Learning to communicate starts day one
The development of strong communication skills is extremely important to a child’s success in school, relationships, and the workforce—and that development begins day one, before the child has begun using words. With the support of at least one responsive, nurturing caregiver, infant cries and smiles progress to preschooler and older children’s conversations and stories. The ability to hear speech sounds in at least one ear is critical to developing speech and language skills, so hearing health should be monitored in Well-Child visits from birth to teen years.
"Communication" occurs when our messages are effectively conveyed to our audience. Communicating with words involves the development of both language and speech—two different skills!
Language is the content of what we communicate, and uses a set of rules. Understanding and speaking a language involve:
- Learning words, and what they mean
- Learning how to combine words into sentences
- Learning how to create different types of sentences
- Learning what words and sentences are most appropriate to fit a situation and our intention
Speech is the way we communicate verbally. Speech is a motor (physical) process that consists of:
- Articulation - How speech sounds are made
- Speech Intelligibility - How easily a child is understood when speaking
- Voice - Use of the vocal folds and breathing to produce sound
- Fluency - The rhythm of speech
Communication Milestones in the First Five Years
We can do a better job of keeping track of children’s development when we understand the “milestones”—or behaviors and skills most children should show at specific ages. However, children do learn and develop at different speeds and in different ways, so to most effectively support their learning, we must go beyond the general milestones and respond to each child where he or she is on the developmental path.
A caregiver’s responsiveness is extremely important to supporting even the youngest child’s development of communication skills—even when the communication consists of gestures or expressions rather than words or sounds. It’s important to talk to the child as well as pause and listen to her—or simply wait for her to process what’s been said. By taking turns and pausing, the caregiver gives the child the opportunity to learn to listen and think about words and their meaning. Click here for more useful tips on supporting the development of communication skills.
- Communication begins day one without the use of words, speech or intentions, such as when a baby burps or frowns, and the adult caregiver responds.
- By the second month, the baby begins to make a variety of non-speech sounds, such as growls, trills and babbling, often or herself.
- Within the first few months, the baby is alert to sound and begins to look for the source of sound, turning in the direction of the speaker.
- Within four to six months, the baby will use a variety of speech sounds—some from the language of her home, and some not familiar to that native language.
- By seven months, the baby begins to communicate with definite intentions—either silently or using speech sounds—such as pointing and looking back and forth between an object or action and her adult caregiver. When the adult responds, the baby learns that what she is interested in matters, that adults will respond and converse with her, and that actions and things have names. Sometimes scientists call these early interactions “serve and return” exchanges.
Toddlers are beginning to learn language, which may involve:
- Using many different speech sounds during the second year, but often saying words differently than adults do.
- Using “jargon”—which sounds like a language and can be intentional, but is not understandable to adults.
- Learning words for actions, things, and feelings, and learns to combine words.
- Beginning to use early grammar (such as adding “–ing” to action words, using “me/my/mine,” and using plurals).
- More advanced listening: the child pays attention to at least some of the words spoken to her, as well as language that isn’t directed to her.
- Learning to identify a variety of environmental sounds (phones ringing, horns honking, people walking).
A three-year-old's speech is clearer; listeners should be able to understand much of what the child says, even though her speech sounds are still not exactly like those of adults. Other notable developments may include:
- Using longer word combinations, leading to sentences, and then learning different types of sentences.
- Talking about things that are not present—that have happened in the past or will happen in the future.
By the age of four, children are speaking more clearly and using more grammar. They may also begin using language to learn about the world, involving:
- Telling stories, having conversations with friends and adults, and using imagination to make up outcomes in play and in stories. (Storytelling, listening to others tell and read stories to them, and story re-telling are highly worthwhile activities for later development of literacy skills.)
- Sometimes creating new words, referred to as “lexical innovations,” which tell us the child knows the rules of language and is trying to apply them. (For example, this week, a three-year-old asked me, “You sappy?” trying to find out if I was happy or sad!)
The speech and language skills of five year olds are well enough developed that we refer to pre-K and kindergarten children as "mini-adults." Notable developments may include:
- Stories no longer are told in heaps, or omit key information as if the listener of course knows what the child is talking about.
- Stories now have real plots, and follow a traditional sequence of beginning, middle and end.
- Children who begin attending school learn the language of this new environment, which is more polite, formal and impersonal than the language of home.
- Rhyming and other critical language-based literacy skills are now developing.
Becoming an effective communicator is a lifelong skill, and helps a child succeed in all aspects of life. Ensuring every child has a trusting relationship with a responsive adult who will listen to, talk to and encourage the child is key to giving him or her a strong start on the communication journey.
Here are some additional tips on what caregivers can do to help children develop strong communication skills from day one:
- Respond to the child—often, positively, physically and verbally.
- Children must interact with a live person to learn language. They do not learn language from a TV or computer screen or device.
- Read, Read, Read to the child—at their level, and from books, magazines or posters that interest the child.
- Talk, Talk, Talk to the child—about what the child is doing and is interested in, and about what you are doing.
- Use simple, clear language when talking to young children.
- Use new words. Try to offer 2 or 3 alternate words for things or ideas (i.e., "big," "huge," "large" and even "enormous"). This helps children learn that language is flexible and that synonyms and opposites exist. It extends their understanding of language.
- Be interesting. Use gestures, your face and your voice to grab the child’s interest and add emphasis. This helps to get and keep the child’s attention and helps convey the meaning and intention of your words.
- Pause and wait. Give the child a chance to talk and give yourself a chance to watch the child’s reactions and observe the situation
- Keep the conversation going. Observe, then wait and watch, then comment or ask open questions, then wait, pause and watch again, then talk some more. Try to expand on what the child says.
- Add just a bit more than the child says. Using a variety of words helps the child learn new words and understand there is more than one way to say something, and keeps it interesting.
Adult: Wow! Did you hear that big truck? That tank truck made a huge noise. (pause)
Child: Truck gone.
Adult: We saw the big tank truck. Now it’s gone. It drove away. (pause)
Child: More truck?
Adult: Yes, we can look for more trucks. Let’s watch the road.
- Pair talking with pictures, books, computer images, gestures, etc.
- Plan and pre-teach. Try to use new words, especially for new situations or activities that the child will experience or has recently experienced. Talk ahead of time and just after a new situation.
- Provide learning opportunities. Children need lots and lots of chances to learn words. Some children can pick new things up very quickly some of the time, but to guarantee success for all children more of the time, give then plenty of chances to learn the words.
If you have questions or concerns about a child's development, contact your local Children's Integrated Services Coordinator through the Department of Children & Families.
Speech and language resources for parents, providers and other professionals:
by Nancy Baker, PhD, Speech Language Pathologist and Early Childhood Special Educator