Hierarchy of talk in Early Years

I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of talk in Early Years. It really is the key to effective learning and personal development in children. Yet, quality talk development is often missed out or overlooked by pressure to show attainment in other areas.


The ability to talk is simple enough for most children but how they talk and what they talk about is a far more complex thing that needs to be effectively modelled and regularly practised.

Such is my passion for the importnace of talk I was asked to write  ‘Get Them Talking, Get Them Learning’  where I am able to take a more
in-depth look at some of the more common types of talk that children come into
contact with in their every day life. Through quality planned talk sessions
they should experience all of the following and more.

  • Talk for social interaction
– build
    relationships – co-operation
– take turns, join in – share
  • Talk
    for making choices and decisions, 
developing curiosity
  • Talk
    for developing  language – using familiar
    and newly introduced vocabulary
  • Talk
    for develop communication and negotiation skills
  • Talk
    for expressing emotions and feelings
  • Talk
    for recalling own experience
  • Talk
    for developing mathematical language and concepts in a meaningful context
  • Talk
    for develop day to day activities like cooking
  • Talk
    for communicating ideas in construction of props
  • Talk
    for projecting themselves into feelings, actions of others
  • Talk
    for taking on a role in an imaginary situation both real and fantasy
  • Talk
    for conflict resolution, both real and imaginary
  • Talk
    for problem solving in real and imaginary situations
  • Talk for tidying
    up! – talk for negotiation, organisation
  • Talk for
  • Talk for
    cooperation and collaboration, beginning to work as part of a group
  • Talk for sharing
    and turn taking 
  • Talk for naming of
    familiar objects
  • Talk for the
    development of descriptive language
  • Talk for
    positional language
  • Talk for naming
    attributes of common objects and animals
  • Talk for
    developing an awareness of a real life environment that is different from their
  • Talk for
    communicating emotion e.g. fear
  • Talk for
    discussion of previous experiences that were both good and
  • Talk for
    description and exploration of colour, texture, shape and size of objects found
    in ‘real’ and imaginary habitats
  • Talk for awareness
    of danger
  • Talk for recognition of  “sameness” and 
  • Talk for finding out about
    past events in their own lives and the lives of others
  • Talk for making
  • Talk for
    organising ideas and experiences
  • Talk for
    expressing feelings and ideas

To ensure that children are getting lots of opportunities for talk development, a talk focus should be part of your weekly planning. Use your assessments and observations to identify which areas of talk development that children are weakest in and then focus on those in your teaching times and interactions.

I regularly advise settings to have a box on their weekly planner that states the type of talk they are going to be focusing on and how they are going to differentiate it for the different abilities that they have got.

It is not enough just to speak, we have to teach children to talk. 


In the revised Every Child Matters document what was Communication, Language and Literacy had now been sub
sectioned into the Prime Areas of Communication
and Language
which covers listening and attention, understanding and
speaking and the specific area of Literacy
which covers reading and writing.

 If you use the age related descriptors for Communication and Language,
they give you a very comprehensive reference point, not only for the type of
talk activity that you should be planning, but also the national expectation
for age related attainment.

Skills for Talk

 22-36 months

  • Uses language as a
    powerful means of widening contacts, sharing feelings 
    experiences and
  • Holds a
    conversation, jumping from topic to topic.
  • Learns new words
    very rapidly and is able to use them in communicating.
  • Uses gestures,
    sometimes with limited talk, e.g. reaches toward toy, saying
    ‘I have it’.
  • Uses a variety of
    questions (e.g.
    what, where, who).
  • Uses simple
    sentences (e.g.’
    Mummy gonna work.’)
  • Beginning to use
    word endings (e.g.
    going, cats). 

30 – 50 months

  • Beginning to use more complex sentences to link thoughts (e.g. using
    and, because).
  • Can retell a simple past event in correct order (e.g. went down
    slide, hurt finger).
  • Uses talk to
    connect ideas, explain what is happening and anticipate what might happen next,
    recall and relive past experiences.
  • Questions why
    things happen and gives explanations. Asks e.g.
    who, what, when, how.
  • Uses a range of
    tenses (e.g.
    play, playing, will play, played).
  • Uses intonation,
    rhythm and phrasing to make the meaning 
clear to others.
  • Uses vocabulary
    focused on objects and people that are of particular importance to them.
  • Builds up
    vocabulary that reflects the breadth of their experiences.
  • Uses talk in
    pretending that objects stand for something else in play, e,g,
    ‘This box is
    my castle.’

40-60+ months

  • Extends
    vocabulary, especially by grouping and naming, exploring the meaning and sounds
    of new words.
  • Uses language to
    imagine and recreate roles and experiences in play situations.
  • Links statements
    and sticks to a main theme or intention.
  • Uses talk to organise,
    sequence and clarify thinking, ideas, feelings and events.
  • Introduces a
    storyline or narrative into their play. 


Early Learning Goal

Children express themselves effectively, showing awareness of
listeners’ needs. They use past, present and future forms accurately when
talking about events that have happened or are to happen in the future. They
develop their own narratives and explanations by connecting ideas or events.

The range of talk skills that children are able to develop are quite
diverse and complex. Far in advance of what they are expected to record in
their writing.

 Skills for Writing

 22-36 months

  •  Distinguishes between the different marks they make.

30-50 months

  • Sometimes gives meaning to marks as they draw and paint.
  • Ascribes meanings to marks that they see in different places.


40 – 60+ months

  • Gives meaning to
    marks they make as they draw, write and paint.
  • Begins to break
    the flow of speech into words.
  • Continues a
    rhyming string.
  • Hears and says the
    initial sound in words.
  • Can segment the
    sounds in simple words and blend them together.
  • Links sounds to
    letters, naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet.
  • Uses some clearly
    identifiable letters to communicate meaning, representing some
  • sounds correctly
    and in sequence.
  • Writes own name
    and other things such as labels, captions.
  • Attempts to write
    short sentences in meaningful contexts. 

 Early Learning

Children use their
phonic knowledge to write words
 in ways which match their spoken sounds. They
also write some irregular common words. They write simple sentences which can
be read by themselves and others. Some words are spelt correctly and others are
phonetically plausible.

The above list is a really useful reference for looking at what ‘next
steps’ for talk might look like in your planning, but also for mapping your
coverage of types of talk and use of language.

If you know the types of talk development that you are going to be
covering across the year then you can make sure that you have a range of spaces
and resources indoors and out in your environment that will support that
development. Once you carry out your initial assessments on your children you
will know at exactly which level you will need to start at and you can adjust
and ‘dress’ your spaces and resources to reflect the interests of the children.


In their talk, children are required to extend sentences using 'and' and 'because', be able to use a range of tenses, know and use questioning words,
connect their individual thoughts in way that makes sense, they are not
explicitly asked to replicate any of these features in their writing. That is
because for most children you can achieve and rehearse many of the higher level
features of writing through talk. Then when the children’s gross and fine motor
skills catch up the higher level talk is already there waiting to flow out
through the end of their pencil!


Filed under: Mark Making, Phonics, Talk

1 Comment

  1. Hi Alastair
    Agree totally with all of above! But….. our September 2012 nursery talk baseline is really low because children do not seem to have a range of basic vocabulary and so resort to pointing / gesturing as a matter of course – NOT even EAL children either.

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