Learning and Development

Help Kids Become Confident Talkers

  • Help Kids Become Confident Talkers

Children who struggle to communicate can resort to bad behaviour, so supporting strong verbal skills is essential, says Sue Cowley…

Language and communication is one of the most crucial areas in early child development. Talk creates a pathway for so much of what follows, and if a child experiences a language delay, this can impact on their learning in a range of ways.

Talk is important in order for children to access the curriculum during their time at school, but it is also vital for their social and emotional development as well. A child who struggles to express their needs may well turn to inappropriate behaviour.

To those without sufficient knowledge of early child development, it might seem as though talk ‘just happens’ – that immersing a child in a talk-filled environment would be enough to ensure language development.

Often, the Hart and Risley ‘30 million word gap’ study is quoted to demonstrate that the number of words a child hears is crucial.

However, this aspect of early child development is not just about the amount of talk a child hears, and we should remember that not all kinds of talk are equal.

It is the high quality interactions between children and adults that support the developing brain and help them make sense of language and develop their vocabulary.

The scenario

You have noticed that several children coming into your setting appear to be delayed in their language development. They use a limited range of words, do not speak in sentences and will sometimes make noises rather than use words to express what they mean.

Some children are also struggling to say the sounds in words properly or to follow instructions. You are noticing an increase in behaviour incidents that seem to be caused by this lack of language, and you are concerned that these behaviours are having an impact on the children’s progress.

Early language development

The term ‘serve and return’ describes the way that children’s brains develop, in response to high quality interactions with adults. A baby ‘coos’ at an adult, and the adult responds in a meaningful way, by speaking back to the baby and using facial expressions to demonstrate interest.

Encourage staff to use ‘serve and return’ when talking with children. You might also set up a workshop for parents – you can find a short video here to show them that explains the technique.

Focus on all aspects of language development, creating activities that boost all areas, including close listening and phonemic awareness. Encourage children to pick out sounds from the environment, for instance by going outdoors and listening to bird song or by listening to different environmental sounds and identifying what they are.

Where you have concerns about a child, encourage parents to have them checked for glue ear – this condition can hamper early language development and cause significant problems if it is not spotted and treated.

If you have particular concerns about an individual child, flag this up with your SENCo and your local authority SEND support team.

Remember that language development is not just about how you work with toddlers – it should be a focus with babies too. I heard a young baby the other day try to join in with a conversation that I was having with his mum and some of our staff.

Even though he didn’t yet have words, he clearly understood talk as a way to communicate his ideas and opinions to us. In fact, we could pretty much work out what he was ‘saying’ to us, even though he wasn’t yet speaking.

Self and parallel talk

Keep up a running commentary as you play with your children, using both ‘self’ and ‘parallel’ talk. ‘Self talk’ describes the way in which you voice the thoughts that are going on in your head, and ‘parallel talk’ describes the way that a practitioner narrates what a child is doing.

These approaches are particularly useful for modelling patterns of language for children who have English as an additional language. For instance, “I can see that you have painted the balloon red” or “Now you are painting the sky blue.”

The role of the adult

Adults are crucial in the development of talk, because we can model its use in different contexts, we can demonstrate how communication works, we can help children learn the names of things, and we can show them how they might develop their thinking through talking about it.

To make the most of your role, pay attention to the following points:

1. Consider how you use your face when a child is talking with you – use wide open eyes to encourage engagement.

2. Non-verbal signals, gestures and facial expressions are all crucial in building talk – get staff to observe each other during interactions and use the feedback for development.

3. Use plenty of repetition in order to embed new words – revisit and reinforce new language.

4. Avoid using ‘baby talk’ and oversimplifying your talk with your children. Although it is best not to use overly complex vocabulary, speak mainly in full sentences and Standard English.

5. Make full use of open-ended questions – they are useful for encouraging talk because they leave a space for the child to develop a conversation with you.

6. Utilise sustained shared thinking to support language learning when you are playing with your children.

7. Devise challenging and interesting environments in order to engage your children and create lots of opportunities for meaningful talk.

8. Where a child makes a mistake with a word, or its pronunciation, rather than pointing out the error, simply repeat back the word said correctly.

If you are looking for further advice, the children’s communication charity I CAN is a fantastic source of resources, support and training in early language development. You can find out more on their website – ican.org.uk.


Sue Cowley is an author and trainer and helps to run her local preschool. For more ideas and advice, visit suecowley.co.uk.

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