Children are actively learning how to communicate from the day they are born. Within a few short years, they will learn how to speak. Many will do so without effort at all. Occasionally, a few children will appear to take longer to talk than other children of similar age. A few of these children will eventually catch up to their peers, but some may continue to have difficulty mastering the language. A few youngsters will hold short-term challenges that are successfully addressed through early intervention, while others will need ongoing support.
As early childhood educators, we understand that communication is the foundation of early development. Early language is a critical factor in developing literacy, making it a crucial aspect of their educational success. Several factors can influence a child's communication, language, and speech. For instance, high social deprivation can pose severe language delays.
Although plenty of research still needs to be done surrounding influencing factors on children's speech and language development, we understand that parents, guardians, and caregivers play a crucial role in supporting speech development, language comprehension, and overall communication.
Language Needs by Age Group:
Language and communication will vary significantly, depending on the child's age. Here's what to expect according to the age group and various activities you can do to support the growth and development of children in your care.
During the first year of development, many infants build the core foundations of communication. Babies will look at parents and caregivers, maintain eye contact, smile, laugh, and interact. They will also start building sounds, occasionally called babbling. Babbling are strands of incoherent words that allow babies and young children the basics of making a sound.
Supporting Baby's Development
Exposing your child to various sounds and stimulus is the best way to promote language development. Talk to infants as you would in conversation, pause for a response or talk attentively. Babies learn through exposure and experience with the world around them. The more language they are exposed to, the better they will understand.
Between 12-24 months, most children will start to say their first meaningful words. These words are basic comprehension, for example, "Mama" or "Dada", to get a parent's attention. Between two and three years, many children will begin building basic sentences. This transitional period will shift the short phrases "car gone" to three words or more. Basic sentences may include, "me come too". Children this age will have a basic understanding of two-step instructions. Likewise, many toddlers will start understanding comparative words like "big" and "small". Around age three, many people unfamiliar with your child should be able to understand the terms used.
Supporting Toddler Development
Always ensure your child is paying attention when you talk to them. Words come in all types, whether a song, funny noises, or funny faces. Being silly helps keep their attention and positively encourages language development. Avoid questions with a right and wrong answer, encouraging essential dialogue instead. Use simple language and try to avoid distractions.
Between ages three and five, children start using more complex language. Many children know plenty of foods or animals and can occasionally describe abstract items like feelings. Preschoolers enjoy talking about everyday items, like things they've recently seen or done.
Preschoolers can follow complex instructions with several steps. For example, a preschooler can follow, "go and bring the canned food to the pantry and put them on the shelf." Many children can begin inferring or predicting events in a familiar situation or story. Preschoolers are naturally very social, which causes them to seek out interactions with other children.
Supporting Pre-Schooler Development
The easiest way to support a preschooler's language development is through exposure. The more communication and dialect they hear, the better they will remember and use the language. Engage in pretend play, acting out with back-and-forth communication. Use puppets to interact with children, whether telling stories or keeping them talking. Reading is another way to broaden their vocabulary. Finally, continue asking open-ended questions.
Why is Speech and Language Development Important?
Speech and language development includes several aspects. The ability to listen, communicate verbally and non-verbally, understand, and development of core milestones are all facilitated through language development. It provides a strong foundation for ongoing educational activities (children proficient with speech and language skills will find it easier to learn to read). It also helps build confidence and address their needs better (simultaneously reducing frustration). Language is essential for the development of friendships and companions. Finally, children learn to make sense of the world through speech and language skills.
Activities to Encourage Speech and Language in Children
Ideally, children learn through observing and copying adult behaviour. As such, always model good speech and language skills whenever possible. Make sure you speak clearly and calmly, with age-appropriate language. Try to maintain eye contact, getting to the child's level if necessary. Integrate regular daily communication, even simply commenting on an activity or action. Whenever possible, label actions or objects around the facility. Finally, listen carefully and attentively when children are speaking to you. Remain patient and kind, offering plenty of time to find the right word.
Provide Stimulating Activities Throughout the Day:
Virtually everything you do with children is an opportunity for developing language and speech. Consider what your centre can do to improve on existing activities. Make sure the activities are fun and engaging, holding their interest.
Reading with children is highly effective in improving language and communication skills. Try to read books every day, multiple times a day. Ensure you're not just reading aloud to children; actively encourage them to get involved, finish sentences, and discuss the pictures. Reading activities can be in large groups, small groups, or one-on-one.
Offer Show and Tell
Encourage children to bring home toys or objects and talk to their friends about them. Prompt children with descriptive questions like, "how does it work?" and "What is the best part about this toy?"; likewise, ask children to form their own questions.
Sing Plenty of Songs
This activity works exceptionally well with infants and younger children, as there is a strong connection between singing and early language development. Singing songs with children can help them differentiate sounds, recognize rhymes, and extend their vocabulary.
Describe and Guess Game
Plenty of games involve describing and guessing, but the right approach can help children understand descriptive words. Take a few objects and place them in a bag. Get the children in care to take turns feeling the item and describe what they feel while others guess it.
Pretending Games and Role-Play
This activity can be as elaborate or as simple as you'd like, but encourage children to dress up and act out a play (whether their plot or one from a book). Alternatively, use puppets to tell a story.
When to Refer to Speech and Language Therapy?
If you have questions or concerns about your child's language, speech, or communication development, talk with your Health Visitor, setting key worker, or SENCo. Early warning signs are usually present, serving as a benchmark for referrals.
Indications for referral to a speech and language pathologist:
- Parental concerns, mainly when a history of hearing, speech, or developmental problems occurs.
- Caregiver concerns, especially when there is more than one caregiver concerned.
- Speech sounds are more than a year late in developing or appearing by typical developmental sequence.
- A formal screening evaluation suggests your child is below age norms, particularly when a child holds developmental delays or if receptive and expressive language is affected.
- The child becomes easily frustrated, working with poor self-esteem. Additionally, if the child is being shunned or teased by other children because of speech problems.
- Child cannot follow simple directions by 18 months old if no speech production is present by this age.
- All speech is unintelligible after 2.5 years, especially if the child cannot form sentences by age 3.
- A child is omitting, distorting, or substituting speech sounds after age 7.
- Multiple Omissions of initial consonant sounds, regardless of age. These may include "ish" instead of "fish" or "ar" instead of "car".
- Voice is exceptionally monotone, loud, or of poor quality. Alternatively, the pitch isn't appropriate for the child's age or gender.
- The child's voice is hypernasal or holds a lack of nasal resonance.
While these indicators aren't exclusive to speech or language problems, they can highlight specific difficulties a child is having overall. As such, always refer to a speech and language pathologist for further evaluation.
Resources Available for Parents and Caregivers
Whether you're looking for extra resources or to promote healthy language growth and development, these websites offer informative, engaging, or interactive activities to use with your children.
Afasic is a registered charity in England and Scotland. It supports parents and caregivers of children with Speech Language and Communication Needs (SLCN) with a strong focus on Developmental Language disorders. They offer free information, videos, and a hotline for anyone needing an extra hand.
National Literacy Trust
National Literacy Trust is an independent charity working with communities and schools to offer disadvantaged children with the skills to succeed in life. This platform is ideal for schools, teachers, and early years wanting resources, training, research, and programmes to make a difference in their children's lives.
I CAN is a children's communication charity helping children with severe language disorders. This organization offers two special schools, Meath in Surrey and Dawn House in Nottinghamshire, that support children with complex and severe language, speech, and communication needs.
Makaton is a unique language programme that integrates signs, symbols, and speech to encourage communication channels. It supports the development of communication skills like listening, attention, comprehension, recall, and organization of language and expression.
Early childhood language and communication skills are essential skills. Some children grasp language, communication, and listening skills easily, while others need a few extra supports. As parents, caregivers, and guardians, it is our job to encourage ongoing communication through various activities. The more tools and skills we hold available for the youngsters in our care, the better prepared the children will be overall.
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