Katie Crouch, Early Years Consultant
Learning language and communication is an exciting journey, which children first embark upon whilst still in the womb. Through sounds, in our environment and our spoken words, children slowly begin to absorb the meanings of noises and verbal communications. Communication is a fundamental life skill, which we all need to connect us to our social world. We use connections to build relationships with others and in order to carry out tasks. Early childhood is widely seen as a critical period for forming language and communication strategies, and is therefore, a golden time for us to get to know our children and their developing personalities.
However, the child’s ability to understand and use words in early childhood is often a concern for many parents. In early years education, many settings hold settling visits which are a chance for the child to become familiar with their new environment and for parents to voice any concerns and ask questions. In my experience, the most commonly asked questions from parents involve concerns about their child’s level of speech.
When embarking upon supporting your child’s communicative development, it is important to focus on the two aspects of language; receptive and expressive. Receptive language is your child’s absorption of sound stimulus in which they are immersed i.e., when children learn to understand and use the language they are surrounded by, or in simpler terms, for example, to connect the sound of a siren with a fire engine. In the womb, particularly in the later months of gestation, your baby is receiving language and auditory input from your voice, the voice of your partner and other noises within the environment surrounding you. You may well have noticed this for yourself, for example, seeing your tummy move when you are exposed to a loud noise in late pregnancy; in this case, your baby may be moving in response to this unfamiliar stimulus. Auditory tests are carried out in most hospitals during a child’s first few days of life. This helps to measure the baby’s biological ability to hear noise from the world around them. If it is found that there is a barrier to receptive language, then support and alternative methods for communication can be implemented from the earliest possible opportunity.
Expressive communication and language is traditionally visible and audible from birth through a baby’s cries. For example, have you noticed your baby following a movement through their gaze or sticking out their tongue in a mirrored response to you or your partner? As your baby grows and develops, they will continue to receive stimulus from pre-verbal communications with you through, for example when feeding your child, the shared eye contact, your smiles, the slightly higher voice you may use when talking to your child.
Smiling, gurgling and moving arms are your baby’s way of drawing you in to these communications, strengthening your relationship and your unique bond. Your child may then progress to the introduction of babbling and making sounds such as: b, p, and m, building onto repeated babbling: b-b, d-d. These early conversations facilitate the opportunity to hold two-way interactions with you. These communications help to reinforce the emotional and social connections between your baby and the lucky recipient.
Children crave interactive input and can often continue to reward you with facial expressions, babbles, and gestures. This is your child’s way of keeping your attention. Often this can involve you pointing out objects of interest on a walk or naming objects as your child gazes, points or waves in that direction. During these times, it is useful to share the same viewpoint, for example using a pram which faces you, therefore supporting communications organically. These opportunities are how a child begins to learn nouns, the naming of objects around them, for example, when your little one names everything furry as ‘doggy’, or all adults as ‘mummy’ or ‘daddy’. Have you noticed that your child may begin to name things they cannot see as a way of enquiring or asking a question? Often this can have a higher tone of voice at the end. For example, ‘doggy?’ This is usually met with a response from us as adults, which may involve a verb; ‘doggy gone’, or ‘doggy running’. This input from you is the starting point for your child to begin to connect nouns and verbs together. This can lead to a wonderful mix of outcomes; man running, dog sitting, daddy laughing, mummy smiling etc.
If you are communicating with a child, it is important to allow them time to process the communication. We have all been tempted to answer a question which we have just asked of a child. When your little one has grasped the ability to express two word utterances, then they are well on their way to becoming secure in their expressive language. As adults, we can support a child’s journey to effective communication and language use through acknowledging, validating and building on a child’s expressive language. An example of this would be:
Child: “Doggy run.”
Adult: “Doggy run? That’s right, the spotty dog is running.”
This then facilitates the child to receive confirmation as well as input of additional language factors.
At some point during the process of language and communication development, you may find that your child encounters a difficulty along the way. This is not unusual and there are many things adults can do to support children who may be encountering communication challenges. For example; if you notice that your child is struggling to produce b, p or m sounds, you could introduce activities which promote the use of the muscles needed to make these sounds, such as blowing bubbles or making faces in the mirror.
If your child mispronounces a word or phrase, try not to point it out simply acknowledge the child’s words and repeat back the correct version. For example;
Child: “…phant go down.”
Adult: “Yes. The elephant has fallen down.”
This shows your child that you value what it is that they are trying to say as well as exposing them to the correct formation. Positive role modeling also helps to support and bolster your child’s language confidence.
If you happened to notice that your child may occasionally be getting ‘stuck’ when trying to get some words out, there are a number of strategies which you can easily and quickly put into place:
Lowering yourself to the child’s eye level reassures them that you want to hear their words. Giving your child a sense of unhurried attention will help them to feel that they do not need to rush from their initial thought to their expression of language. This room for thought can help a child to process the sounds and words which they are looking for. You are also showing your child that you value and are interested in what it is they want to say.
Tapping and clapping can be a good way to help children who may be feeling stuck with words. By tapping their leg gently, for every syllable made, the child learns to break down words into chunks of sounds. It also supports the child in slowing their speech down and reduces the likelihood of becoming stuck.
Singing is a fantastic way of embedding rhythm and fun within speech. By singing words and sentences to each other, you are sharing language in a fun and supportive manner. Your child has the opportunity to explore these sounds and mouth movements in a relaxed way, which will help to support an emerging love of language. Nursery rhymes in particular, have been found to promote strong links with emergent reading, writing and storytelling. This is due to the interconnecting relationship between sounds and words. The concept of using rhymes to promote emergent language and literacy can be seen within the routines of most pre-schools, nurseries, toddler and baby song groups.
As an Early Years Teacher, I would use my ‘rhyme bag’ on a daily basis. Having a few props in a bag to represent a rhyme, can build the fun even further. The child can select a prop purely by touch and use it to build an idea for a song. For example; finding a shiny star to represent ‘Twinkle Twinkle’, or some rubber ducks to represent ‘Five Little ducks’. Rhyme bags can be quick to make and the opportunities to use them can be vast. For example, during long journeys or waiting for an appointment. You may find that others around you may join in!
As your child becomes more confident, you can add more songs and build on this love of nursery rhymes. It is always a good idea to share your techniques, rhymes or songs with any other adults who your child may come into regular contact with, for example at nursery. This will help the adults to be prepared to support your child, giving them more opportunities to build their confidence in their expressive language.
Supporting your child to become an active communicator can be likened to a roller coaster ride; there can be peaks, troughs and U-turns along the way. Each child will travel at a speed which is appropriate for them as an individual. However, supporting your child to be a confident communicator is an adventure to enjoy; connecting and sharing together. Children will reach communication milestones at differing times in their development, but with support, they can find a method and style of communication which will suit them and their needs. Your child’s communication acquisition is a special time when you can truly be involved along every step of the journey. Every day, you play a vital role in supporting your child’s understanding and use of words. You have a unique position to watch as your child’s personality unfolds and emerges through their language. Treasure the experiences and enjoy the ride. Happy talking!