Speech & Language: part 9 - Quiet times

Anne-Marie Tassoni and Penny Tassoni explain what can be done to help children with English as an additional language

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I work in a school nursery where I am key person to a boy and girl who have English as an additional language. They are both three years old and have been at the nursery for six months.

The girl’s parents are Indian and she speaks Gujarati at home and English at nursery. She seems to understand instructions, nursery routines and speaks two- and three-word sentences, though she often mixes Gujarati and English. Her parents say that at home she understands everything they say to her and speaks well for her age.

The boy’s parents are Polish and do not speak a lot of English. He is very quiet at nursery and often seems lost when I try to talk to him. From what I have understood from his mother, he does not speak much at home or follow simple instructions such as ‘get your shoes’.

It would be useful to know what is normal when children come in not knowing English and also how best we can support such children.

There are two main ways in which young children become bilingual. Some children will be exposed to both their home language and English very early on in their lives. This means that they develop both languages simultaneously.

The children you describe are learning English sequentially – that is, they have been exposed to one language then another later on. To support children who are learning English sequentially, it is important first of all to understand the stages of acquiring a sequential language.


There are four recognised stages in learning a language sequentially. In order to make good progress, children will need a strong relationship with their key person and also plenty of support and interactions.

Continuation of home language

Many children when starting a new setting continue to use the language they use at home. For example, a child who speaks French at home may say ‘nounours’ for teddy bear when asking for the toy in nursery. After a while children realise that using their home language does not get their needs met and move into the next stage.

Silent or non-verbal period

In this period, children will not attempt to speak in English. Instead, they will tune into the sounds of English and begin to pick out key words and phrases.

As children become more familiar with the routines of the setting, they may start to show that they recognise words or phrases. ‘Snack time’, ‘tidy up’ and ‘home time’ are often early phrases which show that children are making the transition to understanding English.

During this period, children will continue to communicate non-verbally. They may point to a toy they want or tap an adult on the back to gain attention. It is essential that non-verbal communication is encouraged in this period in order to avoid children become depressed or isolated.

Formulaic phrases and telegraphic speech

When children first start to talk, they may use some formulaic phrases that they have heard from other children or adults, such as ‘No, that’s mine!’ These are similar to the handy phrases tourists learn to get by in another country.

Alongside formulaic phrases, children will also start to use single words as they point or even join words together. This is a huge step forward for children, although it will take a little longer before they can form full grammatical sentences.

Productive language

In this period, children will progress to using short sentences before becoming fluent. At this point, it is common for children to ‘code-switch’. This is when children may use both languages in one sentence. Children may not know a particular word in English and so substitute another instead.

Once children are making up their own sentences, it is important to give them plenty of opportunities to acquire a wide vocabulary.


It can be hard to know when to be concerned about a child who is learning English sequentially because as well as age and temperament, the amount of exposure to English and also the quality of interactions in English will all affect the progress a child makes. Children also pick up a new language more quickly when they have mastered their home language. Having said that, you should look out for the following:

The child does not attempt to communicate or play with other children or the key person.

Parents report that their child’s progress is slow in the home language.

After a few weeks, the child is still using their home language in nursery and does not seem to understand any key phrases linked to routines in the setting.

From your description of the two children you are working with, they are at very different stages in their language learning. From what you have said, the girl has a good foundation in Gujarati, as she is able to speak in long sentences and understand long instructions. She is using short sentences in English, indicating that she is developing her knowledge of the language.

On the other hand, the little boy is not following simple instructions in Polish or using Polish. This suggests that he has a difficulty in learning Polish and this will have an impact on him being able to learn English. It would be worth referring this boy to your local speech and language therapy team for further investigation.


Children who are new to English need to be settled in carefully to a setting, so that when they start they are comfortable with their key person. If children are anxious and distressed, this will prevent them making progress in language.

Non-verbal period

  • Provide plenty of signs, visual timetables and photographs to help children express their needs.
  • Welcome any communication from children, including gestures such as pointing.
  • Avoid making children repeat things or put any pressure on them to talk.
  • Look for ways of making children feel competent – for example, encouraging them to pour drinks and help out.
  • Try to use similar expressions during daily routines such as toileting, going outdoors and meal times.
  • Point and name toys and objects that are of interest to the child. Keep language simple and repeat key words.
  • Use actions, songs and rhymes so that children can join in with others.


Once children are starting to talk

  • Give the child extra time to listen and respond to instructions and questions.
  • Welcome any interactions or communications.
  • Repeat what the child has said, but in an expanded form – for example, if the child says ‘want that’, you could say, ‘You want that big car to play with.’
  • Use simple books to develop vocabulary.

Advice for parents

Ideally, parents should continue speaking their home language to their child and should not switch to English. It is the parent-child communication that is important in learning a language and parents will, of course, be more competent in their first language than in English.

Parents also need to know that if they stop using their home language, children will quickly lose the ability to talk in it. This often leads to children understanding the home language but not actually being able to speak it.

  • Part 10 of this series will be published in Nursery Worldon 4 February 2019


Nursery World Show 2019

Penny Tassoni will be among the top early years experts delivering our seminar and masterclass programme at the Nursery World Show in Islington, London on 1-2 February 2019.

Penny will be tackling two of the subjects that Government and Ofsted now deem critical to a child’s academic success and ‘closing the gap’: the ability to self-regulate and a good vocabulary.

Other speakers at the two-day event include Kym Scott, who will be looking at challenge and progression in children’s learning; Jan Dubiel will be tackling learning and teaching in the EYFS; and Jane Dyke will be outlining a Froebelian approach to behaviour.

Giving advice on how to support children with hidden disabilities and children with autistic spectrum disorders will be inclusion expert Wendy Usher. And returning for another year to speak on the principles of the curriculum and on cultural diversity is Judith Twani.

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