Two-year-olds: Communication - Time to talk

Kay Mathieson
Friday, June 28, 2013

Practitioners should aim to give children the best possible chance for meaningful communication and language learning, advises Kay Mathieson.

Being two years old is an exciting and vibrant time. There is so much to see, do and explore as an incredible amount of learning takes place. A major milestone at this age is the development of language. This is often considered an aspect of cognitive learning; however, it is important not to overlook the social connection and shared understanding that is supported through language.

Children with access to a range of positive language experiences are clearly at an advantage. They have opportunities every day for learning vocabulary through meaningful communication with people who care about them. This creates an environment where early language use is celebrated and encouraged.

But not all children are so lucky. A recent Department for Education report (2011) suggests that seven per cent of children have difficulties with language development. It indicated there were long-lasting implications for children whose early language at 24 months was less well developed.

Often, language development seems to be taken for granted as a process that will happen irrespective of experience. Parents can underestimate the vital role they play and the positive difference they can make to future learning. A sensitive practitioner can share understanding of early language development in a way that can empower the parent and build confidence in their interactions with their child.

Under the EYFS, the Prime area of Communication and Language is divided into three aspects and practitioners will need to reflect on how to develop children's skills in each.


The quantity and quality of language that babies and toddlers hear around them has a significant influence on their development of language. This includes the tone, intention, motivation and emotion that is communicated as well as the actual words used. In any group of two-year-olds coming into our settings there will be a variety of experience, understanding and awareness of language and its usage. The priority for practitioners is to give each child the 'best possible chance' to engage in meaningful communication.

This begins by establishing a relationship based on respect and showing interest in each child as an individual. A core part of this is demonstrating that we are listening and attending to a child's communication with us. Initially, this will be less about the words and more about our ability to 'read' non-verbal communication. Babies are able to tell us when they are bored, uncomfortable, interested or at ease. The skills we use to understand babies' communication are just as important when we are interacting with older children.

By creating a context where the child is at ease and has confidence that they will readily receive positive adult attention, we are increasing the likelihood of learning taking place. Our aim is an approach of 'positive enquiry', where the adult takes time to listen, think and reflect in order to truly understand the message that the child is communicating.

The experience of being listened to, when the listener is as active as the communicator, is very special and is characteristic of quality relationships. Even as adults that feeling of 'being understood' is something we cherish and will have a positive impact on our sense of our value and esteem within a group or organisation.

A great place to start is through shared positive experience; having something worth talking about is a prerequisite for making the effort to find and articulate the right words. Creating this shared meaning is not just about naming a colour or an object but social meaning.

In Socioemotional Development in the Toddler Years (page 233) Katherine Nelson explains, 'The social context and conditions of children's lives toward the end of the first year set the stage for entering a different "form of life": where infant and parents share in joint activities, interpreting each other within familiar contexts, sharing attention to objects in play, in caretaking, in "reading" together, or in other kinds of experiences, familiar and novel, such as shopping or visiting the doctor.'

For some of our two-year-olds, this shared experience and its related language may have been a rare occurrence. It will take time for them to participate and they will need support to engage fully in the process.

A further crucial element of learning about communication and language is the ability to direct and focus our attention. From the early stage of fleeting attention that is 'caught' by anything interesting, there is a long journey to directing our own attention and focusing it on something specific. Obviously, it is more difficult to focus on something we have been told to be interested in, rather than our own choice.

Our observations need to be deeper than 'he just plays with the train all the time' and should take account of the detail that is capturing his interest. For example, it could be the movement of the wheels, the colour, feel, size or shape of that train. Alternatively, perhaps playing with the train is not engaging at all but allows time to see what else is going on around him. Only careful observation, reflection and discussion with parents and colleagues can enable accuracy in our interpretation of each child's individual responses.


Our two-year-olds will be interested and motivated to acquire language that is useful to them. They will want to name things that fascinate them, describe important events and contribute to conversations with their special people. For example, if I am currently enjoying playing in the den, I am more likely to explore vocabulary connected to my play when I need the words rather than at some later unconnected time when an adult is asking me questions. However, given the appropriate encouragement I can tell the story of my play at snack time with my friends.

For many of our two-year-olds, this will be a new experience that will take time to develop and will need sensitive adults who notice interests and relationships that are important to each child. Using props and prompts such as photographs, puppets, drawings and language will help children on their journey towards confident, flexible communication and thinking.

The fun element of engaging with language should never be underestimated and always shared with the adults who are special to the child. Sharing rhymes, rhythms and songs using home languages, signing and associated actions can help the child to initiate fun interactions with their special people even when language is still an effort.

Rhymes, rhythms and songs should be a joyful part of every day in your setting but can also really help to build rapport with parents if the setting collection of regularly used rhymes are reflective of those known at home. Sharing the words and the tune through setting websites, for example, can enable a recording of a singing session to be available for parents to use with their children.

Language is a very complex system and our two-year-olds are at different levels of competence with different aspects at different times. Context will change the child's ability to demonstrate their language expertise. For example, language related to choices is easy if I am used to it, but different phrases will confuse me if I am still learning about the process of making a selection. We need to understand each child's current confidences to sensitively respond.


Speaking is the most obvious element of language and is initially a complex, tiring process, whether in your first, second, third or fourth language. Familiar phrases and words help us to make sense of actions and routines. Listening to parents as we talk with them about sleep routines, relaxing times and signals showing that children are tired will help to share our understanding of how valuable these things are for development.

Essentially, our interactions with two-year-olds should be encouraging them to talk with us, and to have conversations about their interests. Demonstrating taking part in a conversation, listening, looking, linking what we say to a previous contribution, responding to the emotional as well as verbal messages will model the process of communicating.

As skilled practitioners, we are privileged to be able to help build parents' confidence in their influence on their child's learning. Each interaction makes a difference to language skill and fluency, but also how children feel about themselves.

Kay Mathieson is an author of titles such as I am Two! Working effectively with two-year-olds and their families (Early Education), and a consultant and trainer working primarily with and


  • Socioemotional Development in the Toddler Years by Brownell, CA & Kopp, CB, 2007, p233, Guilford Press
  • Communicating Matters, 2005, Department for Children, Schools and Families
  • Inclusion Development Programme: Supporting Children with SLCN: guidance for practitioners in Early Years Foundation Stage, 2008, Department for Children, Schools and Families
  • Every Child a Talker: Guidance for Early Language Lead Practitioner, 2008, Department for Children, Schools and Families
  • Investigating the Role of Language in Children's Early Educational Outcomes (Research Report DFE-RR134), Department for Education, 2011, University of the West of England, Bristol
  • ICAN Speech, Language and Communication Needs and the Early Years, Issue 7 of the ICAN Talk Series (
  • National Strategies documents are available to download at

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