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This is the first of two articles where speech and language therapists talk about how children learn language, how to provide a language-rich environment, what can go wrong and what you can do to help.
We are surrounded by vast amounts of research which clearly show the importance of good early language skills, without which children and young people are at risk of social, emotional, educational and economic disadvantage.
The stats still shock. After all, who could fail to be worried about the links with mental health problems and youth offending?
But at the same time, overexposure to figures without a clear route towards a solution leads us into the dangerous territory of complacency. You would be forgiven, too, for feeling helpless when all around us researchers, government ministers and the press trumpet the need for ‘us’ as educators to, somehow, fix things.
But while these figures may deal mostly with older children, you should never feel like you cannot help. Because…
That’s right. Helping to prevent these problems to begin with is so much more powerful than trying to solve them at a later date.
That’s why our first article is about the joy of working with the youngest children and the significant opportunities you have to make positive and lasting change for every child who is at risk of falling behind.
Here, we begin with normal development and how to make the very best of those crucial early years. Next time, we’ll look in more detail at those children who, despite the very best of efforts on your part, are falling behind. There will be more about what you can do and when to seek specialist help later.
It can be easy to feel daunted by this responsibility, but you don’t have to be.
What we want to tell you is that by understanding how children develop language you are best-placed to maximise what is essentially a normal process. By recognising that opportunities for language development don’t just happen at certain parts of the day. By simply making small changes to what you already do and adding in some new strategies, you will be giving every child the best possible chance.
Babies emerge into the world innately programmed to develop language. Right from the beginning they are learning to listen, to discriminate sounds and to gradually begin to make sense of what they see and hear.
‘Noise’ becomes a babble from which the young child learns, remarkably quickly, to extract the sounds of their mother tongue and to discard those not needed. As their knowledge store grows, words will begin to emerge, quickly followed by the joining of words into two and then three-word phrases.
At the same time, as physical skills develop, children begin to make sense of their environment through the power of exploration and play. Through play, children practise, they rehearse, they mirror what they see in the world. Imagination is developing and language with it. All this time the child is providing a running commentary – initially just for themselves and then later with language that invites the attention and involvement of others to participate and enjoy.
As therapists, we talk about the three puzzle parts which must come together if a child is to lay solid foundations for the future. They are:
Has the child got the skills to communicate? This involves understanding, vocabulary, a developed speech sound system, and the skills to use language for lots of different things. In the beginning, language is used for very basic things like labelling and requesting. Gradually language usage becomes more varied (describing, explaining, commenting) and increasingly sophisticated (reasoning, hypothesising, debating).
All of these skills are necessary if a child is to become a skilled communicator. They rely on meaning conveyed by a broad and rich vocabulary of nouns, verbs, adjectives, structures, tenses, and nuances.
Is language motivating & rewarding? Initially, language gets a child’s needs met. Later on, it grows in sophistication and satisfies social and emotional needs.
It’s important to help children make choices, provide them with a variety of play situations, create opportunities to describe and explain, and to begin to develop narrative skills.
Crucial to all three of these components is you.
You are the model as a child’s means, either as a means to communicate or a means to develop their language. You are the facilitator, making sure there are reasons for the child to want to communicate. You are the developer, using every opportunity for broadening and enriching language.
No pressure then!
This is a good question – and one with several answers or sometimes none at all. But knowing why is useful, because it enables us to think about prevention. For example, if I know that children need to be exposed to a word many times before they begin to actually use it, I’ll use lots of repetition. But even if there is no obvious explanation – there are still things we can do to head off potential problems.
We have chosen not to go ahead and list all the short-comings which contribute towards things going wrong. Instead, we want to take a positive slant, so read on to learn about the optimum environment and how you can create it.
The idea of nature versus nurture isn’t new. Although the terminology might have changed over the years, it is accepted that being born ‘innately programmed’ – the ‘nature’ part – is only half the story.
The other half is ‘nurture’. Nurture is all about the environment surrounding the child. The optimum environment that will nurture successful talkers.
Knowing what is involved allows us to make changes as we recognise the importance of what we provide, what we do, and what we say.
As therapists, we spend time with our Early Years colleagues looking in detail at every aspect of the environment. The question in everyone’s mind is ‘Are we making the most of our space, our activities and ourselves to create a language-rich environment for our children?’
Here are some examples of things which are covered in much more detail in our checklist – where you will also find examples under these same broad headings.
This is not only about the physical space you provide but is also about managing the dynamic aspects of that space, such as controlling volume to make sure there are opportunities for developing attention skills or introducing ‘communication rules’. Most importantly, you need to understand the impact adult interaction skills have on child language development – both yours and those of other significant adults.
If you are genuinely committed to offering the very best start to the children in your care, it’s worth looking at all three areas described above.
In terms of the physical space: there are lots of ideas out there and checklists to help you rate where you think you are now and to help to measure progress as you put things in place.
You can take a look here at Soundswell’s checklist that we’ve adapted from the Communication Supporting Classrooms Observation Tool by Better Communication Research Programme 2012.
As we’ve already mentioned, controlling volume is a great place to start. But what do we mean by ‘controlling volume’?
Well, a busy setting with lots happening and children moving between a variety of activities creates volume, much of which will (hopefully!) be children talking.
On the one hand, this is good because it shows a general ‘busyness’ and engagement. But on the other hand, it can prove to be too much for some children who haven’t yet learnt to abstract the priorities for whatever they are focusing on and ‘tune out’ the rest. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the louder the hubbub, the more the adults find themselves having to shout – not great for the vocal cords but also not great as an example to children. Raised voices tend to convey less positive aspects such as displeasure or stress.
Factoring in both loud and quiet times is ideal then. Outdoor play, for example, is a great opportunity to be ‘loud’. Children can let off steam, shout and squeal as much as they want. This might then be contrasted with the calm and order inside, where the space is still fun but it is an environment for a different type of learning. You could even develop a signal, a sound, symbol or both, which children learn to associate with returning to the ‘quiet’ indoors
Surprisingly, the best way to control the volume is to reduce your own volume. Children will soon learn that they must be quiet if they are to hear what you say. I am sure you already know this – but what might be new is that this technique works best in tandem with several other strategies which you’ll find in the checklist on the final page.
‘Communication rules’ are things like turn-taking and learning not to interrupt. Despite being important social niceties, these ideas are about more than just ‘being polite’. The point here is that if everybody is talking, nobody is listening, and without listening, there can be no learning.
As adults, we understand speaker-listener roles (or most of us do, most of the time…). We all understand the idea that ‘You’re talking and I’m listening. When it’s my turn I might talk about what you were saying and then I might contribute some of my own ideas. Then we’ll swap and I’ll be the listener again.’ On an individual level, as children develop conversational skills, they need to learn this too. As with pretty much everything, they learn by example.
As a group, children need to learn that when the adult is talking by explaining what will happen or giving instructions, they are listeners. This is not only to make sure they themselves don’t miss anything but also to ensure that the learning experience for everyone is not disrupted.
It’s pretty certain that every setting will have some children whose attention and listening skills are immature. These children are easy to spot, perhaps fidgeting on the carpet, poking the child next in line, chattering, or even getting up and moving around when all others are sitting down.
The first thing is to be aware that attention and listening are learned skills. They don’t just ‘happen’. Remember nature versus nurture? We are programmed to be able to develop these skills but it’s the environment which allows them to develop and mature. Attention skills develop in a particular order and children need to go through every stage to get there.
The levels are broadly age-related and once we know that it becomes immediately obvious that, by a certain age, hoping that the wrigglers and chatterers will just stop of their own accord is unrealistic.
There comes a point where you need to take some action to bring these behaviours back on track. So, what can you do to help?
Now we come to the most crucial area – this is where the impact can be enormous and it is entirely in your hands. It doesn’t depend on your budget for equipment or modifications to your space – it just depends on you.
Children learn from us and through us – that’s a fact. The better we are, the better they will be. The better we are, the easier and more enjoyable their learning will be.
The good news is there is no mystery and no magic to this. Take on board these top tips and you’ll see the difference they can make.
On a practical basis:
But how will we know if a child is starting to fall behind? This is a really important question. In many ways it’s easier to recognise the child who is clearly already behind. The trick is to be able to identify those who are just beginning to falter and to do something at the earliest possible opportunity to get things back on track.
The only really fool-proof way to do this is by introducing universal language screening across the whole of your setting. The tool you choose is less important than what it’s able to do for you. It should be quick and easy to use, provide concrete data – with in-built opportunities to make comparisons as you deliver interventions and want to measure your impact – and sign-post you to lots of activities which will help.
Jo and I recommend the Wellcomm speech and language Toolkit, and have done for a number of years now.
There are hints and tips which we have woven into the training we deliver on the toolkit so that everyone gets the most out of Wellcomm:
WellcommEYticks all the boxes above and we have an ever-growing bank of data which shows the impact not only on the development of language skills but also the impact on Early Learning Goals.
Pretty much every child will make progress. Some will make dramatic progress and will no longer be a cause for concern. This group will probably be those where the ‘nature’ component is working fine but the ‘nurture’ aspects may have fallen short.
Others will make some progress, for example it may be that their language skills are below average but inline with their skills across the board. There will be a few whose progress is minimal and these may be the children with underlying problems which are contributing to the child’s difficulties. These will be the children who need more than a universal, generalised approach.
There! At the earliest possible opportunity you have identified these children, already initiated some help and now need to think about more targeted support to turn things around.
Our next article will look in much more detail at causes, associated difficulties and – most importantly – what you can do next.
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.