Tackling Language Development in Lyons Hall Primary School, Essex

Lyons Hall Primary School in Braintree, Essex, is tackling language development issues in reception age children by enlisting an exciting new approach to language learning.

“Some children are coming into school with significantly lower abilities in speaking and listening,” says headteacher Andrew Smith. “This is causing concern to the local authority.”

Lyons Hall staff were understandably keen to focus on these language issues 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 teachers Chris Williams and David Andrews, chatta is a powerful learning programme that uses audio-visual technology to help children build their language skills – vital if they are to become confident in reading and writing.

Staff use the chatta app on tablet computers to capture images 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 – ‘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.

Lyons Hall is one of six schools across Braintree piloting the chatta approach. Trials are also being run in Hull, East Yorkshire, and Liverpool.

“We were immediately attracted to it,” Andrew Smith says. “chatta is an approach that we are using inside and outside the classroom to reinforce our focus on speaking and listening. The approach has very quickly become part of our practice and part of what we do in lessons. Teachers are extremely positive about it as part of wider learning support in the classroom.”

Carolyn White is a reception class teacher and Forest School Leader at Lyons Hall. Carolyn and colleagues attended an initial training session with Chris Williams and David Andrews from chatta and were excited by the programme from the start.

Carolyn finds chatta especially useful in her work as forest school leader at Lyons Hall. “We take 15 children into our forest school area and it gives them very different learning experiences,” she explains. “They might try den building and other outdoor skills. It’s an environment which is very child-led and gives the children the opportunity to assess risk themselves.”

The chatta approach has had a significant impact on a number of children, including a four-year-old reception child who was struggling to learn English.

“It’s really helping. She definitely understands more key vocabulary. She’s grasping quite difficult language concepts such as mud, bark and moss. Her biggest interest is in rabbits. She did not know what a real rabbit was, so we’ve explored lots of specific language around that subject such as size, appearance, habitat and diet.

“With the chatta app I’ve taken pictures of these animals during forest school sessions and we can look at these back in the classroom, recording our descriptions and attaching the audio file to the images. And we can review these ‘chats’ later on and try to build on the language further.”

Carolyn adds: “A lot of people might disapprove of technology being used in a forest school setting but the whole ethos of forest school is that it should be child-led and actually this is an approach that allows you to use technology in a way that doesn’t get in the way of that. You take the picture of an activity and then that’s it. It’s a tool to facilitate learning back in the classroom.”

As well as supporting children with EAL the programme is also proving a powerful way of helping children in their struggles with prepositional language, as well as giving more confident speakers ways to increase their vocabulary.

Carolyn adds: “chatta is really easy to use and the early indications are that it is making a difference. It’s not about the children sitting on an iPad – it’s about us using technology in a way that is very focused on supporting them. When you are taking pictures of them in their play to use for our ‘chats’ that is really meaningful to them and they really engage with it.”