Supporting children to develop their language is central to helping them to think and learn, communicate with friends and family, and develop their social interactions and relationships. Whilst learning language is complex, Rebecca Fisk outlines there is much that parents, carers and practitioners can do to support this.

Adults are central to supporting children’s language development through modelling effective communication, engaging in positive interactions, and developing children’s vocabulary to help them make sense of the world around them. Studies show that a child’s communication environment is a more dominant predictor of early language than a child’s social background. (2011 University of West of England)

Language is complex to learn and includes not only hearing sounds and words and copying them to speak but also understanding them and applying them in context. The Early Intervention Foundation reminds us that ‘Language is the vehicle by which children communicate their needs and ideas, develop and maintain relationships, and solidify their understanding of essential concepts.’

We communicate in many ways right from birth, for example, through noise, crying, babbling, and facial expressions and gestures. In turn we try and make sense of others through how they communicate with us, such as singing and talking in a soothing voice, as well as what is being said. Children need to hear words in context many times before they associate the word with the object, action, concept or emotion. Children learn from the interactions and experiences in their environment and how they come to understand what others are communicating to them is key before they can go on to really communicate to others their own thinking and ideas.

The ‘Tree Model’ to language development

It is useful to think of understanding language within the model of the analogy of a tree. (The Elements of Language Model Early Intervention Foundation). The roots of the tree represent the foundations of language, which is comprehension or understanding others, known as receptive language. When children start to understand what others are saying, then it will be easier for them to start to express themselves too. The tree trunk can be envisaged as the vocabulary that a child needs and use to start expressing themselves, through speech, gesture and other outward communications. Language then develops further with the branches which represent grammar and the structure of language, and finally the leaves are the speech sounds that are produced to make words. All this happens within a social context, which is represented as the wind blowing in the leaves.

How to help babies and toddlers to understand language

Even from a very early age babies will be interested in people communicating with them, and will start to copy, such as smiling when smiled at, as well as following their gaze to people, objects and sounds that interest them. Adults can copy the babies own gurgling, cooing and babbling sounds back to the baby to show interest and recognition, whilst leaving a gap in the ‘conversation’ for the baby to make another sound. This is known as ‘serve and return’ interaction. Keep talking to them about what is happening, for example, “It’s bedtime now” as you lay the baby to sleep or “Hat on” as you put the baby’s hat on before going outside. Babies love it when adults play with them on the floor at their own level, encouraging them to pay interest in objects that you use to engage them with. This is known as joint attention. Name the objects as you play with them to help them understand that the same word is said each time the object is picked up, such as “teddy”. Objects do not have to be expensive but must be suitable for small children. Household objects can be used like mats, napkin rings, plastic cups, and socks for puppets. (Use the simple word to name them to the child: mat, ring, cup, sock)

Start to share early board books and picture books and sing plenty of action rhymes and songs. Babies learn from repetition, so you can read the same book and sing the same song many times over, and soon you will notice that they start to anticipate things, such as being tickled in the rhyme ‘Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear, one step, two step, three step and a tickly under there!” You can make your own books by using cardboard and drawing pictures of simple objects.

As baby’s grow into toddlers keep talking about what you are doing together, or what they are showing interest in, giving them space to respond. They will understand lots of words by now and will start to say them too, especially words that are meaningful to them such as teddy or cup (drink). They will be able to start pointing to familiar pictures in books in response to questions like “Where’s teddy?” or “Where’s the cat?”. Keep engaging them in interactive games such as peek-a-boo and action rhymes, building towers or banging spoons on saucepans. They will respond to you pretending to do things and may start copying things like pretending to talk on a play phone. There are lots of ideas for playing with children which will supports language development at the BBC Tiny Happy People resource page to help build your confidence.

Getting outside and seeing new things in the world will also keep babies interested. Be sure to spend time paying joint attention to things, getting down to the child’s level and helping them follow your pointed finger to a dog or cat, bin lorry or blue van. Just saying the word to the child if they are not looking at the object does not support them as well. If they can begin to understand the context of the words you are giving them, then the interaction becomes more meaningful and helps develop their vocabulary and understanding.

How to help young children to understand language

As children get older and their experiences widen, they will start to say lots of different words and put several words together, such as “mummy gone”. Their vocabulary develops rapidly with adult support, for example to reply to the child adults can extend their vocabulary “Yes, mummy’s gone shopping to get some food”. With adults injecting new vocabulary in context, children will quickly learn different concepts, such as size, position, direction, quantity, like “big teddy” or “under bed”. It is important to provide plenty of new vocabulary as children are learning fast and starting to use words to organise their world and thinking. Children will often start talking a lot more now to familiar adults, and these conversations are a vital piece of their language development. Keep supporting them by having conversations about their real-life experiences and trying to extend those experiences where possible, such as talking about a duck in picture book and then going to feed ducks in a park or popping outside to feel the rain when it starts to come down. This makes the words come alive for children and gives meaning. Keep using facial expression and gestures as well as objects to support what you are saying, to enhance children’s understanding. For example, if you are off outside in the cold, you could reinforce the instructions to “Please get your hat and scarf” by gesturing to your head and neck as you make the request. Many people use gesture naturally and it really does help children understand the intended meaning better, especially if they are also learning a new language. By noticing if a child can follow simple instructions, such as “Clean your teeth please” or “Get your coat please” we can see if they have understood the words. By gesturing with some actions we further support understanding. Some children may need more visual support, such as a photo to point to as you say the instruction, like the toothbrush or their coat, kept on a ‘daily routine board’.

Play opportunities are key when helping develop children’s understanding of language as well as talk in context. For extra play activity ideas, the Hungry Little Minds programme has lots of videos and suggestions which are easily accessible and will bring on your child’s language.

Language development is not only an indicator of a child’s wellbeing but also of their outcomes and life chances, so we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by focusing on quality interactions with children and growing parents’ confidence in knowing that these everyday small exchanges can make all the difference. If you are concerned about your child’s communication and language development, you can refer to the Communication Trust website for advice, discuss your concerns with your child’s health visitor or childcare setting.

References and Further reading

  • Early Intervention Foundation (2017) Language as a child wellbeing indicator – Elements of Language Tree Model (page 14).

  • Education Endowment Foundation Preparing for Literacy – Improving communication, language and literacy in the early years.

  • The Communication Trust Universally Speaking – The ages and stages of children’s communication development from birth to 5.

  • Tiny Happy People.

  • Hungry Little Minds.

  • University of the West of England (2011) The Role of Language in children’s early educational outcomes. Research brief.

Last reviewed 17 June 2020