Research School Network: Taking time to talk: prioritising communication and language in the early years Supporting children to become better communicators is one of the most powerful things we do as early years educators.


Taking time to talk: prioritising communication and language in the early years

Supporting children to become better communicators is one of the most powerful things we do as early years educators.

Conversational responsiveness 2

Few things are as important as strong communication and language skills. Success in education, higher levels of qualifications, higher wages and better health are all linked with strong communication and language skills in the early years (Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, 2020).

Recommendation 1 of the Education Endowment Foundation’s Preparing for Literacy’ guidance report highlights the crucial importance of prioritising the development of communication and language, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Social disadvantage is linked with early communication and language delays; such delays impact all aspects of children’s learning and development.

Recently, Speech and Language UK published Listening to unheard children: A shocking rise in speech and language challenges’ which emphasises that:

For the 1.9 million children struggling to talk and understand words, this affects every aspect of their and their families’ lives. They are vastly more likely to fail in key subjects at school, more likely to be lonely and have mental health problems, more likely to end up in the criminal justice system and more likely to be out of work as an adult.‘

In their report, Speech and Language UK offer nine actionable solutions. Number three recommends providing guidance for teachers and schools about evidence-based programmes and resources which can effectively support children with speech, language and communication needs, especially those that can be delivered by schools without specialist support.

To this end, there is so much we can do now, without the need for specialist intervention:

1. Prioritise high quality back and forth interactions:

High quality interactions often look effortless, but they are not easy to do well! At Sheringham Nursery School and Children’s Centre, we developed theShREC Approach. This approach outlines four key evidence-informed strategies which can support adults to engage in responsive, stimulating back and forth conversations with every child, every day.


2. Interactive reading:
One of the most powerful ways of developing early language is through interactive reading. Interactive reading offers a wealth of benefits for children’s communication and language development, cognitive skills and relationships with adults.

Key aspects of interactive reading: 

  • it involves a conversation about a book: crucially, a back-and-forth conversation led by the child;
  • it isn’t about reading the book with the child as audience, but rather using the book itself, and the words and pictures to engage in conversation. How we read books with children matters;
  • the adult allows the child to become the teller of the story, enabling them to play an active role and talking about what they are interested in;
  • it introduces children to new ideas and more complex language that they don’t hear in day to day chat.

    Interactive reading can be on a one-to-one basis or in a small group. The main thing to remember is that all children benefit from it, especially those facing disadvantage. We must ensure that children who may not initiate book sharing or who are seen as not ready’ or too young for books’ are regularly engaged in these experiences. It is never too early to introduce this activity. This involves intentionally planning: dedicating protected times for interactive reading with every child.

3. Explore the evidence:
Get to know relevant, evidence-informed approaches and practices using the EEF’s Evidence Store. A whole strand is dedicated to communication and language, and includes really helpful video exemplifications and descriptions.

Developing young children’s communication and language skills cannot be left to chance. We must dedicate space and time to listening to children and having conversations with them. Adults have a vital role to play in modelling effective language and communication. As Professor Meredith Rowe (2022) states: One theme that is clear from the research to date is that children learn more when they are engaged in conversations than when they are merely exposed to words — the social-interaction is key.

Further Reading:
EEF Early Years Evidence Store: description of interactive reading.

Details of the ShREC approach: 4 evidence informed strategies to promote high quality interactions.

Ofsted: Best start in life part 2: the 3 prime areas of learning

Speech and Language UK report: Listening to unheard children

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