Margo Turnbull explores the development of children’s communication skills, by focusing on the role of the practitioner.

Communication is the foundation for all children’s learning and social development. The ability to use speech and language to convey thoughts, opinions and ideas to others is a uniquely human skill. The majority of children develop communication skills with little or no additional help. However, for one million children in the UK – around one in 10 – some aspect of the communication process breaks down.

Early years practitioners have a vital role in supporting the communication development of all children, especially those with a communication disability. Projects such as the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) and Peers Early Education Partnership (PEEP) have been instrumental in highlighting the long term impact that high quality early years provisions can have on young children. Part of ensuring the quality of early years provision involves making practitioners aware of their important role and how they can best support children’s development.

Spoken communication
When we think of young children communicating, we often think first of the words and sounds they use to interact with those around them. A child’s ability to use language to communicate, or their expressive language, requires the development of a number of complex skills and processes. When a child is constructing and producing a sentence they have to:

  • decide what it is they want to say
  • choose the words they want to use
  • join those words together into phrases and sentences
  • organise their speech muscles (lips, tongue, cheeks) to produce the sounds they need.

All this has to happen before a child even begins to speak out loud!

One of the most common areas of difficulty for all young children, even for those without a communication disability, involves choosing the right words to use and structuring those words into meaningful phrases and sentences.

All young children go through various phases when they are developing their communication skills. During these phases children experiment with different ways of saying things and gradually increase their vocabulary so that they can communicate about more topics. We are all familiar with children who mistakenly call a table a chair or who say ‘I goed to the park.’ Although these are perfectly normal developmental errors, there are some simple things early years practitioners can do to help children develop their spoken language. Such strategies will help all children develop various communication skills and will especially support those with a communication disability.

Be aware of your own communication
The most important strategy for early years practitioners is to be aware of their own communication and interaction with children. We all know that children learn from their environment and experiences with others, so make sure that you are using correct, simple language when you communicate. This will provide children with a good model on which to base their own speech and language. By using short, simple sentences you are also helping the child to understand more of what you say and giving them a greater opportunity to hear the words you are saying.

This is especially important when you are giving instructions. For example, if you say, ‘Go and put your coat on the hook and then sit down on the rug so that we can say hello to Shariff, who is new’, there are a lot of words for a young child to hear and understand. If you break this down into three or four simple sentences, the child will not only understand more of what you say but have a greater chance of hearing and remembering any ‘new’ words or sentence structures that you may use.

Provide good speech and language models
Don’t focus on ‘correcting’ a child’s mistakes – instead provide them with the correct model of what they should have said. Making mistakes is a normal part of learning and developing. It is important to let children make mistakes – if we focus too much on correcting a child’s errors, they may become nervous and hesitant to try to communicate. If a child makes a mistake when they speak – they may say the wrong word or the wrong sound – the best thing to do is to repeat the correct version of what they have said. For example, if a child said, ‘I goed to the park’, you could say, ‘Good talking – you went to the park.’

By repeating what they said and emphasising your correction, you are praising them for trying and giving them a chance to hear the correct word or sentence structure. If a child says an incorrect sound, you can follow this same principle. For example, if a child says, ‘There is gog’, you can say, ‘Good talking – there is a dog…a d-dog.’ When children are learning to talk and communicate, it is important that their experiences are as positive as possible. By focusing on modelling rather than correcting mistakes, you can help them learn in a positive way.

Help children to correct their own mistakes
As children get older and become more competent communicators, it is important to encourage them to monitor their own communication. This means helping them to correct their own mistakes in a supportive, positive way. For example, if a child says, ‘I goed to the park,’ you could say, ‘Do we say “goed to the park” or “went to the park?”’ Once again, this strategy is based around the principle of helping a child to learn in a positive, constructive way.

To sum up
Early years settings are very busy, action-packed places. Promoting practitioners’ awareness of communication and the simple ways that they can support the development of all children is a vital element of creating high-quality early years provision.