Children communicate from birth, and social interaction is a key purpose of language learning.
Most children are innately social, creative and motivated to exchange ideas, thoughts, questions and feelings … [They use] gestures, movement, visual and non verbal cues, sounds, language and assisted communication to engage and develop relationships…
- VEYLDF (2016)
As children develop, they use verbal and nonverbal communication for a range of purposes including showing, sharing, commenting, questioning, requesting (and more).
Through opportunities to observe and participate in social situations, children learn how conversation (and social interaction) works. These important social rules and skills enable children to communicate with others in more sophisticated ways.
Thus, the development of conversation and social skills is dependent upon opportunities for children to interact with peers and adults, as part of supportive and enriching experiences.
The importance of conversation and social skills
Children use nonverbal (including eye gaze, gestures) and verbal communication (including speech, vocabulary, and grammar) to engage in conversation and social interaction:
Children’s wellbeing, identity, sense of agency and capacity to make friends is connected to the development of communication skills, and strongly linked to their capacity to express feelings and thoughts, and to be understood.
- VEYLDF (2016)
By planning experiences with a focus on conversation and social skills, educators can promote positive interaction and communication. This can help children to successfully communicate their wants and needs, and nurture meaningful relationships with peers.
Key developmental milestones
The following ages and stages are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but does not limit the expectations for every child (see
VEYLDF Practice Principle: High expectations for every child). It is always important to understand children’s development as a continuum of growth, irrespective of their age.
Early communicators (birth - 18 months)
- communicate mainly with gestures, vocalisations, and facial expressions
- from 8 months, start to use gestures/vocalisations/eye gaze for:
- communicative games (e.g. peek-a-boo)
- calling to get attention
Early language users (12 - 36 months)
From 12 months, start to use words as well as nonverbal communication for:
- expressing feelings, like ‘look! doggie!’
- requesting, like ‘Up!’ or ‘bottle’ (with gestures)
- refusing, like ’no apple!’
- commenting, like ‘ball!’ or ‘big ball!’
From 18 months:
- requesting information, like ‘what this?’
- answering questions, like Educator: ‘Do you like the sand?’ Child: (nods) ‘Yeah!’
From 24 months:
- start to use “please”
- begin to stay on one topic of conversation
- take multiple turns in a conversation
- request repetition if they do not understand
Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)
- take longer turns in conversation
- begin to understand and use “politeness”, when expected by adults
- begin to communicate their wants and needs more clearly (may start to ask for permission)
- may use language for jokes or teasing
- will engage in longer conversations (4-5 turns)
From 42 months, begin to use language to:
- report on past events
- express empathy
- keep interactions going
Key social skills
Children’s learning of social skills can be powerful additions in their communicative toolkit. When children can communicate their wants and needs, it facilitates their ability to get along with others. Thus, social skills are closely linked to children’s language development. They also have links to children’s wellbeing, identity, and emotional development (see VEYLDF, 2016).
Some key social skills that children develop include:
Greetings and farewells
- starts with eye contact, smiling, and eventually a waving gesture
- phrases like: ‘Hello’, ‘Hi’, ‘How are you?’ ‘I am well, thank you’ and ‘Bye’, ‘Goodbye’, ‘See you tomorrow!’, ‘Have a nice weekend!’
- important for maintaining relationship and starting/ending interactions productively.
- begins with eye contact, pointing, vocalisation, and then single words
- provides a starting point for joint attention, with phrases like: ‘Look at the …’ ‘I like …’ ‘What a nice …’
- develops into more sophisticated comments like ‘I have a doll like this at my house’, ‘The hat you chose today is very bright!’
- provides opportunities to start and maintain conversations
- can be used to stay on a conversation topic, or change topics
- children share their interests; and show interest in what others are doing/saying.
- begins with eye contact, grabbing/pointing/”up” gestures, vocalisations, and then single words
- requests can be for food/drink, ‘more’, ‘again’, wanting a turn
- develops into requesting help, and asking for permission
- eventually involves using ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when these are reinforced.
- knowing when and how to join groups/games/conversations
- initially using eye contact, gestures, vocalisations, and single words to join in play
- eventually using requests like: ‘Can I play?’; or general openers like ‘What are you doing?’
- sharing toys, space, turns etc.
- from a developmental perspective, sharing is not expected to be easy for young children
- providing modelling and reminders of how to share is important
- allowing children the freedom to play independently (and not having to share) is also important sometimes
- eventually, sharing is an important social skill linked to the emotional competencies like empathy and taking others’ perspectives.
- managing disagreements and coming to solutions>
- this involves taking the perspective of another child, which is developmentally challenging, and is typically easier later in childhood<
- mostly scaffolded by adults during early childhood
- relates to notions of agency, identity, and how we understand the view of others (empathy)
- in older children, is an important social skill, so that children learn to reach compromises independently.
- develops later in early childhood, involving children providing comments which have a positive impact on others
- is modelled and facilitated by educators
- is linked to empathy and socio-emotional awareness.
The art of conversation
Every conversation has a topic. A go-to conversational topic for adults is the weather! For children, topics usually come from their experiences of the everyday world around them (e.g. people, food, drink, toys, pets, games, sand, transport, animals, paint etc.).
It is important to expose children of all ages to more abstract topics (e.g. emotions, sustainability, culture). However, we only start to expect children to contribute ideas and actively engage in conversations about more abstract topics when children are older (~3 or 4 years old).
Educators can use their observations of children’s interests and communication to help choose particular conversational topics. These conversations can also be linked to learning themes (e.g. relationships, the environment, animals, family etc).
Conversations are similar to a tennis game — one speaker has a turn, then the other speaker has a turn. So, conversations are simply turns going back-and-forth between speakers, usually staying on a particular topic.
Like in tennis, some turns might be longer than others, like when a speaker talks about something they know for a number of sentences in a row. In a good conversation, all speakers do a similar amount of speaking and listening.
The turns children make are initially very short (a gesture, eye gaze, vocalisation, or a single word). These turns develop into phrases, sentences, and longer stretches of language.
Playing in ways that encourages back-and-forth turn-taking with children (using a physical or vocal game) is a great way to get ready for conversational turn-taking.
Listening and empathy
Being a good conversationalist is as much about listening, as it is about speaking. Listening is also closely linked to the development of empathy, as we need to listen to others to understand their perspectives.
We can scaffold children’s interest and concentration on other people’s ideas/conversational turns by:
- by modelling good listening, ourselves
- reminding children of what others’ have said, and what their ideas were
- playing listening/memory games
- praising children when they demonstrate good listening and empathy.
Communication is not just about the words we use. Our nonverbal language can often say a lot more than our actual choice of words! Below are some important types of nonverbal communication.
Prosody (loudness, pitch, and speed that we speak)
- different volumes and speaking rates are appropriate depending on the context
- for example outside versus inside; naptime versus storytime versus playtime.
Facial expressions and eye contact
- shows emotions and interests
- can be used to interpret people’s frame of mind
- important for demonstrating you are listening and interested.
Body language and gestures
- gestures (including showing and requesting) communicate much of children’s intentions
- the way we face our bodies towards others, or use our arms and hands during conversation can also communicate our thinking.
Topic maintenance is the ability for children to stay on a particular topic for several turns in a conversation. This develops gradually in early childhood, with the number of turns on a given topic typically increasing with age (Paul, Norbury, Gosse, 2017):
- up to 24 months: usually 1-2 turns
- 24-42 months: approximately 2-3 turns
- 42 months onwards: approximately 4-5 turns.
Educators can support children’s topic maintenance by scaffolding conversations on particular topics (e.g. ‘Wow, look at the …’, ‘What was your favourite part, [child’s name]?’, ‘What do you think about this?’
Theory to Practice
When interacting with others, there are certain social and conversational rules and conventions specific to certain cultures. These rules are known as pragmatics, and are thought of as the “use” component of oral language (Bloom & Lahey, 1978).
According to Halliday (1975), children are motivated to develop language because of the different functions it serves for them (i.e., learning language is learning how to make meaning). He identified seven functions of language that help children to meet their physical, emotional and social needs in the early years. The functions enable children to use language to meet their physical needs, regulate other’s behaviour, express feelings, and interact with others. As children get older the language functions become more abstract and enable interaction within the child’s environment.
Studies show that children are born ready to make meaning out of a wide range of sounds, but their language development requires conversations with more-knowledgeable speakers who listen and model appropriate language.
Children do not learn language by imitation. They learn to talk by talking to people who talk to them; people who make efforts to understand what they are trying to say.- Raban, (2014, p.1)
According to the sociocultural theories of language development (Vygotsky, Bruner), children learn through interactions with more knowledgeable peers. Conversation and social skills are best supported through meaningful interactions with peers and adults.
Children learn with their peers, sharing their feelings and thoughts about learning with others. They begin to understand that listening to the responses of others can help them understand and make new meaning of experiences.
- VEYLDF 2016
When you choose conversation and social skills as a learning focus, you provide children with opportunities to develop meaningful relationships with their peers, educators, and families.
Adults’ positive engagements with children promote emotional security, children’s sense of belonging, cultural and conceptual understandings and language and communication. Positive, respectful engagement also teaches children how to form strong bonds and friendships with others.
- VEYLDF 2016
The ability for children to interact with others successfully—by managing their emotions and behaviours—links to progress in a range of developmental areas in early childhood(Mashburn et al., 2008). Success with social skills is strongly linked to the emergence of self-identity, sense of wellbeing, as well as social/academic progress in early primary school (e.g. Webster-Stratton & Reid, 2004).
Children’s development of conversation and social skills is best supported when engaged in meaningful, sustained, and rich language experiences. Studies show that children’s social skills are best supported when educators are cued into children’s emotional/social needs (Mashburn et al., 2008)
Links to VEYLDF
Outcome 1: identity
Children feel safe, secure and supported
- build secure attachment with one and then more familiar educators
- establish and maintain respectful, trusting relationships with other children and educators
- openly express their feelings and ideas in their interactions with others
- respond to ideas and suggestions from others
- initiate interactions and conversations with trusted educators
- confidently explore and engage with social and physical environments through relationships and play.
Children develop their emerging autonomy, inter-dependence, resilience and sense of agency
- increasingly cooperate and work collaboratively with others
- begin to initiate negotiating and sharing behaviours.
Children learn to interact in relation to others with care, empathy and respect
- show interest in other children and being part of a group
- express a wide range of emotions, thoughts and views constructively
- empathise with and express concern for others
- reflect on their actions and consider consequences for others.
Outcome 2: community
Children develop a sense of belonging to groups and communities and an understanding of the reciprocal rights and responsibilities necessary for active civic participation
- cooperate with others and negotiate roles and relationships in play episodes and group experiences
- take action to assist other children to participate in social groups
- build on their own social experiences to explore other ways of being
- participate in reciprocal relationships
- gradually learn to ‘read’ the behaviours of others and respond appropriately
- are playful and respond positively to others, reaching out for company and friendship
- contribute to democratic decision-making about matters that affect them.
Outcome 3: wellbeing
Children become strong in their social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing
- remain accessible to others at times of distress, confusion and frustration
- share humour, happiness and satisfaction
- increasingly cooperate and work collaboratively with others
- show an increasing capacity to understand, self-regulate and manage their emotions in ways that reflect the feelings and needs of others.
Outcome 4: learning
Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, place, technologies and natural and processed materials
- engage in learning relationships
- experience the benefits and pleasures of shared learning exploration.
Outcome 5: communication
Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes
- interact with others, express ideas and feelings and understand and respect the perspectives of others
- explore ideas and concepts, clarify and challenge thinking, negotiate and share new understandings
- express ideas and feelings and understand and respect the perspectives of others.
Modelling conversation and social skills
- use every interaction with children as an opportunity to demonstrate positive conversation and social skills
- encouraging turn taking in everyday activities through nonverbal turn-taking opportunities games (e.g. rolling ball back and forth, each having a turn during a construction or cooking experience)
- turn taking should involve multiple back-and-forth exchanges
- remember that children learn how to communicate by observing adults’ and older peers
- show how conversational topics can be maintained, and what good listening/empathy looks like
Setting up opportunities for social interaction
- set up experiences and spaces that encourage interaction between small groups of children and with adults
- see the following teaching practices for ideas: play, sociodramatic play, fine arts, performing arts, as well as storytelling, reading/writing with children, and language in everyday situations
- use every experience and daily routine as an opportunity to develop conversation and social skills
- use engaging materials that allow for individual and shared play
- play games with children that involve turn-taking, sharing, and team work
Experience plans and videos
For age groups (birth - 12 months)
Early language users (12-36 months)
Language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)
Bruner, J. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Halliday, M. A. (1975). Learning How to Mean. London: Edward Arnold.
Mashburn, A. J., Pianta, R. C., Hamre, B. K., Downer, J. T., Barbarin, O. A., Bryant, D., … Howes, C. (2008).
Measures of classroom quality in prekindergarten and children’s development of academic, language, and social skills. Child Development, 79(3), 732–749.
Paul, R., Norbury, C., Gosse, C. (2017) Language disorders from infancy through adolescence: Listening, speaking, reading, writing, and communicating (5th Ed.). Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby.
Raban, B. (2014).
Talk to think, learn and teach (pdf - 1.14mb). Journal of Reading Recovery, Spring 2014, 1-11.
Victorian State Government Department of Education and Training (2016) Victorian early years learning and development framework (VEYLDF).Retrieved 3 March 2018.
Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2016)
Illustrative Maps from the VEYLDF to the Victorian Curriculum F–10. Retrieved 3 March 2018.
Webster-Stratton, C., & Reid, M. J. (2004). Strengthening social and emotional competence in young children-The foundation for early school readiness and success: Incredible Years classroom social skills and problem-solving curriculum. Infants & Young Children, 17(2), 96–113.