Supporting children’s early communication skills

Tips for supporting communication skills in children aged 18 months to 5 years.

How can I help children develop their communication skills? 

In typical development, children learn to talk and understand words gradually. They learn best from listening and talking to other people. The tips below can help develop children’s skills. 

Get down to the child’s level: Children learn a lot from looking at your face and body language when you talk. Make it easy for the child to see you by getting down to their level and talking and playing face to face. 

Get the child’s attention before talking: It can be difficult for children to pay attention if there are a lot of distractions or background noise. Turn down music or the TV when talking or playing together. You can get the child’s attention by calling their name or gently touching their arm. Wait for the child to be ready before you begin talking. 

Use simple language and repeat words: Children need to hear words lots of times before they can understand the words or use them to talk. Keep your sentences short and say important words several times (e.g. ‘Spade. That’s a spade. A green spade. Spades are for digging’). 

Add one word: Help the child use longer sentences by adding one word to what they say. So if the child says ‘I got teddy’, you could say ‘Yes, you’ve got a fluffy teddy!’. You can find more ideas for learning words here.  

Pausing: Pausing gives children extra time to think about what they want to say. If you ask a child a question, pause for at least ten seconds to let them answer- this can seem like a long time! Pausing can also allow children to join in with a song, rhyme, or word without feeling under pressure. For example, ‘Jack and Jill went up the … (hill)’, ‘I’ve got one, two,… (three)’. 

Use comments not testing questions: Testing questions are questions that we already know the answer to. For example, we might ask ‘What colour is that?’ or ‘What’s this called?’ even though we already know the answer. Testing questions can make children feel under pressure and they might respond with just one word, or no words at all. Comments put less pressure on children because they can choose how they want to answer. For example, if we comment ‘Wow I love this purple car’ the child might tell you about their favourite colour, their car, or something else completely! 

Choices: Choices are a great opportunity for children to practice the words they are learning. Show the child two things to choose between- ‘shoes or wellies?’, or ‘milk or water?’. The child can show you what they want by pointing or by trying to say the word. 

Follow the child’s lead: Children learn words most easily when the words they hear match what they are paying attention to – so it is easier for them to learn the word ‘ball’ if they are playing with a ball. Join in with the child when they play. For example, if the child is driving cars around the walls – you could do the same with your cars. Following the child’s lead can help you notice when they are ready to hear a new word, and when they are busy playing and don’t want to be interrupted! If the child looks towards you, points, or shows you something- say the words you think they need. For example, if the child shows you their car going backwards, you can say ‘Reverse!’ ‘Our cars are reversing’. 

Songs, nursery rhymes, and music: Children can learn words and actions through songs and nursery rhymes. Listening or moving to music can also help get them ready to notice sounds which can be important for learning speech sounds. Share songs, nursery rhymes, and music with children, and encourage families to do the same in any of the languages that they use at home. 

Share stories: Looking at books together is a great way to help children learn new words. Start by simply talking about the pictures that the child seems interested in.  

When should I use these tips? 

Children are learning to communicate all the time. It is most helpful to use these tips to support them throughout the day during all routines and opportunities. For example, use these ideas during indoor play, outdoor play, at snack time, and when tidying up.  

Useful websites 

BBC – Tiny Happy People  

NHS – Help your baby learn to talk 

Words for Life