Being able to speak clearly, express ideas and understand others are fundamental building blocks for a child’s development. Building language skills is not only important for the EYFS area of ‘communication and language’, but also for so many other areas of development. If a child does not have at least age-appropriate language skills, then they are going to struggle to develop their ‘personal, social and emotional’ development by building relationships with others and using their words to solve problems. They will find it difficult to name different aspects of ‘shape, space and measure’ and demonstrate their ‘understanding of the world’. Once children start school and build their confidence at writing they will need language in order to be able to make their writing more varied and interesting. Language is at the basis of so much of their learning that it is essential that we do all that we can to nurture its development at an early age.
Many children suffer from a language delay as a result of a condition such as autism or Down’s syndrome, and other times, the delay happens on its own. As an adult in a child’s setting, you are a key person for them to learn language from. Children learn by observing and copying behaviour therefore you should model good speech and language skills as much as possible. When talking to young children and children with additional needs, it is really important to keep language to a minimum until a child is ready for more. Wherever possible keep your language to a few key words. Use effective questioning but be careful not to ask closed questions or to bombard a child.
Here are a few things to be mindful of when speaking to children that need extra help with their language development:
Get a child’s attention before speaking to them – Use their name and, if necessary, gently touch their arm to let them know you are talking to them.
Listen – I mean really listen. Remove distractions, maintain eye contact and give the child that is speaking your complete attention. Yes, this is really difficult in a room full of lots of children, however, if you can show a child that what they have to say is so interesting and of the utmost importance to you, then they are bound to want to tell you more. Sadly, in a world of mobile phones and other technology, some children aren’t getting this attention at home.
Speak clearly and calmly and give one instruction at a time.
Model language and describe/comment on what a child is doing. ‘You are drawing a flower’; ‘you are using red paint’.
Give children time to answer – patience is vital here. It can be very confusing for a child if you ask one question and then quickly say it again in another way. Children need both time to process what you have said, and time to find the words to respond.
Use visuals – for those that really struggle to understand what you are saying, support your words by using real objects or visual images. When it is the child’s turn to speak, allow them to use visuals if they can’t find the words. If they communicate with you using a visual, you can then model the words.
Remember – you are not the one that needs practise talking - they are!
Obviously, confidence is key when it comes to talking. If you have a child that is particularly nervous to talk in front of others, then try to build on the situation in which they are most comfortable. If this is just with one particular adult or child, then don’t expect them to speak in front of others at first. Allow them to work with that person and encourage speech within that situation. You can gradually bring others into the group as they grow in confidence.
In addition to things that you can do with your own language, here are some activities for extending speaking and language opportunities in your setting:
Singing songs/nursery rhymes – you will already be doing this but do it more! Being able to hear rhyme and alliteration is such an important skill.
Give children microphones, costumes and a role-play stage – children love the chance to be in a show!
Describing and guessing games – how about Kim’s game or, for older children, ‘guess who?’
Share things from home – ask a child to fill a bag with things from home that are special to them. Encourage them to share these items with you and a small group of children. You could also ask parents or carers to send in photos of family members and pets, or of a special holiday, for children to talk about. Doing this activity one-to-one with a particularly quiet child is a great way of getting them to begin talking.
Experiences – give children the opportunity and motivation to learn new words by offering them new and different experiences. Let them hold an animal or visit a fire station and then encourage them to talk about what they see/hear/smell. Such opportunities will bring words to their vocabulary that don’t otherwise occur daily. Likewise, use messy play - few children can resist reacting verbally when they get their hands in something sensory for the first time!
Use all of the senses – building on the point above, extend these experiences by giving children the opportunity to use all of their senses. Let them see, smell, feel, and even taste a lemon – they might not like it, but they’ll more than likely have something to say about it! Can they hear anything when you squeeze a cut lemon?
Circle time – use this as an opportunity for children to talk about their feelings – not just as an opportunity to develop vocabulary but also to address the frustration and anger that some children with a language delay may be feeling.
Puppets – some children will find the confidence to speak when speaking ‘through’ something else (this could be a puppet, but could also be a walkie talkie, or even wearing sunglasses). If they are taking on the role of someone else such as a lovable puppet, they might just find their voice.
The above tips and activities aren’t just relevant for children with a language delay – they are great for all children so have fun exploring and hopefully your setting will be full of the sound of happy chattering.
About the author
Gina Smith is an experienced teacher with experience of teaching in both mainstream and special education. She is the creator of ‘Create Visual Aids’ – a business that provides both homes and education settings with bespoke visual resources. Gina recognises the fact that no two children are the same and therefore individuals are likely to need different resources. Create Visual Aids is dedicated to making visual symbols exactly how the individual needs them.