Strategies to support primary-aged children’s communication skills

The way adults talk to children can have a big impact on the development of their communication skills. Here are some tips that you can use to support the children you work with: 

Modelling: saying words or sentences that the child could use next time. You can do this when introducing new words to children. 

  • For example: “Miserable means feeling really sad about something. I felt miserable when I realised I had lost my favourite shoes.” 

Model (don’t correct) when children make mistakes. You can also use modelling when a child makes a mistake with something they say. Instead of correcting them, repeat back what they’ve said the right way.  

  • For example, if a child says “I goed to the farm”, you can say back, “Yes, you went to the farm.” 

Build on what children say. Extend children’s thinking and their language skills by building on what they say.  

  • For example, if they say “We planted a tomato plant”, you could say, “yes, we planted the tomato plant in the vegetable patch”. 

Give a sentence starter. Help children join in by starting the sentence and leaving a gap for them to finish. You can also write sentence starters on the board or on cue cards to remind children of ways to start their sentences when sharing thoughts and ideas. Plan opportunities for children to practise using these in group work or talking partner activities.

  • For example, “I think that…” or “I agree because…” 

Match your language to the child’s level. This might mean using more simple sentences, particularly if you are working with younger children or children who talk less.  

Break instructions into chunks. Give short, simple instructions. Give the instructions in the order you want children to follow them, instead of using words like ‘before’ and ‘after’.

  •  For example: “Pack away your things. Now push in your chairs and line up by the door.” 

Speak slowly and pause often. This gives children time to think about what you have said and plan what they want to say.  

Use visual supports. Use gestures, pointing, showing, pictures and real objects at the same time as talking to support children’s understanding. 

Plan your questions. Adjust the questions you ask based on the type of response you want from children. Also think about the abilities of children and how much support they will need. 

  • Open questions: encourage a longer response and more talking from the child. These might be harder for some children to answer. (e.g. Tell me about…) 
  • Closed questions: encourage a shorter response and less talking from the child. These might be easier for some children to answer. (e.g. Who stole the loaf of bread?) 
  • Choice questions: give children a choice between two options. These may be easier and could be used to help children answer correctly. (e.g. Was it the boy or the dog?) 

Give children thinking time. This allows them time to think about what you have said and how they want to respond. Also plan thinking time before a task, for example in literacy children can be given extra time to think about the key things to include in a story such as the main characters, what is going to happen.  

Gain children’s full attention before giving an instruction or giving important information. 

Teach vocabulary. Explicitly teach children new words, repeat them often and give children opportunities to practise them.  Check children’s understanding of new words often.