Nursery Equipment: Introduction - Talk, talk

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Creating a rich communication environment is vital for language development, says Nancy Stewart.

A young child who eagerly recounts adventures in the woods, argues why only the blue cup will do, or plans with playmates what roles to take in fantasy play is using language as a powerful tool - to share and clarify their thinking, to build relationships, and to imagine. This child has come a long way from the very beginnings of communication and language.

We are born to be social, and from the first day of life a child seeks out eye contact and pays special attention to the human voice. Early interactions help to build a connection with the people giving the care and attention a baby needs, and from these early communications the stage is set for rapid learning about language.

But while babies are primed to develop language, children need to experience a rich communication and language environment in order to make good progress in the world of talk. Some children have much more encouragement and support to communicate and hear more talk than others. This difference in the quality of a child's communication environment affects how many words a child uses by age two, and is strongly linked to later success in school.


The EYFS places an enhanced emphasis on early Communication and Language as one of the three prime areas of learning and development. This reflects the importance of early language skills in paving the way for later learning across the curriculum and acknowledges the sensitive window in early development when the prime areas need to become established.

Communication and Language underpins development in:

Personal, Social and Emotional Development For a child, being able to communicate effectively with those around them is an important part of making relationships. In a two-way exchange, children find out about themselves and others as they share ideas, needs and feelings. When they become able to name and talk about their feelings, they begin to understand and manage their own emotions as well as to empathise with others. Positive behaviour is supported by talk, as a child who can say what they want and negotiate is less likely to act out their frustrations.

Thinking Thinking is strongly linked to language. The symbol of a word, standing for abstract ideas such as categories of things, helps a child to hold the meaning in mind and separate it from all the information that floods their senses. Thinking has been described as a sort of 'internal talk'. We gradually learn to think silently, but for young children, talking aloud about what they are experiencing helps them to mentally grasp hold of the ideas. Talk helps them be aware of considering possibilities and solving problems.

Literacy Literacy depends on a base of language, since reading and writing are processes of expressing and understanding language in a recorded format. A child who cannot tell a story or explain a process will not be able to write about it. A child who has difficulty understanding what is said to them because of a limited vocabulary or an inability to follow complex sentences will struggle to understand what they read. So supporting the foundations of literacy requires a solid grounding in talk.

All areas of learning and development Language also plays a key part across all the specific areas of learning. As children move on through the EYFS and into school, much of the activity involves talking about objects, ideas and events, understanding instructions and learning vocabulary associated with new knowledge.


Communication is the sharing of a message, so always needs a receiver as well as a sender. Development is spurred when sensitive adults respond to the way babies communicate their needs, so the child learns that someone is listening.

As children move to language to communicate, they continue to be confident communicators when they know they are supported by someone who wants to understand what they are trying to say. The quality of interaction from adults is perhaps the most important aspect of a communication-rich environment.

Practitioners observing children's development are often aware of how the child is expressing themselves. It is important, though, to be aware that expressive language depends on first paying attention and tuning into language, and then understanding the meaning of words and how sentences are put together. Only then can children begin to use the sounds and meanings for themselves. The EYFS organises the development of children's communication and language into three aspects to describe this process: listening and attention, understanding and speaking.

Listening and attention

Babies focus on the particular sounds and rhythms of the language(s) that surround them, and soon separate the flow of sound into syllables and then recognisable words. Lots of everyday chat, plus the repeated sounds and rhythms of nursery rhymes and songs, helps young children to tune in to language. They gradually become able to focus their attention purposefully.

To provide an enabling environment for listening and attention:

  •  reduce unnecessary visual and sound distractions, with quiet spaces and calm colours
  • break space up into 'zones' where children can have one-to-one time or communicate in small groups
  • gain children's attention with visual and sound signals such as a bell
  • offer stimulating resources and activities linked to children's interests
  • play games that include listening and waiting for a signal, like peek-a-boo, Jack-in-the-box, ready steady go and Simon says
  • plan activities such as a listening walk, passing sounds around the circle, copy my sound or listening to environmental sounds on tape.


At first, babies and toddlers understand the communication of a tone of voice, facial expression and gesture. Before they can use words to talk, they need to understand single words. Hearing a rich vocabulary is crucial for children to develop their understanding of words and sentences.

To provide an enabling environment for understanding:

  • offer stimulating activities in which adults can describe what they see children doing, helping them to link actions to words
  • support what you say with visual clues - gestures, objects or signs
  • provide real objects and props linked to stories for children to handle and to use to re-enact the stories
  • supply a good range of books with interesting pictures and texts to listen to in a variety of styles.


This aspect includes all the ways children express themselves, not just speech. While it takes years to master all the sounds of a language, children can be effective communicators from the start, using sounds and gestures.

Toddlers begin to use single words, and then to combine them into two-word sentences. Talking aloud to themselves is an important way that children begin to be careful and aware thinkers. Soon they ask questions about the world, and begin to use language for many purposes.

To provide an enabling environment for expressive language:

  •  ensure there are plenty of interesting things to talk about
  • provide role-play opportunities
  • use puppets to support conversations
  • include inviting, private spaces such as dens where two or three children can gather
  • be a good communication partner - listening, following the child's lead, giving them time to respond, repeating and expanding what they say, and modelling rich language
  • extend home links with chatter boxes and story sacks.


You can bear in mind this quick shorthand for what children need to develop as skilful communicators: some- thing interesting to talk about, and someone who is interested to talk to. Space and resources can be planned to match and extend children's interests. The practitioner can plan to be involved in play as well as planned activities, engaging in fascinating and pleasurable conversations.

Nancy Stewart is a principal consultant with Early Learning Consultancy,


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