Back in 2015, Chris Williams, a primary school teacher, was able to use his knowledge of the value of teaching through pictures and language to create “Chatta”, an online whole-class teaching method that is based on pictures and storyboards and is linked with spoken language.
Convinced that the technique would help children from disadvantaged backgrounds, Chris applied for SHINE’S Ready for School funding in 2019 which helped him to get his project off the ground. The result was a project in partnership with Pocklington School near York, that included training and termly outreach support,and involved different schools across Hull.
Chris explained how he was inspired to create Chatta: “Temple Grandin, an autistic author, really influenced the original idea of the project. She was a very late talker and wrote a book called ‘Thinking in Pictures’, which explores the theme of visual thinking to organise and communicate thoughts, instead of using words.
“Furthermore, I was inspired through my work with autistic children when I was a SEND teacher and used pictures to help them develop their language skills. I also used to work with the Early Years Team, which is part of the Hull council, working with the families there. There was a real concern that children were starting school without the language to understand, communicate, function and achieve. I decided to create Chatta which is simple, effective and accessible software for teachers to use in the classroom and is based on principles of how children acquire speech.
“Chatta is mainly aimed at early years provisions, but it can be used further up the school with the training and resources provided. One of the main aims is to model language using pictures to scaffold content and help children with their working memory which can lead to wider vocabulary use.”
SHINE’s involvement with the project has meant that Chris has been given the opportunity to expand Chatta into many more schools. There has been a massive outreach as currently, around 100 schools are using Chatta, which impacts about 5,000 children.
Chris reflected on the support he has received from SHINE, saying, “They have been a big part of the project along the way. I’ve been lucky enough to have to a real partnership with SHINE, working together on research, project planning and evaluation. I know how much impactful projects mean to SHINE, the staff, and the trustees.”
Although covid was obviously a massive challenge to navigate, Chris and the team managed to find some positives, he explained, “Although there was a risk of us losing momentum, we were able to maintain the relationships we’d built and we were still able to provide support and resources online. Although we couldn’t do everything we originally planned, we were able to launch a home learning resource for families in lockdown called “Chatta Club” and this reached approximately 50,000 children in 20 countries, such as Finland, Spain, and Malaysia, but we still mainly focused on the UK.
“The pandemic taught me and my team how to adapt, stay positive and keep going. I think we’ve been able to become a lot stronger after dealing with the challenges and we now have a much more effective online system where we can train teachers and keep in touch.
“This work even earnt us an International Award which we received in Helsinki. It was a great achievement, and it is rewarding to see our project having a positive impact. Now things are returning to normality, it is important for us to keep going as research shows that after the pandemic, there is even more need for projects like Chatta than there was before.”
The key objective of the project was to enable all participating children to exceed age-related expectations prior to starting the reception year at school. Three years on and the data suggests that Chatta has done just this. When Chris started the project, he identified disadvantaged schools in Hull with only 44% achieving a good level of development. This has now increased to 67% which is just above the national average.
“I’m not saying this is entirely due to us, but we have been involved along the way with the training resources and support,” said Chris. “It is definitely a cause for celebration that the schools we’ve worked with are now on average performing above the city average.”
Following this, Chatta has received some very positive feedback from teachers who have been involved in the project. Madeline Palmer, a teacher at McMillian Nursery in Hull said, “It has definitely made an impact on the children’s oral recall and vocabulary. It’s easy to use, quick and very open-ended. We use it for storytelling, sequencing, word retrieval and for children to make their own simple stories.”
Vanessa Pierce, an early years teacher from Wansbeck Primary School in Hull, said, “We found the support and advice from the Chatta team so valuable. The resources are so easy to use. Our children have benefited greatly, especially after the COVID lockdowns with the children’s starting points being so low. We would love to continue working with Chatta.”
Looking toward the future, Chatta has big ambitions for what is next. Chris said, “We would like more people to know about what we do. We want a greater awareness of the difference that teaching with pictures can make, as well as the importance of spoken language and how children acquire it.
We definitely feel more equipped now to work with even more schools and we hope that we can bring an awareness to people that we have come up with a strong and effective solution.