Communication is by its very nature a two-way process. Children need to have these skills if they are to particpate in shared and meaningful communications. In this Inset package, based on the need for effective communication and engagement as described in the Common Core, Roger Hurn provides information and activities to help your staff think about ways of helping children to practise and develop their communication skills.

When you meet together as a staff or a team, aim to use some of the time for planned professional development activities. Short bursts of structured thinking and discussion can be more easily accommodated into busy schedules, and the preparation will be less onerous than if you were to plan a whole day. Making CPD manageable will make it happen. Encouraging your team to engage in regular debate will start the process of building a learning community.

The following material can open up discussion, particularly with less experienced members of your team.

Use the information in boxes to make handouts or put the information into your own words and talk about it with your team.

Communication is not just about the words you use, but also your manner of speaking, body language and, above all, the effectiveness with which you listen. Common Core of Skills and Knowledge p6


We all want to create a happy and supportive learning environment that is rich in opportunities for the children to extend and develop their language skills. The question is how do we achieve this? We are going to concentrate on two aspects in this session:

1. What kind of activities inspire children to talk and listen?
2. What can we do, as adults, to encourage children to talk?

Activity one: encouraging speech

Sometimes a busy classroom can be a place where plenty is happening but where only limited learning is actually taking place. This could be because children are missing out on the chance to communicate in different ways with a range of partners. In order to avoid this situation, we need to start by asking ourselves what kind of activities really inspire the children to talk and listen?

Concentrating on adult initiated play, brainstorm any activities you have offered the children this week which will encourage them to communicate with others through language.

Responses might include:

  • board games involving taking turns
  • puppet theatre
  • show and tell time
  • circle time
  • a shop or café in the role play area
  • telephones.

If you haven’t planned any activities that encourage communication, make a note on your planning sheet and sketch out some ideas for next week.

Activity two: talking with children

How can you gain a child’s attention?

In pairs, write down as many strategies as you can, for getting a child’s attention.

Collate the ideas onto a flipchart – divide the page in half lengthwise and label the columns ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Place the ideas in the most appropriate column. Encourage discussion about this; why do we see this as negative, do others agree, what would be a positive alternative?

Ideas might include:

  • eye contact
  • physical positioning
  • body language
  • raising a finger to your lips
  • facial expression
  • say the child’s name to gain and hold their attention.

Never shout at them as this is always counterproductive.

Learning by imitating

Before children can communicate effectively with others they need to learn and practise what communication involves. A natural learning strategy employed by children is to listen to and then imitate conversations they hear around them. In fact, young children often do this by talking to their toys. You can build on this child-initiated strategy by using puppets to model this type of three-dimensional dialogue in the classroom.

For example, to show children how to ask for things using the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, you can place a large and a small book to the right of the puppet and out of reach of your left hand. This way the book has to be passed to you by the puppet. You model the dialogue by asking the puppet to hand you a book. Obviously, you use the word ‘please’. The puppet can respond by asking if you want the big or the little book. You reply and then, when the puppet hands the right book over, you can thank it politely.

Now move the books and reverse roles with the puppet. Let the puppet ask politely for the book, which you then pass over to it. After modelling the dialogue again invite the children to come to the front and take on one of the roles.

Children enjoy doing this and it helps embed vital lessons about language in their minds.

Using Show and Tell to encourage talking and listening

Hold a ‘show and tell’ session in which the children take it in turns to talk about a toy they have brought from home. Begin with an open question which will encourage the children to respond spontaneously and thereby participate in a significant dialogue.

It is important to have established ground rules for this activity such as only one person speaking at a time, etc, but it is equally important for you not to overly direct the session. If you dominate the conversation the opportunities for the children to make meaningful contributions are limited.

Moreover, you can make this into a real opportunity for collaborative speaking and listening by allowing the child holding the toy to select who it is they want to ask them questions. In this way the children experience holding the attention of others, using language to inform and describe as well as listening purposefully to the views of their classmates.

Summing up

There are two other important aspects to consider if we want children to take the most from these opportunities to speak and listen.

All children love to play but sometimes the games that they initiate can lead to petty arguments and even tears. Children find their spontaneous play far more rewarding and fun when they are familiar with the ideas of turn taking and listening to others. These ideas have to be taught and when they are the children’s play not only becomes more enjoyable for them but also more productive in terms of their language development as they spend far more time engaging with each other rather than in squabbling.

Research (Cicognani and Zani, 1992) indicates that opportunities for communication and engagement are enhanced when initiated during small group work. This has implications for how the children are organised. We may need to consider having smaller circle times, smaller group outings and smaller groups for ‘show and tell’ if our children are going to extend and develop their language skills in a purposeful way.

Roger Hurn is a former headteacher and is Series Editor of the Literacy Coordinator’s File

Speaking so that children listen

When the children are ready and listening, remember that your speech needs to be slower than it is when you talk to another adult. Try to have something the children are interested in as the main focus of your conversation. Then, when speaking to them, use simple sentence construction and vocabulary.

Ask lots of open questions, with rising intonation and expectant pauses. These pauses allow the children thinking time when you’ve asked them a question. When they answer, always give the children a positive response whether or not their answers are the ones you were expecting as this will help to motivate and encourage them.

Try not to dominate the conversation or overload it with information. If you do you will be limiting the children’s opportunities to make a contribution and they will either become passive or inattentive.

Your manner throughout the conversation should be calm and child oriented and your responses matched to the children’s developmental level, learning style and interests. For instance, if the children are interested in small animals and have a mainly kinaesthetic learning style you may want to have your discussion with them while you and they play with the class hamster.

Helping the shy child to speak

Some children are reluctant to speak in public because they are unsure of how to express themselves. In such cases puppets can act as a psychological support. When a child speaks through the puppet, any mistakes are made by the puppet and not by the child. Children find this very liberating. In this way, puppets can encourage your children to experiment and play with language when they may otherwise have remained quiet and unresponsive.


Cicognani and Zani, (1992) ‘Teacher–Children Reactions in a Nursery School: an Exploratory Study’, Language and Education, 6, pp 1-12.