Topic 3: Early Development

Neuroepithelium, the developing brain by Prof. Bill Harris

Neuroepithelium, the developing brain by Prof. Bill Harris

How do essential early school skills, such as reading, writing, and basic maths develop?

What do I need to know?

  • Reading, writing and maths are the most important skills that children learn at school, but the foundations for these skills develop long before the child starts school.  These skills are complex and they involve lots of different brain areas.
  • The brain develops rapidly during the first few years of life: more than one million new connections between brain cells are formed every second.
  • The brain circuits that are involved in the basic skills of vision, hearing and language develop first, and they are critical for the later-developing brain circuits involved in reading, writing and maths.
  • A child’s genes are important for brain development, but so are their environment and their experiences. Interactions with adults and other children who are responsive to the child’s attempts to communicate and to learn about the world around them are particularly important for building brain circuits.
  • Spoken language is a particularly important foundation for reading, writing and maths. Some children will be exposed to more than one language and will be growing up bilingual, or even multilingual. Some may even be acquiring a signed language. For the brain, the type of language (spoken or signed) and the number of different languages is not important – what is important is that the child grows up with lots of opportunities to experience language and to take part in conversations.
  • Reading requires the child to be able to recognise words written on the page and to be able to understand the meaning of those words in the context of the surrounding text. Children who see lots written language in their environment, are read to often by caregivers, and develop a good vocabulary, will have a strong foundation for learning to read when they start school.
  • Similarly, writing builds on children’s language skills, but also their fine motor skills. Children who have lots of opportunities to use pencils, crayons and paints, and to play with puzzles and small-scale construction materials, will develop their fine motor skills and have a strong foundation for learning to write.
  • Maths builds on children’s hands-on experiences with quantities and shapes and on their experiences with mathematical language – such as the words used for counting (‘one’, ‘two’ ‘three’ etc.) and phrases like ‘how many altogether’, ‘which is the biggest’, and ‘not the same’.

What can I do in my classroom?

  • Children vary greatly in their pace of development. It is important to recognise that children will start school having had a range of different experiences and that they will be at different levels of development.
  • Children learn best when they are in active, engaged, constructive and interactive classrooms, when what they have to learn is meaningful to them, and when they receive feedback and questions.
  • Children learn best when the literacy and maths curriculum is presented in a systematic way (i.e., in a deliberate planned sequence where each new piece of knowledge and each new skill builds on what has been learnt before). Children need lots of opportunities to practice their emerging literacy and maths skills.
  • It is important to involve parents in their children’s learning, and to support parents in creating rich opportunities for learning in the home. Activities such as helping with household chores like shopping and cooking help develop literacy and maths skills. If parents are not confident in using English at home, then reassure them that their home language is a resource, not a handicap: encourage them to use their home language to converse with their child, read stories, sing songs, etc.

What should I be wary of?

It can be tempting to think that, because the early years are so critical for a child’s development, early-emerging gaps between low- and high-performing children are difficult to close. From a neuroscientific point of view, however, the brain continues to grow in the primary school years, and in adolescence too. As the neuroscientist Jay Giedd says, “Even though the first 3 years are important, so are the next 16.

Credit: Professor Chloë Marshall, Professor of Psychology, Language and Education, at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE)

Where can I find out more?