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‘Lost words’ reflected through the three pillars of sustainability and the SDGs.

By Diane Boyd


As early years practitioners we recognise the importance of our role in supporting children’s oral skills through holistic development. Influential research by Hart and Risley (1992,1995) stated that early year’s children living in poorer disadvantaged situations experienced significantly less adult directed words than their higher socio-economic peers. The research implied there was a ‘30-million-word deficit’ for the lower socio-economic children by the time they were four. That is a lot of missing words! These crucial findings draw attention to the importance of what quality practitioners can do to support and narrow the gap for children through quality interactions and using their quality environments (SDG 4 Quality Education).


So, how can we close the gap and support children’s communication skills?

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS DfE, 2024, p9) clearly states the importance of “back-and-forth interactions” as a necessary requirement for language and cognitive development in young children. Sameroff and Fiese (2000) suggest back-and-forth interactions are more important than the quantity of the vocabulary children are exposed to, because the bi-directional conversations shared together are closely entwined with Personal, Social and Emotional Development, a universal prime area (EYFS, DfE,2024). As practitioners we need to focus on ensuring all children have opportunities to encounter through modelling and scaffolding, complex language input with a high level of longer, richer sentences (Rowe, 2008). This aligns with the Education Endowment Foundation – Communication and Language toolkit, which reminds practitioners to support and model effective linguistic aspects of communication. However, reflecting on pedagogical interactions Margaret Donaldson (1978) says this must make ‘human sense’ to the children, suggesting the need to draw on the socio-cultural aspects of community too (SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and communities).


Within the Specific Area Understanding the World (EYFS, DfE,2024, p11) practitioners are asked to guide “children to make sense of their physical world and their community.”  Taking children out beyond the gates of your setting allows them to experience holistically their neighbourhood, and what makes sense to them. Every neighbourhood is different (think of smells in a city compared to a beach town!) but as the EYFS (DfE, 2024, p 11) states “the frequency and range of children’s personal experiences increases their knowledge and sense of the world around them”. One such example is walking with your children through the town daily or weekly, past the local shops and engaging in back-and-forth conversations, adding new vocabulary as they walk. 


Exchanging hellos and making conversation with shop keepers will help children to become familiar with new vocabulary that is seemingly being lost due to the overuse of supermarkets. In large supermarkets everything is there and available in one stop – just come in and buy! There are limited interactions, relationships and vocabulary shared.


Sadly now, how many children know for instance, what a cobbler is and what their work comprises of, linking here to SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth. 


By visiting in a natural organic way through a neighbourhood walk, children will become familiar with the shop keepers such as an optician, haberdasher, greengrocer, butcher, chemist, and baker (remember use this core language) that reside on their high street. When do children ever hear these occupational words now? So, it is imperative early years practitioners highlight these words before they become ‘lost’.  Reinforce the words further through reading non-fiction books and revisit language associated with each profession, for example, Dylan the Shopkeeper by Guy Parker Rees. Set up your role play as different shops visited to consolidate language further.


The new vocabulary can be extended to understand the produce they can purchase from the different shops, resonating with SDG 8, SDG 9, and SDG 11. The EYFS (DfE,2024) asks practitioners to build ‘positive relationships’, and this is a way of doing this through your locality. For example, in the greengrocer discuss the type of apple with the children and then taste test them. Granny Smith or Royal Gala which are sweet or bitter?  Think of the lovely describing words or faces here!

Other extension activities could include memory games- I went to the baker and I bought bread, a cake, some pastries; or I went to the butcher, and I bought some pork sausages, a bacon chop, some beef burgers; this consolidates the produce from each shop and the repetition aids the children’s cognition.  After visiting the high street, the children could make their own big story book from each shop rather than buying books to support. This would be very effective as this supports children’s understanding of text - words and images together have meaning, that there is a beginning, middle and end in books which will make ‘human sense’ to them as this connects them to their community high street shops, and the satisfaction of knowing they wrote the book.


Due to plastic credit cards being used in supermarkets there are other words that are now less frequently used in the terms of monetary currency. How often do children hear in purchasing back and forth conversations, or the words pennies and pounds being used? By highlighting during your neighbourhood walks not just the local shop keepers, their profession and produce sold, take the children into the shop, and model the use of real money.  As the EEF Communication and Language states “settings should use a range of different approaches to developing communication and language skills.” It is important that children hear your “back-and-forth interactions” (EYFS, DfE,2024p, 9) with the shop keepers, as they are valuable conversations of both produce and currency together.


The EEF (Early numeracy approaches) research shows that by utilising holistic pedagogy it has “a higher impact than when maths was delivered as a supplementary activity.” Through these conversations children will hear pennies, pounds, change and cost which they can replicate in role play back at your setting because this makes “human sense” (Donalson,1978) to them.

Moving out into the locality and community children will have countless opportunities to use their 5 senses – hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing, and touching. By visiting local parks, gardens, or beaches regularly children will develop empathy and care for their environment. The emphasis is that you always use correct terminology with the children. For example, not the generic term ‘flower’ but daffodil or snow drop, and you encourage the children to observe the fauna but not pick them.  There is a fabulous book called Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris (2021) which focuses again on disappearing words but this time in the natural world.


The book states “all over the country, there are words disappearing from children's lives. These are the words of the natural world; Dandelion, Otter, Bramble, and Acorn, all gone. A wild landscape of imagination and play is rapidly fading from our children's minds. The Lost Words stands against the disappearance of wild childhood”. This book could be used as a follow up to walks or scientific observations in woodland.  Crucially for the planet we need to ensure young children hear, use, and understand key words from nature. As the EEF- Early Literacy approaches state you must ensure that “your early literacy strategy is well-balanced and combines approaches that will support the development of skills, knowledge and understanding”.


From a sustainable perspective we need to invest in our locality whether this is the high street or park or woodlands or coastline.


If children develop a relationship with their community and locality then they will love the area, respect the area and care for the area. EEF- Early years evidence highlights “approaches for teaching early literacy should, therefore, be used in ways that build on approaches that support communication and language, which are fundamental to children’s literacy.” This resonates with the Specific Area Knowledge and Understanding which asks practitioners to “foster their understanding of our culturally, socially, technologically, and ecologically diverse world” EYFS (DfE,2024, p11). Extending and developing these ‘lost words’ of the high street and environment builds “important knowledge,” and “extends their familiarity with words that support understanding across domains” (EYFS, DfE, 2024, p11).

Economic sustainability through regular opportunities to use and understand words associated with currency, socio-cultural sustainability through engaging and connecting with your local community high street shops and environmental sustainability with care and empathy because of a relationship with the natural world. This clearly demonstrates the interconnected and holistic approaches to both early childhood and sustainability.

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