The support of children’s language development must start from their earliest days, and nursery practitioners have a vital role to play, says Marion Nash…
Vocabulary at age five is one of the best predictors of how a child will achieve academically and socially for the rest of their lives; this is recognised by the EYFS, in which language is regarded as one of the prime areas that underpin all other learning. Needless to say, it is essential that early years practitioners provide the resources necessary to develop each child’s early language. But do you know what the best language-supporting resource at your disposal is? In the training sessions I offer, I ask one person to come up to the front to look in my ‘fantastic resource’ box and describe what they see. They see themselves – in the box is a mirror. Adults are the most amazing resource for a child. However, as with anything else, we can learn to be even better…
We know that we must provide opportunities for child-led investigation and support children in the roles as little scientists and explorers, but we must also make sure that we provide enough opportunities for each child for face-to-face learning with an adult to scaffold their language learning. Over the next three issues I will be talking about important adult-led activities based on the psychology of child development that you can use to promote early language for the children under two years of age in your setting.
The ideas are those that I think will be easy to put in place and easy to remember in your busy day. I have organised them into three stages of a child’s development: birth to nine months, nine months to 18 months, and 18 months to two years. Although this is a clear age range, it is always important to adjust your strategies to the child’s stage of development. So if a two-year-old child is functioning at a 16-month-old level in communication skills that is the stage from which language strategies should be taken.
We need to talk and interact with babies from birth. Babies and toddlers need help to learn how to interact with other people, and children need to build a good store of knowledge in their earliest years when the brain is at its most receptive. Unfortunately, not everyone realises this. I used to run a ‘welcome to nursery’ session; during one I met a mum who was very aware of the best way to care for her lovely twin babies practically. But when I started talking to the group about the need to talk to babies from their earliest moment so that they could build their early language skills, this lovely mum shocked me by saying with a laugh that she never talked to her babies, as they couldn’t answer her and she would feel silly speaking to them. I never forgot that day and it inspired me to write my latest book about supporting very early language. Of course we must speak to babies. Talking to babies helps their brains prepare for language learning.
Babies and toddlers can only understand very small chunks of talk at any one time. It is best to use the same simple phrase several times in a session rather than to keep introducing new ones all at the same time. Use words alongside the object or activity that you are talking about. Use the same words when commenting on their activity each time, for example, “Lily’s painting”, “Thomas is building”, “Irena’s looking”. You can also sometimes make these into little friendly tunes or songs. Be content to use long pauses between your comments. Signing and gesture can be useful as an additional support method alongside your talk.
You can help develop communication skills by using lots of fun face-to-face activities. It is important to bring your face close to a baby’s face – 20–30cms (8–12 inches) away is about right – as this is where they see best. Another important thing is to exaggerate your facial expressions: make your smiles bigger and hold your surprised face a bit longer than you would with older children to give time for babies to take in what you are doing. Remember to allow time for babies to take a turn and learn that turn-taking with you is fun. Of course, you should always choose your times to introduce activities carefully – one when the child is receptive to playful communication.
Using sing-song rhymes is important, and I don’t think we use this approach enough with children. Music (even if you don’t think you can sing well) can lower stress and give a boost to learning. An upbeat rhyme can energise and signal play, whilst a slow tune can calm, reassure and create a reflective atmosphere. Special tunes can be used to forewarn the child when there is going to be a change in their activities.
One of these might be nappy changing, which is itself a great opportunity for face-to-face interaction. Singing a little rhyme you have created can be a good language learning opportunity. For example, say the child’s name and sing something like, “Susan, Susan take your nappy off; Susan, Susan take your nappy off” then “Susan, Susan put your nappy on, Susan, Susan put your nappy on” to the tune of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ – it is a very simple idea but one that is effective. You can also invent little songs like this to develop an early form of awareness that there are words for putting socks, trousers, jumpers, dresses, coats and shoes on and off.
Why not try copying a child’s little playful movements such as head moving side to side and forward and back, and smiling, and the expressive hand movements and face touching. When baby pats your cheeks, pat your face too, then pat baby’s face gently to initiate a turn-taking game. Say in a singsong way, “Liam’s patting my face, patting my face”. Then pat the baby’s face gently saying, “I’m patting Liam’s face, patting Liam’s face”. Change the expression and tone of your voice to keep the baby’s interest in looking at you. (You can find out more about developing ‘the dance of communication’ from Professor Colwyn Trevarthen)
Using interactive songs will help you to develop babies’ looking, active listening, attention and anticipation. Try the following: make a little butterfly with your hand and let it fly slowly to land on the child’s tummy while singing to a tune, “Butterfly, butterfly on your tummy”. Then bring your other hand up so that baby can see it and, after a little pause for anticipation, carry on singing “Butterfly, butterfly, here comes mummy!” and bring your other hand fluttering over to land beside the first ‘butterfly’.
You can adapt other games with well-recognised tunes such as ‘Row Your Boat’, in which you can sit the older baby on your lap and play with gentle little actions.
Playing games can help to develop active listening. First use a squeaky toy. Let the child explore the toy, then squeeze it to make the noise in front of the child. Wait a few seconds then move the toy slowly to the side, nearly out of sight of the child. In a few moments squeak it again. If the child doesn’t turn their head to follow the toy bring it to the front again then let the child watch as you move it to the side, squeaking it to keep their attention. This may take quite a few tries if a child does not respond easily. Repeat this in play with different toys and different sounds on a daily basis.
When the child responds easily to this you can make progressively softer noises to refine the game. This will help to develop fine listening skills and auditory concentration. If at this point you have any concerns about the child’s hearing, talk with the SENCo at your setting – he or she may want to check to see if there are any similar concerns at home.
Peek-a-boo games help children to develop a sense of object permanence – an understanding that, even when something or someone disappears from sight, they can still exist, they are still there. This is an important concept that is needed for games and activities a few months later on. For the youngest babies use see-through material first, such as gauze or voile, so that they can get the idea of the game, and to avoid them possibly getting upset at the strangeness of you apparently disappearing. Keep safety in mind and make sure any material is not too near a baby’s face.
With careful risk assessment in your preparation of materials and the environment, you can observe as each child in your care follows their interests and explores their environment in fun ways, in addition to interacting with you through language learning activities. Making use of the activities suggested in this article at the right developmental stage will enhance children’s language and communication development, alongside their cognitive and emotional growth, in a healthy way.
Next up, read Marion’s article on how to support early language for 9–18-month-old children, developing and using specific language resources in your setting, and a simple but powerful way of converting your treasure baskets to ‘language baskets’.
Marion Nash is a chartered educational psychologist. Visit her website.