On a recent visit to my local park I walked past a Dad and toddler, they were laughing in delight as they fed the ducks. Dad was saying “quack quack” and his son was copying him and pointing, saying “hungry ducks.” This simple exchange is a perfect example of speech, language and communication skills in action and is so easy to take for granted. However, over 50% of children in socially deprived areas start school with impoverished speech and on average, children from the poorest 20% of the population are over 17 months behind a child in the highest income group in language development at age three . Approximately 10% of children will have long term, persistent speech, language and communication needs  and as Early Years Practitioners we are in a powerful position to make a positive difference to these children’s lives. Let’s begin by looking at what is meant by Speech, Language and Communication (information based on this Communication Trust document).
This means the speech sounds children use to build up words, saying sounds accurately and in the right places, speaking fluently and without hesitating, prolonging or repeating words or sounds. Speaking with expression and a clear voice, using pitch, volume and intonation to support meaning.
By language we mean both talking (expressive language) and understanding of language. By expressive language we mean having words to describe objects, actions and attributes, using these words to build up sentences, using these sentences to build up conversations and narratives, following the rules of grammar so that things make sense. By understanding (receptive language) we mean processing and making sense of what people say, understanding words being spoken, understanding the rules of grammar used.
This means the way in which language is used to interact with others, using language in different ways to question, clarify, describe and debate. Using non-verbal rules of communication, listening, looking, knowing how to take verbal turns and how to change language use to suit the situation as well as the ability to take into account other people’s perspectives, intentions and wider context.
That any child acquires this vast number of skills by the time they start school is a source of amazement to me. Having worked with children with speech, language and communication difficulties for twenty five years I am constantly surprised when I meet typically developing pre-school children with whom I can hold complex conversations. Children who are able to question, negotiate, predict, re-tell events and make their thoughts and feelings known. Not surprisingly, children who have difficulties in this area often show us in the only way they can, through their behaviour. So, how can we ensure we support the speech, language and communication skills of the children we work with?
Provide a Language Rich Environment
We need to ensure our environment promotes the speech and language and communication skills of all children and in order for this to happen we need:
• Limited background noise and visual clutter, quiet areas within the setting
• Clearly labelled materials and resources which are accessible and interesting
• Routines, instructions and transitions which are supported by visual cues
• Practitioners who enjoy being with children, are knowledgeable about their interests and stage of development and play alongside them
• Practitioners who understand the typical development of speech, language and communication skills and how to support these within their setting (The Communication Trust has a free online course for Early Years Practitioners to support them in this area)
• Regular book sharing and story sessions, both individually and in groups. Children become confident to join in with familiar phrases with repetition so don’t worry about sharing the same books or stories on many occasions
• Regular song/rhyme sessions; it’s best for practitioners to sing as recorded songs are often very quick, making it difficult for children to join in. Have a repertoire of ten songs/rhymes you sing regularly and introduce one new song each week. Using pictures or objects to represent each song/rhyme will give all children the opportunity choose their favourite and also gives a visual prompt.
I’ve been fortunate to visit hundreds of early years settings in my previous role as an Area SENCO and now as an Independent Consultant, these have ranged from purpose built buildings to village halls. Although high quality resources and equipment help us in our role, it’s the practitioner’s skill in interacting with children which will have the greatest impact on their speech, language and communication skills and I’ve seen examples of this time and time again. Consider the following points:
• When are you interacting with children? Is it to give them directions or is it to genuinely share in their experiences, valuing and extending what they are doing?
• Do you model new vocabulary as you play alongside? By 24 months, typically developing children will understand between 200 and 500 words and use over 50 single words. However, many children have huge gaps in language with little knowledge of household items, food, parts of the body, animals, clothes, vehicles, let alone more complex vocabulary such as verbs, prepositions and early concepts.
• Do you provide children with the words they need to engage with peers? For example “You could say – can I play?” “You could say – can I have a turn?” “You could say – stop, I don’t like it” “You could say – excuse me please.” Do you explain to children how to ask for help? This is a vital skill and will really help them when they start school. “You need to say – help please.”
• Do you comment more than question? It’s easy to fall into the trap of continually asking children questions as a means of communication but this puts pressure on them so understandably they’re not very motivated to engage with us! We should be aiming for a ratio of 4 comments to every 1 question, this clip is helpful.
If children’s speech is difficult to understand do you keep their self - esteem high by not correcting them and instead taking the blame yourself. For example, you could say “I’m sorry, my ears aren’t working properly today” or “I’m sorry, it’s very noisy in here, please tell me later.” If it’s difficult to understand a child, ask them to show you what they mean but obviously this will only work if the conversation is about something in the immediate environment. Setting up a home/setting book for parents/carers to write what the child has done can be helpful as this gives you an idea what they might be talking about. I’d advise against pretending to understand what a child has said, I did this once and replied “oh that’s lovely” and realised later that I’d been told their pet rabbit had died. I’ll never forget his face when I responded, a harsh lesson learnt for me. If a child has pronounced a word incorrectly, you can model back the correct version but don’t ask them to repeat what you’ve said. For example, if the child says “tat” you could say “yes, it’s a black cat” and slightly emphasise the correct sound.
This short film clip provides an overview of strategies to use in your setting, I’m sure you’re already using lots of them but it might be useful to share with colleagues to ensure consistency.
Working in partnership with parents/carers is vital, gathering effective information as part of the induction process and highlighting the importance of speech, language and communication skills. For example, a simple open ended question such as “How does your child let you know when they want something?” can open up the conversation. I remember asking this question to a parent who had no concerns about any aspect of his child’s development yet answered this question by telling me that his three year old son screamed when he wanted anything as he didn’t have any speech.
I’d recommend asking all parents/carers when the child last had a hearing test as although they have passed the newborn hearing screen they could have a history of glue ear which can have a significant impact on speech and language skills. Remember, it’s far easier to ask all parents/carers the same questions as part of a thorough induction process than asking them additional questions when you have concerns as this is when they can understandably become anxious.
Many parents understandably aren’t aware of the typical development of speech, language and communication skills which can make it difficult for them to realise there is a delay. Universally Speaking is a downloadable booklet which gives the ages and stages of child’s communication from birth to five, you can also order single hard copies. I found it beneficial to give a copy to all parents/carers during induction (taking literacy levels and EAL into account) and managed to collect enough copies by asking friends and family if I could use their addresses!
Consider how you support parents/carers to encourage their child’s speech, language and communication development at home. The Communication Trust have a series of four short film clips narrated by Kathy Burke to support parents in encouraging their child’s speech and language skills at home. They’re split into 0 6 months, 6 – 12 months, 1 – 2 years and 2 -3 years.
The National Literacy Trust have produced a series of downloadable information sheets in a range of languages for parents/carers with young children. Topics include Sharing Songs and Rhymes, Dummies, Making the Most of TV and Sharing Books.
Do you share with parents/carers the songs and rhymes you’re singing? You could provide opportunities for small groups of parents/carers to observe your song/rhyme session, making it clear that they wouldn’t be under any pressure to join in unless they wanted to!
Leicestershire County Council have produced ideas for supporting learning in the home, including case studies from early years practitioners.
Identification of Speech, Language and Communication Difficulties
Two thirds of young offenders have speech, language and communication difficulties but in only 5% of cases were these identified before the offending began . This figure fills me with despair but also hope because I have seen the impact early identification and intervention can make to children and families.
Think carefully about the processes you have in place to closely monitor children’s speech, language and communication skills. I would recommend that your setting based SENCO asks each Key Person on a monthly basis if they have concerns about any child’s development as this provides a focus for discussion. Remember that we need to be alert to delays in a child’s understanding of language which can be easily masked by the routines in our settings and children copying what their peers are doing.
If a child in your setting is being seen by a Speech and Language Therapist, don’t wait for them to contact you as they have huge caseloads. With written parental permission ask for copies of any reports or letters which should include strategies and advice. If you’re unsure, contact them directly for clarification.
So, what does “Supporting Children’s Speech, Language and Communication Skills” look like on a daily basis in our settings? It’s seeing highly skilled practitioners who are knowledgeable about children’s interests and stage of development who take joy engaging in conversations and modelling language whilst remembering not to ask too many questions or take over the play. It’s making sure all practitioners know where to access support if they have concerns about a child’s speech, language or communication skills and are confident to work in partnership with parents, valuing their opinions and expertise. We make a difference!