Eyfs best practice: Prime time ... Communication and Language

Nancy Stewart
Friday, August 17, 2012

Ability to communicate and use language is recognised as the foundation for children's development across other learning areas. By Nancy Stewart

Watch a young baby interacting with people around them, and you can clearly see that we are born to be communicators. At birth, after months in the womb hearing the 'underwater' sounds of voices, a baby can already recognise parents' voices and their native language and prefers the human voice to all other sounds.

A young baby listens carefully, seeks out eye contact and gazes attentively when someone talks. Soon the baby and a responsive parent begin to copy each other, together developing an early 'conversation' of sounds and movements.


Communication means sending and receiving messages in any form - including non-verbal signals such as gestures and movements, facial expressions and tone of voice. Communication is the meeting point between people, where we know we have been 'heard'. Language is a special form of communicating using words, and rests on that early knowledge that we can relate to other people both as the sender and receiver of messages. Children build skills in communicating and using language from the countless interactions that they have with people who are their communication partners.

Communication and Language, along with Physical Development (PD) and Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED), is well named as a Prime area of learning in the revised EYFS, because babies and young children are primed for rapid development in each of these.

A baby's brain is ready to respond to experiences by building the related neural connections, and at the same time a baby is instinctively drawn to the experiences that will trigger development in these Prime areas. Development in the Prime areas could be considered the core business of being a baby and young child.



Communication and Language is recognised as an essential foundation for children to develop well across other areas of learning. Language skills predict how well children will do in later learning - the size of a child's vocabulary at age two is very strongly associated with their success in primary school, and accurately predicts their level of educational qualifications at age 26.

There are several reasons why being able to communicate and use language well has a powerful effect on a child's life and learning.

  • Communicating is part of building strong relationships with other people - with the adults that the child is attached to, and in making friends with other children.
  • Language is a central part of how we share information and ideas. As children go on in school, they will miss out across all areas of learning if they can't understand what is being said and can't share their own ideas.
  • Learning to read and write depends on first having a sound basis in spoken language. After all, literacy is simply a process of using a recorded form of communicating with words.
  • Language is intimately tied up with thinking. At first children understand ideas by trying them out with their bodies, engaging in here-and-now activities. But once children begin to use words, they have a powerful new tool for thinking. A word is a mental symbol that acts as an anchor for an idea. Then they can begin to hold ideas in their mind to think more flexibly about things that aren't physically present - for example, about what could happen next, or what might happen differently.
  • Good language skills support positive behaviour. Children's learning is interrupted when they behave in challenging ways, often because they don't have any other way to express themselves. When children can say what they want and feel, it helps them to deal with frustrations and behave constructively.


Identifying Communication and Language (CL) as a Prime area, while Literacy (L) becomes a specific area, has led to the split which results in seven areas of learning instead of the original six. But, of course, this doesn't imply that CL and L are no longer integrally linked. As we shall see (CL is also an essential part of every area of learning.)

The early learning goals for Communication and Language are organised in a set of three new aspects, aimed at clarifying the building blocks of communication and language. Instead of noting mainly how children use language to talk, the revised aspects place increased attention on the underlying skills a child develops before they can begin to talk. These aspects are drawn from those that have proved very useful to practitioners in understanding and supporting children's communication and language development through Every Child a Talker.

The early learning goals for children at the end of the EYFS are:

  • Listening and attention: children listen attentively in a range of situations. They listen to stories, accurately anticipating key events and respond to what they hear with relevant comments, questions or actions. They give their attention to what others say and respond appropriately, while engaged in another activity.
  • Understanding: children follow instructions involving several ideas or actions. They answer 'how' and 'why' questions about their experiences and in response to stories or events.
  • Speaking: children express themselves effectively, showing awareness of listeners' needs. They use past, present and future forms accurately when talking about events that have happened or are to happen in the future. They develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events.

The early learning goals are intended to describe good development for children at the end of the EYFS, and on their own they don't provide insight into the journey along the way, nor suggest how practitioners and parents can support development as children progress. Even though babies are primed to develop language, it is crucial that children receive opportunities in rich communication environments that enable them to learn the skills they need to become effective communicators.

The guidance in Development Matters fills the gap left by early learning goals alone. It describes typical development across the aspects of CL and offers suggestions for how adults could support early communication and language from birth onwards, both in how they interact and the supportive environment they can provide.

Listening and attention

This covers the way babies and children tune into sounds around them, becoming aware of similarities and differences between sounds and learning to distinguish the sounds that make up spoken language. This includes the early stages of phonological awareness through playing with words, sounds and rhymes that will lead eventually to making links to letters as part of Literacy.

Listening and attention also includes the development of purposeful attention, towards the integrated attention described in the early learning goal - being able to multi-task to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. This is not the same as becoming deeply engrossed and paying close attention to an activity, which can be seen at all ages.

Having purposeful control over attention does develop over time, from an infant who immediately turns to a distraction, through a toddler being able to pay attention to only one thing at a time, to eventually being able to shift attention at will and then to multi-task.

It is important for practitioners to be aware of the attention development of the children they are working with. For instance, although talking to children about what they are doing is important, there are times when we would do better to stay silent - talking to a toddler who is concentrating on something is likely to pull their attention away and break that important learning moment, and it might be better to offer the words later. For children who find it hard to listen to what is being said and cannot yet shift their attention at will, we can help them become ready to listen by saying their name first to help them to turn their attention to the speaker.


Children need to understand words and what words mean when they are put together into phrases and sentences before they can use these themselves. They learn from the models of language that they have heard. It's easy to be fooled about how much language a child understands, since a child may not really know what you are saying but can work things out from your body language, follow peers or fit in with familiar routines. Accurate assessment of understanding of language is important so that we can pitch our language at an appropriate level to support and extend their growing comprehension.

We help children to understand language when we tell them a range of words for objects and experiences that they are directly engaged with, and repeat new words clearly in different contexts. We also help children understand what is said to them by using lively voices, gestures and pictures. Listening to stories helps children to understand more complex language, since the types of sentences used in texts are different from the way we tend to talk in conversation.


Speaking refers to children using language to express themselves, but it's important to recognise that this aspect is not just about talking aloud since it begins in communicating needs, feelings and ideas without words. This aspect also includes children who don't make speech sounds to express themselves but use language in other ways - through signing, for example.

Children need lots of practice in expressing themselves in order to develop both skills and confidence in using language. Probably the most important ingredient in developing good talkers is a good listener, so the adult role as a sensitive partner in conversation is key. Children are most likely to develop more complex language when they talk about what they are most interested in, so it is important to follow children's lead in one-to-one conversations about their own activities, ideas and play. The adult can also extend children's talk by modelling just one step beyond what the child is currently saying.



The educational programme for CL in the revised EYFS says that, 'Communication and language development involves giving children opportunities to experience a rich language environment; to develop their confidence and skills in expressing themselves; and to speak and listen in a range of situations.' (Revised Statutory Framework 1.6)

A rich language environment is in many ways the same as a rich learning environment, because the features that support communication and language development also support a child to develop in all areas. It is essentially good early years practice as described by the EYFS principles - along with keeping an informed professional eye on communication and language as an integral part of the child's experience and development.


A unique child

This EYFS principle reminds us that from birth children are constantly learning - which underlines the fact that supporting communication and language is not something to be approached primarily within planned language-based activities, but as part of the everyday life in a setting.

Children need to experience the richness of being listened to, hearing from others, puzzling over ideas together, expressing joy or surprise or disappointment, and clarifying their own thinking at every point of the day. By valuing the power of the moment-to-moment interactions with individual children, practitioners are able to support language learning moments through casual conversations at the snack table, at tidy-up time or in play, in ways that are immediately relevant and appropriate to each unique child.

Positive relationships

Communication and language develop within interactions between people, so positive relationships are absolutely at the heart of a communication-rich setting. The setting will:

  • Build on key person relationships. Each child becomes a more confident communicator through knowing there is someone who is particularly tuned in and attentive to what they are communicating, and who knows the child well in order to interpret and support what the child is expressing.
  • Establish a culture of listening to children. All staff recognise that babies and children have something to say, and put high priority on tuning in and responding to the messages children give us.
  • Develop skills as sensitive communication partners. Communication is a two-way exchange but, as the more experienced partner, the practitioner is responsible for meeting the child more than half-way. But that doesn't mean doing most of the talking. A conversation is like playing catch, tossing the ball of an idea back and forth. The child's throw is likely to go far and wide and bounce in unexpected directions, but the adult has a large reach and can catch it and make a gentle toss back to the waiting child. Skilful communication partners follow the child's lead wherever their thought has taken them, and keep the conversation going in a way that makes sense to the child. The setting also ensures that all practitioners are skilled in interaction strategies to support children at all stages of development.
  • Share with parents the importance of early communication and language, and how to support development. The home learning experience has a more powerful effect on development than the quality of the setting, and children do not all have the same rich opportunities to hear and use language at home. In a communication-rich setting, the high priority placed on language and knowledge about how to support its development is shared with parents. Practitioners seek parents' help to understand what is significant in children's lives. They help parents to see the possibilities of their everyday home life as talk opportunities with their children, explore interaction strategies together, and make links between home and setting experiences to allow ideas and talk to flow both ways. Where the child's home language is other than English, parents are assured that the home language is valued, is reflected in the setting, and provides a strong base for their child's language development.


Enabling environments

Along with having someone to talk with, children need something they are excited to talk about. The environment of the communication-rich setting offers vibrant possibilities and experiences which stimulate imagination and exploration. There are:

  • Open-ended, natural materials and resources linked to children's interests, outdoors and indoors. Children are keen to talk about their enthusiasms, and an enabling environment encourages children to develop these in their own ways. Some children become much more involved and talkative outdoors, so the outdoor area is a key part of the CL provision.
  • Time to explore interests and develop themes and narratives. Children's ability to talk about increasingly complex ideas grows when they have the opportunity to develop complex play - without unnecessary interruptions, and being able to return to the same focus on following days.
  • Space for collaborative play, and for quiet reflection and talk. Playing with others is a strong spur for language development, as children negotiate plans and activities. Children also talk to themselves in play which is an important support for their thinking, and will benefit from one-to-one talk with an adult or peers - so more secluded areas are important to support this thoughtful use of language.
  • Management of routines to ensure opportunities for talk. It's worth checking through all aspects of the daily routine to be sure that the need to get things done doesn't sometimes push ahead of what really counts - with a high focus on real to-and-fro conversations.

For example, if children in your setting all have snacks at the same time while adults are busy preparing and serving, you might decide instead to break into key groups and serve at the table, so the children have the full attention of the key person and all the talk that goes with preparing and enjoying food.

If you have a cafe-type snack where children serve themselves, you can ensure an adult is there to support conversations.

At home time you can ensure handover time is organised so there is a chance for the child and key person to share highlights of the day with parents.

Learning and development

Since children learn and develop in different ways, practitioners need to understand the patterns of individual children across the aspects of CL. They can then ensure that they support them accurately as they interact. Where children have particular needs, they are able to plan activities to support development in these areas - for example, planning small-group listening activities to build a strong foundation for communication and language.

In planning for continuous provision in the setting as well as particular activities, bear in mind that CL is inseparable from the other areas of learning and development. So any experience in the setting can be considered in terms of how well it supports children in CL.



Talk has a prime place in Playing and Exploring, Active Learning, and Creating and Thinking Critically - the three characteristics of effective learning now at the heart of the revised EYFS. Through language, children pin down the concepts they discover through their sensory explorations, begin to negotiate playing together and assign imaginary meanings and roles. They communicate their fascinations and goals, and are supported to develop their sense of mastery and achievement when we talk with them about their curiosity, effort, persistence and thoughts about what they have done. Talk is particularly important in developing thinking, and we can support children to be able thinkers by talking with them about ideas, solving problems, remembering things, choosing how to do things, and judging how well things are going.


Prime areas

Personal, Social and Emotional Development is interwoven with CL which both grows out of and feeds back into relationships. Children who can express themselves and know that they are heard are reinforced in their sense of self and self-confidence. Learning the vocabulary of different emotions and talking about feelings helps children to manage their own feelings and empathise with others, and language is at the heart of negotiating conflicting points of view.

Physical Development is part of communicating, whether with gestures or using the complicated muscles of the mouth. Children become more aware of their movements when they have the vocabulary of movement, such as pull, push, turn, roll, spin. They also use their developing communication skills as part of growing independence in their food choices and self-care.

Specific areas

Literacy is rooted in communication and language, from sharing a book with a small baby to children in a reception class writing labels for their creations. Bearing this relationship in mind will help to avoid any reading or writing experiences that are not meaningful to children - children have no reason to write about something they would not want to or be able to talk about, or read something they cannot understand.

Mathematics depends on language. Since concepts are made clear by the words that go with them, mathematical vocabulary is a crucial part of maths learning. Talking with children about ways to approach problem-solving with numbers and shapes supports them in being able to learn and remember strategies and apply them in different situations.

Understanding the World is a rich venue for talk about people, places, things, and events. What a wonderful field for building vocabulary and challenging children to express complicated ideas. Language helps children to focus on the detail of what they are coming to understand about the world around them.

Expressive Arts and Design offers a treasure trove of rich vocabulary linked to the media children explore. Singing supports CL as children hear and reproduce sounds, rhymes, words and sentence structures, while using instruments and rhythm supports listening and attention. Sometimes creative expression is beyond words, and so perhaps the most important link between language and artistic forms such as painting, music or movement is that they all support the child's ability to communicate.

Moving from one mode of communication to another - for instance, from painting in response to an experience and then talking about the experience and about the painting - helps a child to clarify their ideas and to have confidence in themselves as communicators.

Confidence and enjoyment in sharing their awareness with others is what Communication and Language is all about, and is one of the great journeys of discovery that early years practitioners are privileged to share with babies and young children.

Nancy Stewart is principal consultant with Early Learning Consultancy, www.earlylearningconsultancy.co.uk

Understanding the Revised Early Years Foundation Stage by Helen Moylett and Nancy Stewart (Early Education, 2012, £15.00 including p&p, www.early-education.org.uk)

Photographs by Pauline Neild at Treetops Beechwood Day Nursery, Bromborough.

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