Are we really supporting children’s language development during child-led play?

This week I am really pleased to have a guest blog by Catherine Jackson. I first came across Catherine via her really informative speech and language blog Wise Old Owl.
For a while we were social media buddies and then managed to meet up in ‘real life’ at the Child Care Expo where Catherine was speaking and exhibiting.
I know you will find her work useful and thought provoking. I would urge you to have a look at her blog – there is lots more info to get your teeth into.
Catherine is a speech and language therapist with over 20 years experience and has worked in both the NHS and the private sector in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. She specialises in the early years, both within speech disorders/delays and language delays/disorders. She is passionate about early intervention and prevention.
Are we really supporting children’s language development during child-led play?

I was so excited when I attended Alistair’s Excellence in Early Years Conference in Glasgow – the first of many in Scotland I hope! However, I have to confess, as a speech and language therapist,  I was slightly nervous that everything I had ever done in my 23 years as an SLT would become one of Alastair’s witty observations. Would I be the Barbara? Would I recognise activities that I have myself done and feel guilty for putting boys off learning for life? Well, feely bag aside, I was really pleased to hear that Alistair and I were on the same page right from the start.

When you get down at their level and you follow a child’s lead, you can really enhance their vocabulary / enrich their learning. As I sum up in my own blog, children don’t have behaviour problems, adults just have expectation problems.

For the past year,  I’ve been working within a nursery to support all children’s language development, as a way of raising attainment. For 2 days a week,  I work alongside early years staff and I’ve been largely following a model that we, as allied health professionals, are obliged to follow. It’s a fairly straight forward model of universal, targeted and specialist input.


When I suggested on a social media forum recently that some children may need targeted group time to support their additional needs, one practitioner commented that she had never in all her years of practice needed to have small group work. And I thought that was a bit sad, because all my kids love my groups and we see real progress with their vocabulary development and general spoken language skills.

But here’s the interesting thing. If the universal strategies were in place at all times, every day, five days a week, targeted input might not be needed. Specialist input will always have a place to reflect the 10% of children who have a speech, language and communication need. But the up-to 50% of children with inadequate language skills in some areas of the UK could easily catch up by the age of 5, if oral language became the focus of all EYFS provisions. Talking. During play. Not only during targeted circle time, or increasing vocabulary by pulling plastic objects out of a feely bag.

Now, the universal strategies are not rocket science. There’s a simple video by ICAN the communication charity that outlines them beautifully. And I guarantee that you’ll look at them and say “yep, yep, yep.  I do them all.” But do you? Do I? All the time? Or only when someone’s watching or the child doesn’t understand so you have to rephrase the instruction.

Here’s an example. I’m sure the EYP won’t mind me sharing it because we are all learning here. A little girl comes into the nursery and finds her name for self-registration. When I say ‘finds her name’ I obviously mean finds the picture next to her name. She’s only just turned 3. Plenty of time for name recognition. Her picture is a kite, which just so happens to be the school emblem so we all have one on our t-shirts. The EYP says “look what you’ve got! It’s the same as mine. I have one on my t-shirt.” All credit to the EYP, she didn’t ask “what is it?” The staff know I dislike boring test questions. But I was curious, so I asked the girl and of course she didn’t know. Because not once during her self-registration had she heard from her mum, or the EYP “it’s a kite. You’ve got a kite. I’ve got a kite too. It flies in the sky when it’s windy.”

I’m not nursery-staff bashing here. But my point is, I’ve done a four hour training session on speech, language and communication development, I’ve spent nearly a year modelling how to comment on a child’s interest to give them the new vocabulary that they need and 15 minutes earlier during our team meeting, we had all agreed that today we all think about naming what children are showing an interest in to increase their vocabulary. Yes, the EYP was interacting with the child, getting down at her level and even following her interest. But the child left that interaction with no more vocabulary than when she came in.

For some children (the chatty sociable ones) you can ask your Bloom’s Taxonomy higher level “how” questions and they’ll use fantastic lanuage to predict, estimate, converse and contradict. But other children don’t have the basic vocabulary to answer a “what’s that” question in the first place. So, it really is the skilled practitioner’s role to sit with the child, follow their lead and scaffold their learning / enhance their play just by observing and commenting. By never assuming that a child has come across a word before. Of course, this also works with the chatty sociable ones too because every child benefits from hearing more and more complex vocabulary. It’s in the moment, differentiated planning. When it happens it’s something beautiful to behold.

And when you follow the child’s lead all the time, you ditch the need to have targeted groups. But as I said before, I’m not completely against small groups in a quiet environment. You can still follow the children’s lead in this environment, after you have weeded out the chatty ones who will always speak first. Children, in my experience, like to have special time when when you hold the space for them to process what they are going to say. I love my little targeted groups and the children ask to come along to them all the time. But the whole aim of the targeted small group times are that the children will then hear that language embedded into every day play in the main room and get a chance to use it with their peers.

So maybe this week, we could all do a wee spot of self-reflection. Or better still, ask a colleague to observe you and feedback their observations. It does no harm to check in on our own communication styles. Do we dominate the talking time, or do we enhance their vocabulary by simply commenting on what we see?

Thank you Catherine for a really interesting read!

Catherine will be at Childcare Expo London in March 2018 and if you are heading there and wish to sign up to any of the seminars, then use her special code: DLR20CH which gives you a 10% discount. If you’d like to sign up to Catherine’s newsletter, you’ll get little nuggets of speech and language therapy wisdom into your inbox every couple of weeks or so. Or join her on Facebook or Twitter

Filed under: Child Initiated Learning, Environment, Talk


  1. I love this. It’s so true & really works. 4 comments, 1 question all the way for us! It’s always a mindset shift at first, but once you’ve shifted there it becomes natural. We are now working on pausing in between our comments to allow the children to have a go at their new language if they feel like it. Another mind shift but we can do it 🙂

  2. A great blog Catherine and yes indeed a lot to reflect on!
    I work alongside my husband and he is fairly ‘new’ to the Early Years (well 4 years in and just qualified), I often observe how his conversations with the children are so organic and meaningful. And natural. I’m not sure if this is his own enthusiasm to connect with the children, a ‘man thing’ or that he isn’t over thinking it (like me). I also observed these same qualities in Alistair when he visited our setting, he taught our children the word ‘DISGUSTING’! Just through sharing a story (Dirty Bertie)…..that didn’t even have that word in it!!!!
    I’m just rambling about my own observations, but what do you think about the different way in which men communicate with children? Do you think there is a difference?
    I find it easier to reflect on others interactions as an observer rather than my own but I will definitely be thinking about my interactions next week (hopefully not over thinking!) “with a wee bit of self-reflection”.
    By the way, the example in practice could have been written about me…….our setting is called The Ark, we have a picture on our tops and we sing a song about The Ark and point to our logos on the T-shirt’s! We have been open 12 years…..2 weeks ago (yes 2 weeks) I actually explained to the children at song time that our Logo was an Ark, what an Ark was and that it was the name of our setting!! They had no idea beforehand 🙈

    • Hi Sally, thanks for the feedback! Re men versus women and conversational styles, what I have noticed (anecdotally) is that men tend to cut out all the “woolly” language that women pad conversation out with, if that makes sense? E.g. ” I wonder if you could do something really helpful for me? We’re going to go out soon and so it would be really helpful if you could go to the toilet first” versus men. “toilet, coat, out” Obviously I am really exaggerating but you get the idea! I find children follow male teacher’s instructions more easily because they cut to the chase. But that’s not evidence-based!!

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