Last reviewed 26 May 2021

Rebecca Fisk examines various strategies used to support and encourage very young children to talk and outlines the communication and language educational programme in the revised EYFS.

Learning to talk is complex and children require considerable input from adults to develop their communication skills. All children have a natural desire to communicate, and responsive adults can make all the difference to the child’s early communication and language development. This impacts on their future life chances.

Early relationships

The Parent and Infant Foundation demonstrate how early relationships that parents and care givers have with babies and toddlers are fundamentally important in building healthy brains, laying the foundations for mental and physical health as well as language and cognitive skills. Brains are shaped by interactions and experiences and the first critical ‘1001 days’ lay the foundations for future development.

Responsive communication and positive interactions are at the heart of secure relationships developing key attachments for children. Within these relationships trusting bonds grow with language central to these connections. Consider how a parent might talk to their baby playfully when giving them a bath using words such as “splish-splash” or “rub-a-dub-dub” with sounds that help develop the language patterns that children will later try and copy. These everyday occurrences of incidental language within a loving and nurturing relationship give children rich language experiences. The toddler brain grows at a rapid rate and their capacity to learn is vast. Taking every opportunity to have a meaningful interaction with toddlers through talk, play and responsive caring are often the most important actions an early years practitioner can offer a child.

Early years practitioners have the key role of extending the opportunities that children have at home, but in a social setting where children are surrounded by their peers. Encouraging babies and toddlers to communicate through talk, to gesture and vocalise their intentions and choices takes time and patience It involves closely observing the child’s interests, likes and dislikes and sensitively interpreting their attempts to communicate. A child might show frustration with physicality towards another child, for example, because they don’t yet have the words to say what they need. The adult can support the child by giving them simple words and saying them for them. Let’s take the example, of a child wanting a turn with a toy. The adult can model the words a child might need such as “my turn” or “me next”. Keeping to very simple single or two- word utterances can support young children to learn to copy and gradually associate these words or short phrases with different contexts.

Key skills

The Communication Trust outlines the key skills toddlers need when learning to talk.

  • Attention and listening.

  • Understanding what is said.

  • Building sentences.

  • Talking socially.

Attention and listening

Children need to listen to sounds and words, recognise voice, speech sounds and early words. Children need to learn to understand words, sentences and conversations as they develop their language skills, and need plenty of practice too. The more an adult interacts with a child about what they are doing, where they are going, what they can see and hear and other aspects of daily life, the more the child starts to associate the words with the context and experience. This helps them to recognise certain sounds and tune into the patterns and sounds of their home language. Children who are exposed to dual language environments will be learning to hear sounds ‘bi-lingually’. Different languages may have very different speech sounds and patterns. It is important parents are encouraged to continue speaking their home language with their child so they can all stay connected to their culture and community, even if children are learning a new language in their childcare provision. Children should always have their required hearing assessments at their developmental checks, and if practitioners are concerned that they are not starting to copy early sounds and words it is important to ensure parents take their child to their health visitor or GP.

Understanding what is said

Children develop the ability to understand cognitively what is being said, often through linking words to objects or experiences. Let’s take the example of a small child hearing the word “cuddle” lots of times when being cuddled by a parent, eventually the child will understand that the feeling of a cuddle and the word cuddle go together. This can then be applied to different contexts such as “cuddle teddy” or “cuddle baby doll”. As they develop, they will start to follow simple two-word instructions such as “shoes on”, or longer instructions “give teddy a cuddle”. The more words a child hears and learns in a wide variety of contexts, the wider their vocabulary will become. This is where early years practitioners are so central to expanding experiences for children, such as through outdoor play and local trips, sensory, tactile and manipulative play, social games and activities, and the language of mathematics. Children will often understand more than they can express themselves, so supporting their efforts to express themselves and showing you understand them is also important. Try and use language which is appropriate to a child’s level of understanding, as this avoids confusion and frustration. Practitioners can observe children to see if they have understood an instruction, and repeat the instruction with actions to demonstrate, showing the child what they mean. For example, “coat on”, the adult can put their own coat on, or mime putting a coat on, or hold the child’s coat out to the child to show them in a concrete way.

Saying words and building sentences

Children start by saying some speech sounds and it takes time for them to learn to do this correctly. Playing sound and word games and highlighting sounds to children is a fun way to develop this. For example, extending the first sound in words, especially when reading stories or playing with objects such as a toy snake “sssnake”, “a ssslithery sssnake” or exaggerating words with actions “up, up, up” whilst reaching higher and higher. Songs, action rhymes and stories must not be undervalued in the contribution they make to developing a child’s listening and attention skills and building vocabulary. Practitioners can do this very spontaneously by having a large repertoire and using them in context, such as “Pat-a-cake” when pretending to make a playdough cake. As traditional nursery rhymes and oral story telling habits change in families, many children are missing out on the key skills these activities and experiences develop, putting the emphasis on early years practitioners to ‘revive’ families’ interest in them by actively sharing songs and rhymes with parents.

There are lots of resources which can be shared with parents and used both in the early years setting and at home to support learning through repetition. Rich resources, with videos showing adult and child interactions, have been developed by the BBC, for example, including baby nursery rhymes, toddler nursery rhymes, making up rhymes, rhymes in a second language, and also an orchestra playing rhymes. Toddlers will soon start trying to string words together copying adults’ simple sentences. As children get older, saying the first part of a familiar rhyme and leaving a gap for a child to finish the sentence can help, such as, “Pat-a cake, pat-a cake baker’s …?” Children will start to say sounds correctly as they hear them, and this will develop over time, with some sounds being easier to say than others. Speech sounds are formed at the front, middle and back of the mouth and dummy use or thumb and finger sucking can interfere over time with the position of the tongue when forming speech sounds. Support and advice from the health visitor around the use of dummies and bottles can be sought if parents and practitioners are worried about how this might be influencing their child’s speech development.

Talking socially

Children take turns to speak, listen and make eye contact. Being able to take a turn in conversations socially develops from early ‘back and forth’ interactions between children and their care givers. Toddlers often bring an adult an object or start pointing to something to initiate an interaction before they can say the words they need, which is an invitation for the adult to follow their interest and give the words the child may need. For example, if a child points to their cup because they want a drink, the adult can say “Drink, you want a drink?” and as the child’s understanding grows this lends itself to developing the conversation and giving children choices, “water or milk?” or “Which drink today? Water or milk?”. Waiting for a response from the child develops the social interaction. There are lots of games and activities practitioners can encourage children to participate in where young children start to take turns or share an activity together. For example, playing a ‘roll the ball’ game in a pair or a clapping game can encourage children to make eye contact and start waiting for their turn to interact. Giving children time to respond to others in busy settings is a key skill, and adults can sensitively manage this. Adults can model an appropriate social interaction for the child, such as, “Can I play too please?” or “Your turn now”.

The EYFS communication and language educational programme

The revised Early Years Foundation Stage outlines the communication and language educational programme for children aged 0-5 years as follows:

“The development of children’s spoken language underpins all seven areas of learning and development. Children’s back-and-forth interactions from an early age form the foundations for language and cognitive development. The number and quality of the conversations they have with adults and peers throughout the day in a language-rich environment is crucial. By commenting on what children are interested in or doing, and echoing back what they say with new vocabulary added, practitioners will build children's language effectively. Reading frequently to children, and engaging them actively in stories, non-fiction, rhymes and poems, and then providing them with extensive opportunities to use and embed new words in a range of contexts, will give children the opportunity to thrive. Through conversation, story-telling and role play, where children share their ideas with support and modelling from their teacher, and sensitive questioning that invites them to elaborate, children become comfortable using a rich range of vocabulary and language structures.” (EYFS 2021)

Summary

Interaction and language skills are crucial for developing relationships with others, connecting, and becoming part of society. Optimal learning takes place in the first three years of a child’s life emphasising the importance of quality adult interactions with children to nurture their language and communication skills and develop their ability to talk. Talking with toddlers in a fun, playful and sensitive way within a caring relationship is critical. Parents and practitioners literally help develop children’s brains, making neural connections in the brain between experiences and words. In the words of the BBC’s Tiny Happy People programme, ‘your words build their world.’

References

BBC Tiny Happy People – your words build their world – nursery rhymes and songs.

Early Intervention Foundation (2018): Key competencies in early cognitive development: Things, people, Numbers, Words.

Department for Education (March 2021): Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage: Setting the standards for learning development and care for children from birth to five.

Department for Education (September 2020): Development Matters: Non-statutory curriculum guidance for the early years foundation stage.

Early Years Coalition: Early Education (2021): Birth to 5 Matters: Non-statutory guidance for the Early Years Foundation Stage. Guidance by the sector, for the sector.

ICAN Communicate Trust Toddler Talk – Activities to build toddlers’ language development.

Parent and Infant Foundation.