Learning and Development

Language development – 7 ways to support it in Early Years

  • Language development – 7 ways to support it in Early Years

Every day is a good day to support children’s speaking and understanding in early years settings. When it comes to learning to talk, even small acts in every day conversations can have a huge impact. 

Language thrives when children have opportunities to interact with others and explore in a playful and creative manner. Children learn to communicate through everyday interactions with children and adults they have a connection with, and by sharing experiences together.

With that in mind, early years practitioners can really make a difference to children’s development. Here’s seven simple ways to help children with their speaking and understanding:

1 | Use comments

You will be exposing children to richer language and helping them to learn new words when you use comments during your interactions with them. Talk about what children are interested in at the time they are interested in it. Use specific labels (say “I like your car” rather than “I like that”). 

Model good spoken language yourself. Remember to add a word or an idea to what the child has said to really help extend their language learning.

2 | Ask fewer questions

Lots of questions can put pressure on children to communicate. It may feel like a test and can quickly stop the flow of the conversation. Try the 4 to 1 ratio – for every question you ask, try to make four comments.

3 | Wait

If you use a question or a comment, WAIT for the child’s response before jumping in with more of your own words. You might need to wait expectantly for as long as ten seconds before you get a response.

Learning to talk is a complex process, and when children are still learning it can take a bit longer for them to process what you’ve said and respond. 

4 | Be at the child’s level

This might mean being physically face to face at their level but also cognitively. Using language at the right developmental level and keeping the interaction at the child’s pace will really help keep to conversation going. 

You may need to simplify your language to be at the child’s level or one step higher – if the child is speaking in three- or four-word sentences, try to speak in sentences of around three to five words yourself. 

5 | Take turns

Research studies show that lots of turn-taking in conversations with babies and children stimulates the language centre in the brain. A good conversation looks like a game of tennis where each person takes a turn, and you keep it going as long as you can (serve and return). The more turns the better! 

6 | Repeat, repeat, repeat

Words, songs, stories… there is no such thing as too much repetition for children. Repetition is great for language learning; children need to hear new words lots of times in many different situations for them to be securely stored in their word bank or lexicon. 

7 | Make any time a talking time

Making time for talk can be challenging in busy, free-flow play environments. Care routines, like nappy changing and handwashing, can easily be times for communication too. Just use the strategies above to encourage talk while going about daily routines with children. 

Prioritising time for talk in small groups is also important. Using picture books with no words encourages children to talk and explore their imagination by developing their own ideas – let them do the talking!

Further support

Remember, if children are struggling with speaking and understanding, there are lots of ways you can support them in the early years. Programmes such as I CAN’s Early Talk Boost, a targeted intervention aimed at three- to four-year-old children with delayed language, helps to boost children’s language skills and narrow the gap between them and their peers. 

Claire Smith is the lead speech therapist and advisor for I CAN.