

Anna says the training and support being provided by the chatta team has been invaluable.

“We had a whole day’s training with Chris Williams and David Andrews from chatta just before we started using it. The whole day was spent trying chatta and exploring our way through it. You go on lots of training courses where you are told things but you then don’t get proper time to use it. During this session there was a substantial amount of time given over to using it. It was enjoyable seeing just how passionate Chris and David were about chatta but also how open they are to feedback and suggestions for how it might be improved for our setting.”

Bellfield is part of a city-wide pilot of the chatta approach. It involves three primary schools, one nursery school, eight private, voluntary or independent nurseries and three childminders. Pilots are also being run in East Yorkshire, Essex and Liverpool.

Anna and her team are full of plans for how they will use chatta at Bellfield in the coming months. “By Easter we’ll be sending chats back to parents on a regular basis. To go home and be praised by their parents will give the children a real confidence boost.

“And we’re hoping that by the end of June we will be able to measure the impact chatta has had here. Eventually chatta will be across the school as my staff becomes more confident with it. The early signs are really positive and so far the staff are very pleased with it.”

Anna says the chatta approach makes language learning more enjoyable both for the children and staff. “It’s much more involving than approaches like using picture cards,” she says. “The children are used to technology and enjoy interacting with the teachers using the iPads. And our staff like it because it gives them an easy way of building up a really good bank of evidence about each child’s progress.”