Being able to listen, pay attention, play and understand are the fundamental building blocks of communication.

Nursery World Magazine: Communication & Language Series

LuCiD researchers have written six articles on communication and language for  Nursery World Magazine. The articles, published monthly from July to November 2015, form part of the magazine's learning and development series. Each article focuses on a different aspect of child language and communicative development linked to  LuCiD's research themes

Below you can find summaries from the Trust for all of the articles, as well as links to digital versions of the full articles on the LuCiD website.

 

Article 1 - Up to Speed?

This article explores the topic of language rich environments and why they are important for supporting children to learn language.  It explains that despite the fact that variation in the speed at which children learn language is normal and that many children who develop their language skills more slowly do eventually catch up, for some children being in an environment that does not stimulate language can have a significant impact on language learning. For these children, providing a language-rich environment at home and in nursery or pre-school can be hugely beneficial.

Learning language involves a number of complex tasks and a language-rich environment can help children master these:

Sounds - children have to learn to distinguish between and produce speech sounds. Leaving gaps in talk for children to take their turn in the conversation, even if it is just with a gurgle, a coo or a bit of babble, can help. Using a lively voice, with ups and downs, also helps babies tune into the sounds of their language.

Words - children need to learn to combine sounds into words and to learn the correct meaning for that word. To do this they need to hear new words frequently in lots of different contexts. Talking a lot with children helps; the more we talk, the more often we repeat words in different contexts, which make it easier for children to narrow down the correct meaning of words.

Sentences - children need to learn how changes in word combinations can affect meaning, and that adding certain endings to words changes their meaning for example turning 'kick' into 'kicked'. Using language slightly above their current ability can help children understand and use more complex grammar earlier.

The article describes other brain systems important for language learning that benefit from a language-rich environment: the auditory and visual systems; the attention system (for example, children learn words for objects much more easily if they hear the word at the precise moment when they are paying attention to the object the word is referring to); memory processing (as children have to work out what words mean as well as memorise them).

With useful milestone information, and top tips to create a language-rich environment the article explains that language-rich environments don't just help children learn words; they can initiate changes in the brain that continue to give children an advantage, years later.

 

To read the full article, please click here.

 

Article 2 - Word for Word

'Word for word' shares some up to date information about how children learn words, particularly names for objects, and how they use their environment to guide this process. This is useful as helping children to learn words at an early age is incredibly important; the number of words that a toddler knows predicts how well they will learn to read when they get to school.

What influences word learning?

The article identifies a number of factors that influence the way children learn words:

  • Attention plays an important role in word learning. Explicitly labelling an object while drawing children's attention to it helps them to learn and remember names for objects that they haven't seen before.
  • Using words and objects together is thought to be particularly helpful for early language development, from around six to 18 months. So, it helps the child to see the object you are talking about.
  • Research has shown that gesturing while speaking and encouraging children's pointing could all be helpful for language learning.
  • Emphasising the key word that we want children to learn seems to improve learning too.

How can we help children's word learning?

The article talks about helping children learn words through what they hear and what they see:

  • Most adults speak to children in a different way than they speak to other adults and the evidence seems to say this type of speech is helpful. Child-directed speech captures infants' attention more than adult directed speech.
  • Research has shown that children who receive a large amount of language exposure are able to learn more words than those who only receive a limited amount, and they can learn words more quickly than their less experienced peers.
  • The quality of language that children hear is important too. Word learning can be boosted by exposing children to a large and varied vocabulary that includes words that we as adults might use less often.
  • Children benefit more from hearing full, grammatically correct sentences, rather than simpler phrases or single words, and repetition is also advantageous for word learning.
  • There are lots of ways we can support word learning that focus on what children see, as well as what they hear, so letting children compare objects helps them learn which features of those objects are important.

The article concludes by saying that what children see and what they hear are both critically important for language development, and this is something we should always keep in mind when communicating with them.

 

To read the full article, please click here.

 

Article 3 - A Formal Occasion

The style of language children are exposed to changes as they enter Reception class at school. They hear more formal language, rather than the conversational language they are used to at home or nursery. Some children may struggle with this and it's important for Reception staff to recognise the challenge this poses for some. Nurseries and pre-schools also have a role in preparing children for and exposing them to this more formal language.

This article describes the three main characteristics that distinguish formal and simple language: vocabulary, sentence structures and wider discourse (that is, how sentences are linked) and what can help children.

Vocabulary - Different kinds of words

  • Compared to conversational language, the vocabulary of formal language is more detailed and specific. To succeed, children need to know lots of different words and the sometimes subtle differences in meaning between them.
  • Formal language also contains expressions that may not be familiar to children, such as 'Line up!', or 'Cross your legs and fold your arms!'
  • Evidence shows that children begin to learn a more formal vocabulary when they hear lots of different words used in meaningful contexts, that is, situations where they can work out what a new word refers to. Further research suggests that children will learn word meanings best if they hear those words used in lots of different situations.
  • Don't shy away from using harder words. Where adults use grownup names for objects, concepts and events with their two-year-olds, by the age of three those children have larger vocabularies than children who hear less varied input.

Sentence structures - Different kinds of sentences

  • The formal language used in the classroom contains longer, more complex sentences than they may be used to hearing. Complex sentences can include multiple instructions or a detailed description of something or someone. When adults talked to children using complex sentences this increased how often children produced these sentences, and how well they understood them.
  • Sharing books with children can also help. Researchers have found that the text in children's books is often more complex than the daily language spoken to young children.
  • Another source of information children might use to help them understand complex sentences is hand gestures, so encouraging children to look at the speaker while listening, rather than looking away, could help them to pick up important information.

The wider discourse - linking sentences

  • Formal language is useful for more than academic learning - it's essential for building relationships and social communication too. Using strategies like open ended questions and thinking about cause and effect encourage children to be more able to understand and use formal language.

The differences between the informal language of home and the formal language of education mean that children who enter school with poor language abilities and little prior experience with formal language have an increased risk of poor educational outcomes. So learning environments that help children to become familiar with different kinds of formal language could give children an advantage right throughout their education.

Top tips to help children become more familiar with formal language

  • Use a range of varied vocabulary
  • Use the same words in different situations, to help children develop their understanding
  • Use more grown up words, so children become more familiar with them
  • Reading books helps children to get used to hearing different words and sentence structures
  • Make sure children can see your hand gestures when you talk, to help them understand
  • Say instructions in the order that you'd like things done
  • Talk about past events to help children recall information and describe past events
  • Encourage children to re-tell stories to you
  • Ask open ended questions and questions that encourage children to think about cause and effect, for example, 'why is the girl happy?' ' Because it's her birthday'
  • Make sure you give children time to respond, so that they have time to process and understand what you've said

 

To read the full article, please click here.

 

Article 4 - Confused?

Myths and facts about growing up learning two languages

Despite 39 per cent of primary school children speaking English as an additional language, there remain some myths surrounding bilingualism that this article sets straight.

Myth: Children soak up language like a sponge

There is evidence that children can easily learn a second language at a young age, but research has shown that shown that it takes these children years to achieve the same language standards as children learning just one language. Also, no two children are the same and the context that children are in affects how quickly they learn their second language. Even children who are exposed to two languages simultaneously are likely to develop differently in each. There is also evidence to show that children need more exposure to a language to enable them to speak that language than to understand it.

Myth: Mixing languages is a sign of confusion

Bilingual children, just like bilingual adults, often mix their languages (this is known as 'code switching'). There are many reasons why they do this: they may be switching languages because they are addressing a listener who may understand only one of the languages they know, or they may not know, or remember, a word in one of their languages. Code switching requires a wealth of sophisticated linguistic knowledge on the part of the bilingual child and it is the exact opposite of confusion.

Myth: Parents should speak English to their children - maintaining the home language will prevent their children from learning English

Studies have shown repeatedly that when non-native speakers use English with their children, the children do not have better English skills than children whose parents use their mother tongue. This could be because the quality of the language that they are using is not as good as that of a native speaker. The number of native speakers that children mix with does however have an effect on how well they learn the language.

Myth: Bilingual children are more vulnerable to language impairment

There are in fact no studies on the frequency of language impairment in bilingual children; it is reasonable to expect that it is the same as in the general population. We do know that being bilingual does not appear to put children at a particular advantage or disadvantage when it comes to language impairment and that language impairment affects both languages of a bilingual child. Because bilingual children tend to have slower developing language skills, diagnosis of language impairment can be challenging. The article suggests that anyone concerned about the language development of a bilingual child closely observes the child's communication skills, including gestures, paying particular attention to how well they understand language, and takes in to account their language abilities in both the languages they are exposed to.

 

To read the full article, please click here.

 

Article 5 - Dog Eats Man

Different language rules and cultural attitudes

This article describes the different cultures and attitudes to language development that occur across the world and in different languages. It provides some useful insight into possible reasons for certain language learning behaviours that practitioners may encounter in children from different backgrounds, and what this can mean for everyday practice.

Languages differ

Languages differ in weird and wonderful ways which can mean that practitioners may see children from different language backgrounds struggle when learning English. Children may find it hard to understand the importance of word order, they might miss out certain words that they don't see as important, make strange mistakes with word meanings or struggle with understanding ways to talk to adults.

Biological influences

Despite differences in language, the article describes research that shows how all children seem to be on a roughly similar timetable for beginning to understand their first language and for developing some of the early interactive skills that support this understanding. However, although all children may acquire these early skills at around the same time, how much they go on to use them is affected by the culture in which they are growing up. The amount of imitation and child directed talk can vary across cultures and this influences the way that children acquire language.

Child-rearing and language development

Cultural attitudes to child rearing, for example how much focus there is on adult interaction  with children or how new language is taught, can impact on parents' and children's understanding of nursery practice  and practitioners should be mindful of this.

Different strategies

There can be significant variation in the way children's language is supported and encouraged, depending on their cultural background. Whether language is learned through imitation of adults, or observation of how language is used by adults, children in different communities may have to use rather different strategies to discover how their language works.

The article concludes by stating that there are many elements of family culture that practitioners might seek to understand and accommodate within their early years setting. Having some understanding of a family's language and child-rearing traditions can only be of benefit to early years practice.

 

To read the full article, please click here.

 

Article 6 - My Mistake

Why 'clever mistakes' are often a sign of progress

Children make 'clever mistakes' when they are learning to talk. This tells us a lot about what children know about language at different points in development. This article includes information about why children make clever mistakes, how they're different to simple mistakes, and how we should respond when they make them.

Why do children make clever mistakes?

Unlike simple mistakes - where children say things like 'eated' instead of 'ate' when they are younger and starting to learn to talk - clever mistakes do not start appearing until children's language becomes a little more complicated, and persist well into the primary school years. The article gives an example of a clever mistake: In a game of cops and robbers the author and his son jumped into the car and his son said: "Stay your eyes on that car in front". This is something that is creative as it is not something a seven year old is likely to have heard, but it's not quite correct...

Clever mistakes tell us is that a child is using a pattern that they have heard in the language around them to produce something that is novel and creative, but that is not quite right in that particular case. It is not a sign that a child is struggling with language learning, but rather a sign that they are making progress in working out how to express particular kinds of meanings; they are trying things out.

It also means that those of us who work with children can use these mistakes to identify parts of the language that the child is currently working on, and modify our own language accordingly.

What should we do in response?

The article gives examples that show whilst it is tempting to correct a child when they make this kind of mistake, actually it is far better to repeat what the child said, using the correct words (for example, "Keepmy eyes on that car in front? OK"). This is because it encourages the child to keep talking and listening to what the adult says in response. Also, it often results in the adult providing lots of different examples of how to say the things that the child is interested in saying.

Not all mistakes are clever

The article gives further information about other types of mistakes children make and possible reasons why. A common mistake is when children leave out something that an adult would usually include, for example a young child may say "kick ball" instead of "I kicked the ball". These mistakes are different because they reflect the fact that the child is still in the process of learning a pattern as opposed to using a pattern that they have already learned in a way that isn't quite right. While these mistakes are common in the language of two and three year old children, they tend to disappear as they learn to fill the gaps. The article highlights however that these types of mistakes can be common in children with language impairment; the child might have a particular problem learning language.

An end to mistakes

The article tells us that to stop making mistakes children have to do two things. First, they have to learn the patterns that will allow them to say what they want to say. Second, they have to learn which words they can use with these patterns and which words they can't. The most remarkable thing about clever mistakes is that all typically developing children eventually learn to stop making them. We still don't know exactly how they do this, but it is almost certainly something to do with how good children are at picking up patterns in other people's talk. The article reiterates that the best advice about how to respond to children's mistakes is: 'Don't stop and correct them. Keep on talking'.

 

To read the full article, please click here.