The early years workforce has a vital role in supporting young children’s communication and language skills. Without these skills, children will struggle to learn, make friends, have good mental health, and ultimately, get a job. Indeed, research indicates that children with poor understanding of vocabulary at age 5 are twice as likely to experience periods of unemployment as an adult. 
Unfortunately, though, difficulties are common. In the UK, one in ten children have a long-term speech, language or communication need that they won’t grow out of. This number rises in areas of social disadvantage, where children are more than twice as likely to have difficulties as their non-disadvantaged peers. 
There are different reasons why a child may have problems with speaking or understanding language. Some children may have a lifelong condition such as Developmental Language Disorder (DLD), or language disorder associated with another condition, such as autism or cerebral palsy. However, children may simply have not yet had the right early experiences to help their communication and language skills develop – though they may be able to catch up quickly with the right support in place, which is why the role of early years practitioners is so crucial.
To ensure that all children are supported to develop their communication skills, settings should plan a graduated approach – high quality universal support for all, timely identification of children with difficulties and additional targeted support for those who need it. Small numbers of children may also benefit from specialist support, but many will make excellent progress with well-planned universal and targeted support in your setting.
Good quality universal provision
Ensuring a solid foundation of communication supportive practice for all children in early years settings is the starting point. Settings can achieve this by focusing on three areas:
- The environment. A language-rich environment, where children are exposed to a variety of vocabulary and language throughout activities across the day, supports the communication development of all children. Reducing background noise can support young children’s listening, and using visual timetables and visually labelled resources can support their understanding.
- The interaction style of adults in the setting. Practitioners can use simple strategies such as following the child’s lead, chatting to them about what they are interested in and focused on at that time. Make comments rather than asking lots of questions, which can feel like a test. Don’t be afraid to wait in moments of silence sometimes – pausing after you say something gives children time to respond. Expand on what children say by adding new vocabulary and linking their ideas with their experiences.
- The opportunities for communication. Planned activities such as small group work, facilitated book sharing with an adult, and structured conversations with adults and peers during everyday routines and activities can all provide young children with opportunities to practice their communication skills.
The DfE’s Help for Early Years Providers online platform has lots of useful information and videos for early years practitioners on ensuring a solid foundation of universal support for children’s communication and language development is in place.
It is important that early years staff have the tools, knowledge and skills to be able to identify any children with a speech, language or communication difficulty. Difficulties manifest in a variety of ways for different children, and a problem with communication can easily be misinterpreted as something else, like a behaviour issue, attention difficulty or simply being shy. Some children may copy what their peers do to mask the fact that they don’t understand, or they might struggle to join in group activities and choose to play independently.
Practitioners should be tuned into the signs that a child might be struggling and use an identification tool to have a closer look at their development. The DfE’s Development Matters guidance gives an indication of typical language development in young children that practitioners can check their observations against. Other useful resources are I CAN’s online Progress Checker or the freely downloadable Universally Speaking booklets.
Children who are identified as having difficulties with communication and language will need additional targeted support within the setting. Adults may need to simplify their own language so that it is similar to, or just above, the level of language used by the child. If the child is only communicating in single words, adults can use one, two or three word phrases. Adults can also expand on anything the child says by adding a word or two (e.g., child says “cat”; adult responds, “it’s a fluffy cat”).
Adults can also use more targeted visual support, such as key word signing or objects of reference to support the child’s understanding. Some children may benefit from having their own visual timetable or now-next board. Showing the child what you mean at the same time as saying it is a good way to support language development. Practitioners should share these approaches with parents/carers to use in the home too.
Targeted intervention programmes can be useful for supporting the communication and language skills of some children – but with a number of intervention programmes commercially available, choosing one can be difficult. The What Works website can help practitioners to check the evidence behind a particular intervention and make an informed decision when planning support.
Referring for specialist support
Children who have more significant challenges or who don’t make expected progress with targeted support may benefit from assessment by a speech and language therapist. When making a referral, practitioners should include information about all areas of the child’s speech, language and communication development. Is the child able to listen and follow instructions? Do they use overly simple vocabulary? How many words do they put together in a sentence?
It is also important to include information about the functional impact of the child’s difficulties. Do they struggle to take part in activities because of their language problems? Is there an impact on their behaviour? Do they struggle with peer play and friendships? Finally – what targeted support has been put in place already, and what progress did the child make (or not)?
Looking for more ideas?
DfE resources including Development Matters and Help for Early Years Providers, and I CAN’s Talking Point website, have lots of information about typical development and how to support children’s skills.
 Law, J., Rush, R., Schoon, I., & Parsons, S. (2009). Modeling developmental language difficulties from school entry into adulthood: literacy, mental health, and employment outcomes. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 52(6), 1401-1416.
 Dockrell, J., Ricketts, J. & Lindsay, G. (2012). Understanding speech, language and communication needs: profiles of need and provision. DfE Research Report DFE-RR247-BCRP4.