This is the first of two articles where speech and language therapists talk about how children learn language, how to provide a language-rich environment, what can go wrong and what you can do to help.
We are surrounded by vast amounts of research which clearly show the importance of good early language skills, without which children and young people are at risk of social, emotional, educational and economic disadvantage.
- 40% of seven to 14-year olds who were referred to child psychiatric services had a language impairment that had never been suspected.
- 50 – 90% of children with persistent Speech, Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) go on to have reading difficulties.
- Only a fifth of children with SLCN reach the expected levels for their age in English and Maths at age 11.
- In some areas, more than 50% of children entering reception have language levels below what is expected for their age.
The stats still shock. After all, who could fail to be worried about the links with mental health problems and youth offending?
But at the same time, overexposure to figures without a clear route towards a solution leads us into the dangerous territory of complacency. You would be forgiven, too, for feeling helpless when all around us researchers, government ministers and the press trumpet the need for ‘us’ as educators to, somehow, fix things.
But while these figures may deal mostly with older children, you should never feel like you cannot help. Because…
Prevention is always better than cure
That’s right. Helping to prevent these problems to begin with is so much more powerful than trying to solve them at a later date.
That’s why our first article is about the joy of working with the youngest children and the significant opportunities you have to make positive and lasting change for every child who is at risk of falling behind.
Here, we begin with normal development and how to make the very best of those crucial early years. Next time, we’ll look in more detail at those children who, despite the very best of efforts on your part, are falling behind. There will be more about what you can do and when to seek specialist help later.
Rising to the challenge
It can be easy to feel daunted by this responsibility, but you don’t have to be.
What we want to tell you is that by understanding how children develop language you are best-placed to maximise what is essentially a normal process. By recognising that opportunities for language development don’t just happen at certain parts of the day. By simply making small changes to what you already do and adding in some new strategies, you will be giving every child the best possible chance.
How children develop speech and language skills
Babies emerge into the world innately programmed to develop language. Right from the beginning they are learning to listen, to discriminate sounds and to gradually begin to make sense of what they see and hear.
‘Noise’ becomes a babble from which the young child learns, remarkably quickly, to extract the sounds of their mother tongue and to discard those not needed. As their knowledge store grows, words will begin to emerge, quickly followed by the joining of words into two and then three-word phrases.
At the same time, as physical skills develop, children begin to make sense of their environment through the power of exploration and play. Through play, children practise, they rehearse, they mirror what they see in the world. Imagination is developing and language with it. All this time the child is providing a running commentary – initially just for themselves and then later with language that invites the attention and involvement of others to participate and enjoy.
The key components
As therapists, we talk about the three puzzle parts which must come together if a child is to lay solid foundations for the future. They are:
Has the child got the skills to communicate? This involves understanding, vocabulary, a developed speech sound system, and the skills to use language for lots of different things. In the beginning, language is used for very basic things like labelling and requesting. Gradually language usage becomes more varied (describing, explaining, commenting) and increasingly sophisticated (reasoning, hypothesising, debating).
All of these skills are necessary if a child is to become a skilled communicator. They rely on meaning conveyed by a broad and rich vocabulary of nouns, verbs, adjectives, structures, tenses, and nuances.
Is language motivating & rewarding? Initially, language gets a child’s needs met. Later on, it grows in sophistication and satisfies social and emotional needs.
It’s important to help children make choices, provide them with a variety of play situations, create opportunities to describe and explain, and to begin to develop narrative skills.
Crucial to all three of these components is you.
You are the model as a child’s means, either as a means to communicate or a means to develop their language. You are the facilitator, making sure there are reasons for the child to want to communicate. You are the developer, using every opportunity for broadening and enriching language.
No pressure then!
So, why do things go wrong?
This is a good question – and one with several answers or sometimes none at all. But knowing why is useful, because it enables us to think about prevention. For example, if I know that children need to be exposed to a word many times before they begin to actually use it, I’ll use lots of repetition. But even if there is no obvious explanation – there are still things we can do to head off potential problems.
We have chosen not to go ahead and list all the short-comings which contribute towards things going wrong. Instead, we want to take a positive slant, so read on to learn about the optimum environment and how you can create it.
Nature versus nurture
The idea of nature versus nurture isn’t new. Although the terminology might have changed over the years, it is accepted that being born ‘innately programmed’ – the ‘nature’ part – is only half the story.
The other half is ‘nurture’. Nurture is all about the environment surrounding the child. The optimum environment that will nurture successful talkers.
Knowing what is involved allows us to make changes as we recognise the importance of what we provide, what we do, and what we say.
The optimum environment
As therapists, we spend time with our Early Years colleagues looking in detail at every aspect of the environment. The question in everyone’s mind is ‘Are we making the most of our space, our activities and ourselves to create a language-rich environment for our children?’
Here are some examples of things which are covered in much more detail in our checklist – where you will also find examples under these same broad headings.
1. Using your space as a language-rich environment
- The physical environment
- Visual support
2. The opportunities you create to support language development
- Adult-facilitated activities
- Small group work
- Interactive book reading
- Structured conversation
3. The ways in which adults in your setting talk with children
- Gaining attention
- Use of visual supports
- Pacing & pausing
- Gestures & intonation
- Offering choices
- Don’t overwhelm with too much talk!
This is not only about the physical space you provide but is also about managing the dynamic aspects of that space, such as controlling volume to make sure there are opportunities for developing attention skills or introducing ‘communication rules’. Most importantly, you need to understand the impact adult interaction skills have on child language development – both yours and those of other significant adults.
If you are genuinely committed to offering the very best start to the children in your care, it’s worth looking at all three areas described above.
A language-rich enabling environment
In terms of the physical space: there are lots of ideas out there and checklists to help you rate where you think you are now and to help to measure progress as you put things in place.
You can take a look here at Soundswell’s checklist that we’ve adapted from the Communication Supporting Classrooms Observation Tool by Better Communication Research Programme 2012.
As we’ve already mentioned, controlling volume is a great place to start. But what do we mean by ‘controlling volume’?
Well, a busy setting with lots happening and children moving between a variety of activities creates volume, much of which will (hopefully!) be children talking.
On the one hand, this is good because it shows a general ‘busyness’ and engagement. But on the other hand, it can prove to be too much for some children who haven’t yet learnt to abstract the priorities for whatever they are focusing on and ‘tune out’ the rest. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the louder the hubbub, the more the adults find themselves having to shout – not great for the vocal cords but also not great as an example to children. Raised voices tend to convey less positive aspects such as displeasure or stress.
Factoring in both loud and quiet times is ideal then. Outdoor play, for example, is a great opportunity to be ‘loud’. Children can let off steam, shout and squeal as much as they want. This might then be contrasted with the calm and order inside, where the space is still fun but it is an environment for a different type of learning. You could even develop a signal, a sound, symbol or both, which children learn to associate with returning to the ‘quiet’ indoors
Surprisingly, the best way to control the volume is to reduce your own volume. Children will soon learn that they must be quiet if they are to hear what you say. I am sure you already know this – but what might be new is that this technique works best in tandem with several other strategies which you’ll find in the checklist on the final page.
‘Communication rules’ are things like turn-taking and learning not to interrupt. Despite being important social niceties, these ideas are about more than just ‘being polite’. The point here is that if everybody is talking, nobody is listening, and without listening, there can be no learning.
As adults, we understand speaker-listener roles (or most of us do, most of the time…). We all understand the idea that ‘You’re talking and I’m listening. When it’s my turn I might talk about what you were saying and then I might contribute some of my own ideas. Then we’ll swap and I’ll be the listener again.’ On an individual level, as children develop conversational skills, they need to learn this too. As with pretty much everything, they learn by example.
As a group, children need to learn that when the adult is talking by explaining what will happen or giving instructions, they are listeners. This is not only to make sure they themselves don’t miss anything but also to ensure that the learning experience for everyone is not disrupted.
It’s pretty certain that every setting will have some children whose attention and listening skills are immature. These children are easy to spot, perhaps fidgeting on the carpet, poking the child next in line, chattering, or even getting up and moving around when all others are sitting down.
The first thing is to be aware that attention and listening are learned skills. They don’t just ‘happen’. Remember nature versus nurture? We are programmed to be able to develop these skills but it’s the environment which allows them to develop and mature. Attention skills develop in a particular order and children need to go through every stage to get there.
The levels are broadly age-related and once we know that it becomes immediately obvious that, by a certain age, hoping that the wrigglers and chatterers will just stop of their own accord is unrealistic.
There comes a point where you need to take some action to bring these behaviours back on track. So, what can you do to help?
- Find out how attention skills develop – There has been lots of useful work researching this. Here you can find a neat rundown of different expectations and levels that children develop at. You will see that, until a child reaches level 5 (4-5 years), they aren’t ready to learn in a group. Time to take action!
- Consider running an ‘Attention and Listening’ group – We have a 25-day programme which can make a significant change. The programme looks at five core skills, critical for any kind of learning, not just language development. You can read more about the five skills here. It also includes work on ‘good sitting’ and turn-taking – skills which support the development of good communication ‘rules’ as well as getting children to a stage of ‘readiness to learn’.
- Reduce the stimulation in certain areas of your setting – Too much visual and auditory competition can be both distracting and overwhelming for young children.
- Focus on attention specifically – For example, you could introduce some games and activities that are specifically aimed at developing attention skills, just like these examples.
- Get parents involved – In order to create a consistent home learning environment, share these activities where parents are able to help at home.
Positive relationships and adult interaction
Now we come to the most crucial area – this is where the impact can be enormous and it is entirely in your hands. It doesn’t depend on your budget for equipment or modifications to your space – it just depends on you.
Children learn from us and through us – that’s a fact. The better we are, the better they will be. The better we are, the easier and more enjoyable their learning will be.
The good news is there is no mystery and no magic to this. Take on board these top tips and you’ll see the difference they can make.
On a practical basis:
- You can use this list as the basis of a training session for your setting.
- Talk about what each tip actually means and practise some examples.
- Agree which tip to start with – once this has become routine then it’s time to add another.
- Try putting your team in pairs so that they can help each other to remember.
- For those brave enough, video can be a fantastic resource to help self-monitoring.
- Ask your speech and language therapy service to help you with these universal strategies.
What will help…
…and the reasons why
|Speak slowly||Sound travels fast but it isn’t instantaneous! Children need time to process the information you’re giving them.|
|Use short sentences||Less information means the child has more chance to remember what they hear long enough to be able to process it.|
|Pause between sentences||Pauses can also be very powerful. They allow a child to reflect, develop anticipation and attention. ‘Less ‘ can definitely be ‘more’. Children who are exposed to talk ‘for the sake of it’ learn to switch off. So – make every word count and don’t be afraid of silence! On a practical basis, if one sentence follows another too quickly, the child may be processing the first one when along comes the next – and lose the thread of both.|
|Use lively intonation||You are much more likely to capture and hold the child’s interest and attention. Also – it’s worth remembering that gathering meaning from intonation is a normal developmental stage of language acquisition.|
|Support what you say with non-verbal communication||Makaton signs and/or more informal gesture, body movement, and eye-pointing really help to convey meaning.|
|Use plenty of repetition||Repetition leads to familiarity, familiarity leads to confidence, and both help children to learn.|
|Make long sounds long||Long sounds stay in the auditory channel (i.e. they are heard) longer so the child is more likely to pick up and learn from them. It also helps later too, with blending phonics.|
|Make sure the ends of your words don’t “drop away”||We know that there is a “s” on the end of hats for example, but a child may be less familiar with the rules for plurals and needs to hear the “s” in order to know it’s there.|
|Be positive||Try hard to avoid using the word “no”. Imagine how we would feel if our best efforts were met with a negative! A good way to help move a child on is to always start with “well done/yes” and then follow up with the right structure. For example: Child – “Him got 2 car.” Practitioner: “Yes, he’s got 2 cars.”|
|Model the right pronunciation and phrase/sentence structure||You give the child the right structure, word order, and sounds. It’s always good to start with some praise! For example: Child – “Man sleep bed.” Practitioner – “Good try! The man is sleeping on the bed.”|
|Expand by adding a word or two||This means exactly what it says – if a child is using one word, expand that to two. Adding a “routine” word like ‘more’ helps them to put two words together – and there are lots of opportunities to practise these. Then, when a child is using two words, you will expand to three. For example “car” becomes “Yes, red car.” or “juice” becomes “More juice.” Equally “Ball gone” can become “Yes, the ball’s gone in the pond.”|
By this point, I think we can guess what you are probably thinking…
But how will we know if a child is starting to fall behind? This is a really important question. In many ways it’s easier to recognise the child who is clearly already behind. The trick is to be able to identify those who are just beginning to falter and to do something at the earliest possible opportunity to get things back on track.
The only really fool-proof way to do this is by introducing universal language screening across the whole of your setting. The tool you choose is less important than what it’s able to do for you. It should be quick and easy to use, provide concrete data – with in-built opportunities to make comparisons as you deliver interventions and want to measure your impact – and sign-post you to lots of activities which will help.
Jo and I recommend the Wellcomm speech and language Toolkit, and have done for a number of years now.
There are hints and tips which we have woven into the training we deliver on the toolkit so that everyone gets the most out of Wellcomm:
- Understanding why some children are behind – which makes us…
- …smarter at grouping children – as well as …
- …being confident to know when to move them on, and so…
- …making much better use of the data
WellcommEYticks all the boxes above and we have an ever-growing bank of data which shows the impact not only on the development of language skills but also the impact on Early Learning Goals.
What kind of results will I get?
Pretty much every child will make progress. Some will make dramatic progress and will no longer be a cause for concern. This group will probably be those where the ‘nature’ component is working fine but the ‘nurture’ aspects may have fallen short.
Others will make some progress, for example it may be that their language skills are below average but inline with their skills across the board. There will be a few whose progress is minimal and these may be the children with underlying problems which are contributing to the child’s difficulties. These will be the children who need more than a universal, generalised approach.
There! At the earliest possible opportunity you have identified these children, already initiated some help and now need to think about more targeted support to turn things around.
Our next article will look in much more detail at causes, associated difficulties and – most importantly – what you can do next.
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