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. But what types of speech and language problems do children suffer from – and what can grown-ups do to help?
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.
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.
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 it inhibits their ability to join in activities and tell people things, ask questions, tell stories and form friendships. 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?"
Attention and listening
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.
Support in education
In addition to these more general difficulties, children with speech and language problems can encounter specific difficulties in learning new skills and they may need support to get the most out of nursery or school.
Strategies that can help
A range of practical strategies can be used 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.
You could also consider using Makaton or another sign language to help your child express themselves even if they are unable to form the words. 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 that 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 may need to see a specialist for 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, so turn the TV and radio off if you want their full attention.
- 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.
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