Language is one of the most important skills we will ever learn. Everything we do at home or work requires us to communicate with our families, friends and colleagues. Without language it is incredibly difficult to share our thoughts and feelings with others, to make lasting friendships, to give and receive information and to learn about the world in which we live.
The ability to use and understand language is essential for all children too. Children learn language in such a short space of time and this is why the pre-school years are so crucial - with parents and Early Years workers playing a vital role in encouraging children's communication development.
Problems with speech and language are the most common developmental difficulty that children encounter. Studies indicate that as many as 1 in 10 children in the UK have speech and language difficulties, and these are particularly prevalent in the early years.
Language is central to learning, but a study by the Basic Skills Agency (in 2002) reported that - in the opinion of teachers - 50% of children begin school lacking skills that are vital for getting off to a good start in education.
But what types of speech and language problems could your child suffer from – and what can grown-ups do to help?
You are now more and more likely to come across a child with difficulty in one or more of the following areas:
- Understanding spoken language
Children may have difficulty with understanding the meaning of words and concepts. They may have problems following instructions, understanding games and tasks, and making sense of what is being said to them. Often children with these difficulties may appear to understand as they may be getting clues from following other children or guessing from the context. However, they may also come across as 'difficult' simply because they do not fully understand what is being said.
- Spoken language
Children may have problems with using language. They may have difficulty with words or sentence structure. They may struggle to express themselves in play and activities or tell people how they feel.
- Speech sound production
Children may have problems with the intelligibility of their speech - they may have a reduced number of sounds available to them and difficulty making particular sounds in simple or longer words. They may not be easy to understand when they speak or reluctant to speak for fear of not being understood.
- Attention and listening
Many children who have speech and language difficulties have problems with listening to spoken language (often when their hearing is okay). They have difficulty concentrating on a task and listening to adult instructions.
- Social skills
Children's development of social skills, their sense of self and others, and their ability to form relationships and learn can all be affected by speech and language problems.
The impact of these difficulties
Difficulties in one or more of these areas can have a profound impact on a child's experience of their early education. How each child is affected will depend on the degree of their difficulty and personal factors.
Owing to these problems, children with speech and language difficulties may struggle to follow and learn daily routines – e.g. if they find it hard to understand spoken language children may struggle to follow instructions, especially negatives such as the difference between "do" something and "don't" do something.
They may also find sentences with more than one element difficult – e.g. “Get some paper and pencils and go and sit in the drawing corner.” The child may be able to follow the individual elements of the sentence but when they are combined into one, they can't process everything at once. Keeping sentences short and supporting information with gesture will help.
Children who find it hard to make themselves understood by adults or other children will find their ability to join in activities and tell people things, ask questions, relate stories, and form friendships is inhibited. They may be unable to join in with songs or nursery rhymes and have difficulty following stories and remembering information. In this situation, offering a choice with words to go with that choice may help, e.g. "Do you want to play with the cars or paint?"
Difficulties in attention and listening can make it hard for children to get the most out of free-play sessions, their ability to take turns may be affected, and they may find it hard to listen to and retain instructions. Poor awareness of time and the sequence of routine events can lead to children becoming insecure, especially if the routine they have learned is changed. Sticking to a set routine and having pictures that relate to that routine in order upon on the wall may help.
The feelings of frustration and confusion that can arise from speech and language difficulties can result in behaviour problems. Children may either vent their frustration and anger in very obvious ways or become very quiet and withdrawn when they feel the act of communication is too difficult to keep on trying.
In addition to these more general difficulties, children with speech and language problems can encounter specific difficulties in accessing the Early Years curriculum. Many, if not all of the Early Learning Goals rely directly or indirectly on a child being a competent listener and communicator. Children with difficulties in any of the areas discussed here will need support to get the most out of their Early Years experience.
Strategies that can help
A range of practical strategies can be used in an Early Years setting to identify and support children who may have a speech and language problem.
Some children find using visual clues and reminders very useful in helping them follow routine and learn new words and concepts. Use pictures or photos of the children themselves doing the activities, to represent different activities in the day as a visual timetable. Pictures can also be used to help children to choose activities.
If speaking is a problem, children could point to a picture of what they want to do. Make sure you demonstrate activities before you ask children to do them, so they have practical, visual information on the sequence of actions they need to do to get to the outcome you want.
One of the hardest things to do when you are a fluent adult speaker is to be aware of your own language when talking to children, but this is also one of the most important areas where you can help children develop their language skills. Slow down the rate of your speech, simplify your language and repeat new words and ideas often.
Don't feel you have to fill in silence with lots of talking - some children need more time to think before they speak. Make sure you leave gaps for them to fill in. Try to reduce the number of questions you ask and emphasise the important words in the sentence, the ones that carry the information, e.g. "Look, here's the big teddy.”
Try to cue children in to what you are doing - say their name, wait for them to look at you. You may need to model language for them by giving them a choice e.g. "Do you want juice or milk?" Or you can repeat what the child has said to confirm you have understood them and to let them hear how the words should sound.
Use simple repetitive language for familiar activities, comment on what children are doing in their free play sessions, and try to expand what they say by adding a few words. For example a child might shout: "Truck!" The adult should reply: "That's right, it's a big, blue truck.”
Involve your child's teachers. It can be invaluable if you give them information which could help develop your child's communication skills – e.g. tell them if your child has special words or gestures for things. Finally, if you feel your child has significant speech and language needs, your child can be referred to your local Speech and Language Therapist for specialist assessment and advice.
Paying attention and listening
It is vital that children listen to language. Most children are interested in language and will do this quite naturally. However, some children find it difficult to pay attention and listen and this could affect their language development.
Attention and listening skills help develop social skills. Children need to learn to focus on another person and listen to them in order to take turns, make eye contact, and to engage in conversation and play. You can help them by:
- Removing distractions. Children will be more able to focus if the noise level is low and distractions are kept to a minimum.
- Looking at your child when you are talking to them. This reinforces the importance of making eye contact and demonstrates that you are listening to them.
- Praising good attention and listening skills. Positive feedback will help your child know that they are getting it right and developing these skills.
How CBeebies can help
Some children find using visual clues very useful in learning new words. Pictures or photos can be used to identify objects and emotions, and to help children to choose activities. If speaking is a problem, children could point to a picture of what they want to do.
You might find Makaton a powerful learning tool if your child has speech and language difficulties. Makaton is designed to support spoken language – signs, symbols and speech are used to help children communicate.
Signs are used with speech, in spoken word order. Using signs can help children whose speech is unclear. Symbols can be used to support communication in many different ways. Using symbols can help children who have limited speech and those who cannot/prefer not to sign.
CBeebies show ‘Something Special’ provides a great starting point for you and your child to familiarise yourself with Makaton. Presenter Justin Fletcher’s vibrant and confident approach embraces the ethos of Makaton – that it should remove frustration and enable people to connect with others and the world around them, thereby opening up all kinds of possibilities.
And if you click through to the Something Special web pages on the CBeebies website, you’ll find lots of printable sheets which are a great way for your child to learn the Makaton signs for key words. Each word is written out and also represented by a photo, picture and sign image.