Learning and Development

Language development – Advice on supporting children in Early Years

  • Language development – Advice on supporting children in Early Years

Fiona Bland, early years advisor at NDNA, shares her advice…

Why focus on children’s language acquisition?

A child’s earliest years are critical for developing the skills they need for future success. In the early years, language and communication skills underpin all other areas of learning and development. They are fundamental skills used to identify and express feelings, share thoughts and ideas, socialise and make friends, and take part in everyday society.

Research tells us that a child’s language development at the age of two years can predict their performance on entry to primary school and their future educational success. It also tells us that by the age of five, 75% of children who experienced poverty persistently throughout the early years are below average in language development, compared to 35% of children who never experienced poverty, and that up to 50% of children starting school in the most disadvantaged areas will have speech, language and communication needs.

We also know that there can be significant differences in the quality of language children are exposed to in their home environment.

Has the pandemic affected children’s language development?

When children experienced isolation through lockdowns and restrictions, they were unable to interact with a range of people, and crucially other children, which has had a significant impact on their communication and language development.

Other contributing factors included increased screen time, reduced attendance at early years settings and, in some cases, greater parental stress and anxiety.

Some children flourished due to an improved quality and quantity of parent involvement, while other children’s opportunities declined. According to another study, the proportion of children reaching their expected levels of development in language, literacy and numeracy dropped from 72% in 2019 to 59% in 2021.

How can practitioners support children?

Language doesn’t ‘just happen’. It needs skilful and knowledgeable practitioners who understand how children acquire language, who can be good role models for communication, who listen sensitively and carefully to what children say and who can demonstrate using language through play.

Try providing a commentary and describing what is happening during play. This allows children to link what they hear with what they are seeing and doing and is excellent for supporting them to understand and use action words such as ‘pouring’, ‘feeding’, ‘washing’.

Providing experiences linked to children’s interests (found out by talking to families) is particularly valuable for children. Try and give young people opportunities to share their cultural knowledge and experience, too.

Displaying visual timetables helps children to understand what is happening and when, developing their memory and recall.

As well as developing mathematical concepts such as sequencing, the concepts of ‘first’, ‘next’, ‘then’ and ‘last’ are valuable prereading skills.

Make stories interesting and exciting by using different voices, tones and expressions. Include props for children to help them to engage and understand the story, then make the props available for them in continuous provision so they have opportunities to practise the language.

Stories tend to use words which the children wouldn’t otherwise hear, so they are essential for developing vocabulary. Also make sure to offer plenty of songs, rhymes and stories with lots of opportunities for repetition. While adults quickly tire of repetition, children thrive on it. Hearing the same rhymes and stories repeated regularly, perhaps in different ways, helps them to develop understanding, confidence and learn to master new words so that they can use them in their speech.

Support children whose first language is not English by asking families to translate favourite rhymes or record them to share in nursery. Favourite stories, such as Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell, are often available in other languages and can be presented alongside English versions in the book area.

Acknowledging and celebrating children’s home languages encourages their communication in nursery.

Make sure to value routines as communication opportunities, such as singing nursery rhymes during nappy changing time, making up tidying up songs, singing hello or welcome songs in the morning and goodbye songs at the end of the session.

Communication is crucially about social cues, which are skills to be mastered, as well as speaking and language. Children need to learn when to talk and when to listen, how to take turns and how to notice if someone is not listening or bored with what they’re saying – this requires skills in looking, listening and noticing people around us.

Children learn from adults by watching how they interact with other adults and with children. Therefore, how practitioners act and interact with children, parents and other practitioners is important for developing children’s communication skills.

How can families help at home?

It’s important to keep home learning environment activities as time efficient as possible and to plan them around family routines, so they can take part regardless of other commitments.

Encourage families to talk about what they see and hear on a walk, provide a narrative during household tasks such as doing the laundry, make up stories, follow a recipe when baking and sing songs during car journeys.

Alternatively, organise opportunities for parents to engage in home learning. Research has found that the most effective home learning strategies for supporting children’s long-term outcomes are those which include shared book reading and playing with letters.

In order for you to be able to support families with practical and valuable home learning ideas, you need to be confident in the knowledge and skills required for language acquisition, which can be gained from engaging in relevant professional development.

NDNA’s new vocabulary and early language skills course helps practitioners to promote the knowledge and skills needed to support vocabulary and early language skills. Find out more at ndna.org.uk