Create opportunities for children to communicate

When we say communicate, we mean anything a child says or does to tell or show you something. This factsheet has some tips for helping children to communicate in any way they can.  

How do children communicate? 

Children communicate in lots of different ways. They might: 

  • use actions, like pointing or showing you things; 
  • use their eyes and/or facial expressions; 
  • make sounds or noises;  
  • use pictures or signing; 
  • talk in words or sentences. 

All of these ways of communicating are important. We should never force or tell children to say particular words or sentences – this can make some children anxious and can have the opposite effect. It’s important to respond to any way a child communicates – whether this is through actions, sounds, facial expressions, pictures, signing or words. 

A child in my setting can say words sometimes, but they still find it hard to tell me what they want. Why doesn’t the child use their words to communicate? 

Some children can say words but don’t use them regularly to talk to people around them. They might enjoy saying the alphabet, counting or repeating phrases they’ve heard on the TV. But they might find it harder to use their words to ask for something or to answer questions.  

We can help children by making sure they have lots of opportunities to use their words, sounds and actions to communicate.  People who know a child very well often know what the child wants before they even try to tell them. This is good, but if adults help children too quickly or too much, they don’t get a chance to practise asking for things themselves. 

How can I help the children in my setting? 

The most important thing to remember is that you are just creating an opportunity for  children to do or say something. We would never put extra pressure on children by withholding things until they communicate. If a child doesn’t do or say anything when you create an opportunity, that’s okay. Carry on with the activity and try again later. 

Here are some ways that you can create opportunities for children to communicate: 

  • Follow the child’s lead: join in with their play. Sit at the same level as them and be face to face. Show you are interested in talking and playing with them. 
  • Wait: comment on what the child is doing then wait and see if they respond. They might look at you, smile, reach out for something or make a sound. You can copy this and add a word or two – so if they’re reaching towards a ball, you could say something like, ‘ball… it’s a ball’. 
  • Give choices: choice questions are easier for children to answer because they can choose between two options you give them. Use actions or show them the options at the same time as saying the words. For example, ‘Would you like milk or juice?’; ‘Shall we play cars or bricks?’; ‘Shall we do the wipers or the horn on the bus first?’. Respond to any way a child makes a choice – they might say the word, or they might reach, look or do an action to show you what they want. 
  • Offer a little then wait: this gives children a chance to show you they want more. You could try blowing some bubbles then waiting. Or give them a brick to build a tower, then wait for them to show you they want another one. You could model the word ‘more’ and see if they copy you or use an action or sound. Don’t hold back items you would normally give them though, like food. Remember, if a child doesn’t do or say anything, that’s okay – carry on with the game or activity anyway. 
  • Time: some children need extra time to think about what you’ve said and work out what they will do or say. Try waiting for up to 10 seconds before you say something else.  
  • Sing and stop: pause before the end of the line in a familiar nursery rhyme or story to see if they can finish it off, e.g. ‘Twinkle, twinkle little…’. The child might say the word or they might do the action or just look at you excitedly! Anything goes, just remember to respond to all of these ways that children communicate with you. 
  • Ready, steady, go games: these games are great for building anticipation and excitement, and they also help a child’s attention skills. Try saying ‘ready, steady…’ and see whether the child does something to show you they want you to ‘go’. They might say ‘go’, or they might make a sound, do an action or look at you. For example, when playing in the water tray you could fill a bottle and say ‘ready, steady….’. The child might say ‘go’ or use actions to show you they want you to pour it out.  
  • Surprise: do something surprising, like hiding an object in an unusual place for the child to find. For example, hide a sock in the box of cars. Wait to see how they show their surprise to you. Then you can model the word (e.g. ‘sock’) with a suitably surprised expression! You can use surprise in other ways too, like pretending to make a mistake by not having any paper at the painting easel or putting your coat on back to front when going outside. See how they let you know something is wrong (with words, actions or facial expressions), then you can say something back to them (e.g. ‘oh no, we need paper’). 

Above all, try to make it fun. If the child ever seems to be getting frustrated, then stop!