Last reviewed 28 November 2019

With increasing numbers of children starting school with poor speech and communication skills, it is essential that practitioners support young children’s language development in early years provisions. Early years staff play a key role in encouraging and supporting language acquisition as well as identifying any potential difficulties children may be experiencing, writes Elizabeth Walker.

The importance of language development

Speech, language and communication skills are crucial to young children’s overall development. Being able to speak clearly and process speech sounds, to understand others, to express ideas and interact with others are fundamental building blocks for a child’s development. Research suggests that good communication, language and literacy at a young age have the highest correlation with outcomes at school.

Speech and language skills underpin many other areas of children’s development by:

  • providing a strong foundation for other areas of learning, such as reading and writing and enabling access to the whole curriculum

  • supporting communication skills

  • promoting social skills and forming friendships

  • building confidence and self-esteem

  • supporting emotional and behavioural development

  • helping children to make sense of the world around them.

Communication and language in the EYFS

Communication and language is one of the three prime areas in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) and involves giving children opportunities to:

  • experience a rich language environment

  • develop their confidence and skills in expressing themselves

  • speak and listen in a range of situations.

Each prime area is divided into early learning goals and for communication and language these are as follows.

Listening and attention: children listen attentively in a range of situations. They listen to stories, accurately anticipating key events and respond to what they hear with relevant comments, questions or actions. They give their attention to what others say and respond appropriately, while engaged in another activity.

Understanding: children follow instructions involving several ideas or actions. They answer “how” and “why” questions about their experiences and in response to stories or events.

Speaking: children express themselves effectively, showing awareness of listeners’ needs. They use past, present and future forms accurately when talking about things that have happened or are to happen in the future. They develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events.

Children are expected to achieve these early learning goals by the end of reception when they have turned five years old. Early years providers and schools must ensure they have been offered the opportunities and support to do so.

How to support language development

It is never too early to begin encouraging language development. Parents and early years practitioners should offer children speaking and listening opportunities through everyday conversation and practical activities.

Children often learn best by observing and copying adult behaviour so early years staff should model good speech and language skills whenever possible. Good practice includes:

  • getting a child’s attention and making eye contact (get down to the child’s level if necessary)

  • speaking clearly and calmly

  • using age-appropriate, simple language

  • repeating or modelling what the child has said

  • repeating sentences back to children, extending what they have said

  • describing and commenting on what is happening and what children are doing

  • listening carefully when children are talking and being patient so they have plenty of time to respond and find their words

  • using all the senses

  • using gesture, tone of voice and facial expressions

  • using effective questioning but being careful not to over question children or use closed questions.

Early years providers need to offer experiences and opportunities for young children to develop their speech and language skills. Stimulating activities include:

  • reading books every day and talking with children about stories, characters and illustrations — books with rhythm and rhyme are particularly effective with very young children

  • show and tell when children can bring in toys or other objects from home and talk about them

  • circle time which offers children a good opportunity to practise their speaking and listening skills

  • singing songs, nursery rhymes and lullabies

  • describing and guessing games

  • role-play games

  • using puppets

  • using technology such as microphones, walkie talkies and video recorders

  • offering real life experiences both inside and outside the nursery.

Speech, language and communication needs

With 1 in 10 children having speech, language and communication needs (SLCN), it is vital that early years practitioners can identify when children might be having difficulty. Early years staff need to receive adequate training and understand how to support children, making referrals to speech and language professionals where necessary.

Children with SLCN can have difficulties with fluency, forming sounds and words, formulating sentences, understanding what others say and using language socially. Language difficulties can affect children learning and accessing the curriculum and can impact on emotional development resulting in behavioural difficulties and problems forming friendships.

Research suggests that early intervention can prevent children from a widening gap of attainment later in life and without the right support, SLCN can be persistent with wide-ranging impacts and often reduced life chances. It is therefore essential that early years practitioners can identify any concerns and work with parents to help children get the right level of support.

Supporting children with English as an additional language

The EYFS states that for children whose home language is not English, early years providers must take reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning, supporting their language development at home. Early years providers must also ensure that children have sufficient opportunities to learn and reach a good standard in English language during the EYFS, ensuring children are ready to benefit from the opportunities available to them when they begin Year 1. When assessing communication, language and literacy skills, early years practitioners must assess children’s skills in English. If a child does not have a strong grasp of the English language, staff must explore the child’s skills in the home language with parents to establish whether there is cause for concern about language delay.

Further information

  • I CAN is a children’s communication charity which helps children develop the speech, language and communication skills they need to thrive in a 21st century world.

  • Speech Teach UK is a website for parents and professionals supporting children with speech difficulties.

  • Talking Point is a website offering information on children’s communication.

  • The Communication Trust is a coalition of over 50 not-for-profit organisations which supports children and young people in England with their speech, language and communication needs.