Evidence for Learning: Supporting rich conversations with children and families in early learning

Supporting rich conversations with children and families in early learning

Recent challenges show the importance of connecting with families and supporting educator, child and family wellbeing.
Blog •6 minutes •

Introduction to the evidence for impact’ blog series

With the new year well underway, schools and early learning settings across Australia are grappling with the past and present impacts of the pandemic, and now, also impacts of the floods in some parts of the East Coast. This challenging context provides an opportunity for instructional leaders to use a strong evidence base to focus upon targeted and manageable actions that support learning and wellbeing.

The impacts of the pandemic (and other disruptions such as floods) on children and young people can be highly variable, with significant differences to be expected across contexts, cohorts and circumstances. Furthermore, there is ongoing potential for additional disruption of learning and development due to isolation requirements for both educators and children who develop Covid-19 or are close contacts of those who do.

These recent challenges have emphasised the importance of connecting with families and supporting educator, child and family wellbeing. Many early childhood leaders and educators are exploring how to connect with children in new ways, deepen partnerships with families, and strengthen team connectedness and cohesion. Communication and engagement are central tenets of this work.

Communication and language approaches and parental engagement are some of the highest impact approaches in E4L’s summary of the global research on early learning (the Early Childhood Education Toolkit). This final blog in the series looks at what the research evidence says on supporting rich conversations with children and families in early learning – the kind of conversations that are now more important than ever.

What does the research say about supporting rich conversations with children and families?

As summarised in a systematic literature review on the topic, strong oral language skills provide children with a platform to communicate effectively, and predict children’s success in formal classroom settings and life trajectories more broadly. Young children who are exposed to rich oral language environments – at home and in education settings – have increased speaking and listening skills.

Rich oral language environments are those in which children are exposed to complex and varied language, engaged in sustained conversations, provided opportunities for exploration and expression (e.g. using gestures, words and sentences) and allowed to communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas. Early childhood leaders and educators have opportunities to support oral language development in early learning settings, and can encourage parents to support this type of development in their children at home.

Supporting rich conversations in early learning settings

On average, children who are involved in communication and language approaches in early learning settings make approximately six months’ additional progress over a period of a year. All children benefit from such approaches, but some studies show slightly larger effects for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Communication and language approaches emphasise the importance of spoken language and verbal interaction for young children and explicitly support communication through talking, verbal expression, modelling language and reasoning.

E4L’s systematic literature review of the Australasian research (authored by the University of Queensland) on how to support rich conversations contains five recommended strategies for early childhood educators to add to their interaction toolkit’. These include:

  1. Position children with knowledge, value their ideas and move between leading and following in conversations
    1. Use I wonder…’ statements e.g. I wonder, do all eggs hatch into birds?”
    2. Ask genuine questions that you really don’t know the answer to
  2. Practice pausing to create time for children to process and respond
    1. Play with intentional pausing for different lengths of time (eg. 3 – 5 seconds, 5 – 10 seconds) after asking a question
  3. Make conversations personal by connecting to children’s experiences, lives and interests
    1. When reading a book or telling a story, prompt a child to tell a story about a similar experience of their own
    2. Ask a child to provide commentary on photos of an experience or project
  4. Use questions effectively
    1. Use open-ended’ questions eg. What do you think might happen next?”
    2. Use statements followed by pauses rather than only question-answer interactions e.g. Wow, look at the …”
    3. Repeat, modify, or provide a hint, instead of answering your own question
  5. Keep the conversation going
    1. Paraphrase a child’s talk to model more complex language e.g. Child: There’s a bird”, response: Yes, I can see the lorikeet. It reminds me of a colourful rainbow.”
    2. Use active listening e.g. eye-contact, nodding, facial expressions, gestures and short verbal cues

Early childhood educators can use any number of activities and moments during the day to encourage these kinds of rich conversations.

Make Moments Matter

Figure 1: Making Moments Matter (from E4L’s tip sheets on oral language development)

Working with parents to support children’s learning and development

Actively involving parents in supporting their children’s learning and development is associated with positive outcomes. On average, parental engagement programs can lead to a positive impact of approximately four additional months’ progress over the course of a year. Approaches that aim to increase general parental engagement, such as encouraging parents to read with their children, can have a moderate positive impact.

For example, parents can:

  • Undertake shared reading with their child (see E4L’s tip sheet for parents on shared reading)
  • Seek out reading and conversation opportunities with their child (see E4L’s tip sheet for parents on reading with TRUST)
  • Have rich conversations with their child (see E4L’s tip sheet for parents on talking tips)

Communicating with families to encourage involvement in their child’s learning is consistently associated with positive outcomes. E4L’s Guidance Report on Working with parents to support children’s learning has several evidence-based tips that can be useful to early childhood leaders and educators. These include:

  • Getting to know your families’ language backgrounds, circumstances, and preferences to help create messages that are accessible and valuable.
  • Using messages that are positive, that invite parents to engage, that respond to parents’ preferences and are not overwhelming in their frequency.
  • Tailoring messages to the family and providing information that is specific or relevant to their child (there may be methods – such as apps or platforms – which allow you to do this efficiently and without adding to your workload).
  • Including tips to support learning and development, and including social and emotional support – rather than only feedback on progress, or other general information (perhaps start by sharing a resource like Read with TRUST’).
  • Inviting parents and families to engage with educators and consult on decisions, such as inviting parents to share ideas about what they would find helpful.

Supporting rich conversations in practice

C&K is Queensland’s largest early childhood education and care provider with over 330 kindys and childcares around Queensland. Viki Rozsas, one of C&K’s Early Childhood Pedagogy Advisors, explains how C&K are focussing on language and relationships:

Considerations for early childhood leaders and educators

  • How can you use various moments during the day to take opportunities to have rich conversations with children and or families? (e.g. on arrival and departure to the service, during eating times, during storybook reading, during outdoor play)
  • What learning and development outcomes are you focussing on and when are you intentional about fostering a rich conversation as opposed to (or in combination with) deliberately fostering other skills such as independent play?
  • Are families responding to the format, frequency and content of your communication with them? Can you better leverage online tools and resources if families are now more familiar with using them?
  • What resources can you provide to families to help foster rich conversations in the home environment? Is there something you can provide to them that is related to their child’s learning interests and experiences?
  • How can you support oral language development and engagement with children and families from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds? Or who have been disproportionally impacted by Covid-19 and other challenges?

Key takeaways

Strategies that promote oral language development and parental engagement can have a positive impact on young children’s learning and development. Educators can use a number of intentional strategies to promote rich conversations with children and families in early learning settings.