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Saturday 3 October 2015

Developing Speech and Language in the Early Years - helping babies and children to communicate

This blog post focuses on appropriate communications and interactions with young children,  explaining how to aid and develop language by use of questions, when not to question, how to 'give language' to babies and toddlers and when to seek further help.

speech language EYFS
Arthur doing the actions for 'incy wincy spider'

How many times have you looked at a baby and thought " I wish I knew what they were thinking?!"

Developing Speech and Language in the Early Years - helping babies and children to communicate

speech language EYFSspeech language EYFS

I do it all the time! I am absolutely fascinated by the ability that babies and young children  have to communicate in a variety of ways from such an early age...

There is absolutely no doubt that children learn the most about communication by watching and communicating with us. We can have a huge impact on their communication and language in our interactions with them - just by knowing how to do this appropriately (depending on their age, ability, need  - more on this later) when we question and respond.

I have previously written a blog post all about 'sensory play' and how this can be used to build language with children in the Early Years. The post gives some useful examples of the type of language you can use with babies and young children and the way in which you should ( and should not!) help them to develop this skill. 
(If you would like to read this post click here for post on  building language with sensory play)


In these blog posts I will expanding upon the topic of developing language, what speech, language and communication actually is, the difficulties some children can face and how we can help!

speech language EYFS

What is communication?

Communication can be Verbal or Non-verbal


  • Noises which are symbolic (eg, 'moo')
  • Words
  • Sentences
  • Leading someone by the hand
  • gestures
  • touch
  • pointing
  • facial expressions
  • eye contact
(NB: Usually, children with speech and language difficulties will rely more on non-verbal communication, past the age/stage that most of their peers would. Children who may be on the Autistic Spectrum usually can have difficulties with both verbal and non-verbal communication - usually communication when and how they choose.)

Here is a table from the National Strategies outlining (in general) what you can expect your child to be doing depending on their age.

speech language EYFS

speech language EYFS

Language for babies:

speech language EYFS

Have you noticed how much babies enjoy action songs and rhymes? Perhaps they are even starting to join in!

For babies - it is usually the non verbal signs of communication that they will use first: 

  • waving hello or goodbye
  • kissing or blowing kisses
  • pointing
  • clapping for a song
  • licking their lips for food
  • shaking head for 'no'

This is because babies have the ability to understand and attempt to communicate using signs and gestures long before they have the ability to say words and form sentences themselves ( although they will babble and try!)

Because they are taking it all in - try to use real words with your baby ('dog' rather than 'woof woof' for example) from the start. 
  • You can help your baby to develop their understanding of what objects are called by naming them frequently. 
  • Playing games where you touch name body parts such as the nose/mouth etc. 
  • Wave hello and goodbye to mummy/daddy/the house when you/they leave or return.
  • Switch lights on and point saying 'lights'
  • sing action songs which your baby will eventually learn ( we love Incy Wincy Spider and also Wind the bobbin up!)
One of the best ways to help your baby to communicate and understand is through the use of Makaton or Baby Signing. Many towns and villages run classes, but if not, there are books and DVD's available. Here are some of our most used signs: 

speech language EYFS makaton

Actually, 'milk' is the most used sign, but I don't have a picture! Squeeze your fist together as if you are milking a cow and say "milk".

Language for children, an example: 

When talking to a child, It is very easy to jump straight in with a question, usually:  "oh what have you got there??", or, "What are you doing?"

This may be fine with a confident child with good speech and language development, but if the child is not really known to you, comes across as shy or is reluctant to communicate, try to avoid this - especially with older children who are aware that you know full well what the answer is. 

If you ask an older child/toddler what colour top they are wearing when its is quite clear and obvious to you what colour the top is then you are asking them a 'testing' question. The child may feel under pressure to answer your questions correctly and may not want to respond at all - this wont help build language and confidence in conversation.

Start by offering vocabulary and adding language with action words and descriptions - especially if you are talking to a child who is very shy. Explain to them what you can see and what they are doing (don't take it for granted that young children will automatically understand the meaning of certain words - they need to be used in context) :-

"Hello, I can see that you have a bottle in your hand - it is a very shiny bottle, it has sparkly glitter inside. Now you are rolling the bottle on the floor. You are pushing the bottle forwards and then backwards. Now you are tapping the bottle on the floor - i can hear the water splashing around inside. You are lifting the bottle up high into the air, stretching up tall."

Be careful not to fall into the trap of ending your sentence with "aren't you?"

For babies and very young toddlers who are starting to speak - simply holding one object and giving them the name of the object and one describing word (whilst touching/smelling etc) will be enough at first to help them build up their understanding of the meaning of the words.

Communication difficulties:

Often, difficulties are picked up once your child in is Nursery or Reception class at school. 
Speech and language issues are not just an inability to say certain words or sounds, it also includes attention and listening skills, understanding of spoken language and the ability to turn thoughts into language.

Below are some examples of some possible difficulties and suggestions of solutions to try.

(NB: this does not replace professional advice and observations of an individual child. I am not writing as a speech and language therapist or professional - simply in my role and experience as a Primary school Teacher specialising in Early Years - and as a mummy!)

speech language EYFS

Listening and attention:

When you are speaking to or communicating with a child - in order to give you their attention they need switch off, or ignore their other channels of attention and focus only on the auditory signals from you. some children find this hard simply because they may be distracted by the following:

  1. Auditory - other children, TV, computer, other adults
  2. Personal - tiredness, hunger/thirst, overly excited
  3. kinaesthetic - other people, pictures/displays, toys, clothing such as shoes (especially those with velcro!), fluff or bits on the carpet/table/floor
  4. visual - windows, other people, phones, TV, computer, patterns, toys, screen savers

Before deciding on a speech and language issue, try to remove other potential distractions mentioned above before attempting to communicate, facing away from windows and screens may help and giving the child something to hold may help them to stay focused.


  1. Make your language simple so it is easier to process
  2. Repeat yourself, activities, key words
  3. Give information or instructions in smaller chunks
  4. Exaggerate intonations or certain words and facial expressions 
  5. Speak slower
  6. Use the child's name to keep their attention
  7. Use visual clues (pictures, signs, objects, expressions)
  8. Maintain eye contact

Speech immaturities, incorrect use of words or tenses:

These are really common in the Early Years and the best way to deal with them is to 'model' (demonstrate) correct use of language by repeating back and modeling  NOT pointing out the mistake and correcting.


Child: "You rided a bike didn't you?"
Adult:  " yes, I rode a bike!"

Child: "him want to play"
Adult: " he wants to play? ...

Child: " The pen runned out of ink!"
Adult: " oh no! The pen has ran out of ink??"

Child: " me got a car"  ( this is trickier as you are trying to model  the correct use of the pronoun "I" so you can't just recast and say ' you've got a car have you?') solution:

adult: " I've got a car too"

speech language EYFS

A great way to model and introduce language is using my 'anticipation box' activity - if you haven't read my blog post about this activity you can access it here - anticipation box learn in a fun way.

Speech sounds:

In general there is an order that most children and babies learn to use certain speech sounds, most not reaching the final stage until the age of 5-6 yrs old. Here is a general order:

  1. babbling sounds
  2. vowel sounds
  3. d,b,p,t,n,m
  4. c,g,w,h
  5. s,z
  6. f,sh
  7. j,ch,l
  8. v
  9. r
  10. scr, str
  11. th
I used to use a fab powerpoint presentation called 'The Story of Mr Tongue' to help children with speech sounds - you may be able to download it here:  Click here


speech language EYFS

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Sarah x

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