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Talking the talk

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By Kate FreemanProfessional Advisor at I CAN, the children’s communication charity.

Kate Freeman talks about the importance of developing children’s communication skills in the early years

Little girl on phone

Why it’s good to talk

The transition from babbling baby to talkative toddler seems like a miracle, and while a massive explosion in communication development takes place during the first three years of life, this does not happen all at once. It requires help and encouragement from everybody.

Learning to talk is the most complicated process our brains have to master, yet it is too often taken for granted. Recent evidence suggests that in some areas of the UK, a massive 40 to 50 per cent of children are starting school without the communication skills they need to learn, achieve and make friends.

What do we mean by speech, language and communication needs?

Imagine living in a world where all around you people spoke in a language that you did not understand, and no matter how hard you tried to learn, it still meant nothing to you. Or imagine the frustration of seeing a younger brother or sister talking and laughing with your parents when you cannot even understand what they are saying. This is what it can be like to have speech, language and communication needs. The term covers a whole range of problems including:

  • difficulty listening and attending
  • difficulty relating to other people
  • limited understanding of what others say
  • difficulty learning and using new words
  • difficulty putting words together to make whole sentences
  • unclear speech
  • difficulty getting words out coherently or stammering
  • a hoarse or croaky voice
  • difficulty taking part in conversations.

What impact can speech and language difficulties have on a child’s education?

As education is delivered almost entirely through the medium of language, a child with speech and language difficulties will need help to get the most out of school. If their needs are not met, they may experience problems such as:

  • literacy difficulties
  • difficulties accessing the curriculum and therefore achieving in school
  • social isolation
  • disaffection/boredom
  • behavioural problems
  • bullying
  • low self-esteem.

Of course, not all children will experience these additional difficulties. Every child is unique and depending on the nature of their problem, some children will cope better than others.

The role of the early years practitioner

Early years practitioners have a unique responsibility when it comes to developing children’s communication skills. Observing and supporting development, you are often the first to notice if a child is not developing typically. You play a crucial role, working with parents, to ensure problems are dealt with as early as possible.

Research has shown that children who receive help with their speech and language difficulties by the age of five and a half have the best chances of going on to do well in school, developing good literacy skills and building good social relationships. It is important to reach children who might have difficulties early on. It is essential that these children receive support from parents and from practitioners as they prepare for school.

7 top tips to help develop children’s communication skills

1 Make sure that you are on the same level as the child when you talk with them

Children develop attention skills gradually, so having the chance to see you face to face will help them to know that you are talking to them. It will also help to develop eye contact and important listening skills.

2 Help to focus the child’s attention on what you are saying by calling their name first

It is not until children are around four years old that they are able to control their own focus of attention. So, rather than giving the instruction and then saying the child’s name, it would be helpful if their name was said first and then the child will know that they need to listen.

3 Speak in sentences that are one word longer than the child’s sentences

This not only helps the children to understand what is being said, but it also provides a very useful model of sentences for the children to try. So, if a child mainly uses two-word sentences, for example, ‘car there’ or ‘juice gone’, you should use sentences with three main words, for example, ‘Kelly, car please’ or ‘Want more juice?’. This can be difficult to do and may feel a bit silly, but it really does help to develop the children’s language. Once they are on to longer sentences, your sentences can get longer, too.

4 If a child gets a word or sentence ‘wrong’, just repeat it back to them naturally using the ‘correct’ adult version

If a child says ‘tat’, you can say, ‘Yes, it’s a cat’. Or if they say, ‘I wented outside’, you can say, ‘Oh, you went outside?’. This gives the child a chance to hear the adult version of the words and sounds, without feeling criticised for ‘getting it wrong’. When the child is ready, they will be able to use the adult versions themselves, but this does not happen by being ‘corrected’.

5 Allow plenty of opportunity for talking

Try not to talk too much. Children who are developing communication often need extra time to take in what has been said to them and to plan and produce their response. Leave plenty of silence and you may well be surprised by how the child fills the gaps.

6 Help the children to listen by minimising background noises and playing a variety of listening games

Listening is the basic skill for communication and it needs to be learned. Make it easier for the children to listen by reducing the level of excess noise. Turn off any music, the television and radio when the children are expected to listen.

Help to develop listening by playing games with noises, for example, ‘Can you find the animal that makes this noise?’. Point out and label noises that you hear in the environment around you, for example, a plane flying over, a dog barking, the doorbell and so on.

7 Value the children’s attempts to communicate

Right from birth, children are able to communicate in some way, and they will get better at communicating if adults respond. So, whether it is copying a baby in the sounds that they are making, or listening carefully to a child when they are trying to say something to you, make sure that the child knows that you think communication is important.

Further information

I CAN’s Make Chatter Matter campaign has produced free resources, with support from the BT Better World campaign and Openreach, to help all families and the children’s workforce know broadly what a child should be doing at certain ages, and how to support them.

Ready Steady Talk! offers parents and carers vital information on communication development, with a focus on preparing children for pre-school.

Learning to Talk, Talking to Learn is a self-study resource providing information and basic training on speech and language development.

All of the above resources are available from

These techniques will help all children to develop their communication skills. If you are working with a child with a speech, language or communication need, who is already seeing a speech and language therapist, it would help to talk through additional games, activities and techniques with the therapist.

If you are concerned about a child’s communication development, talk it through with colleagues and raise the matter with the child’s parents. Parents may already have concerns, but not know what to do next. Anyone can refer a child to a speech and language therapist with the parents’ permission.

Log on to Talking Point the UK’s most comprehensive source of up-to-date information and resources for all aspects of children’s communication development. To find out where your local speech and language therapy department is, go to the Talking Links page.



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