Children communicate using verbal and nonverbal language from birth.
Making meaning (comprehension) and expressing ideas are the core roles that children play when interacting with others. As children grow they can understand and express themselves in more advanced ways. Some important parts of early communication are eye gaze, gesture, and the comprehension of increasingly advanced language.
Key developmental milestones for early communicators
Birth - 18 months
Early communicators use eye gaze, gesture and vocalisations to express their wants and needs. Photo: Pixabay
Birth – 6 months
Crying, smiling, vocal sounds
6 – 12 months
Responding to adults and communicating intentions through eye gaze, gestures, vocalisations, and joint attention. Using verbal and nonverbal communication to:
- call and greet
- repeat and respond
8 – 12 months
- social greetings (wave hello or bye)
- social games (peek-a-boo)
Eye gaze and gesture
We can learn a lot about what children are interested in by following their eye gaze. Children turn their attention towards what intrigues and excites them.
We can follow children’s eye gaze to figure out what they are interested in. This is crucial for engaging children in responsive interactions.
Nearly all children will gesture. Before words, gesture is a powerful tool for early communicators. Gestures are often used with vocalisations and eye gaze. They express a child’s desire to show, request, or interact.
Common types of gestures are:
- picking up objects and giving to you
- showing objects
- waving to greet people
- pointing to objects
- nodding head to indicate yes.
Pointing is an example of a showing gesture. Requesting is another main type of gesture.
Other types of nonverbal communication include body language and facial expressions.
When interacting with children, we can:
- model using eye gaze, gesture and other nonverbal communication
- respond to children’s nonverbal communication attempts
- provide language to describe what the child might be communicating.
When educators want to make sure that their language experiences are effective, they should look out for signs of joint attention.
Joint attention is where a child is focussing on an event or object at the same time as another child or adult. During joint attention children and adults shift their gaze from the shared object/event and each other. Joint attention is the perfect time for language learning.
Signs of joint attention include when children:
- face towards a social partner
- provide eye contact
- take turns and imitate their social partner
- shift their gaze back and forth (between a partner and the event/object of interest)
- engage in pointing, bringing, showing gestures
- share emotional engagement with a social partner.
As moments of joint attention can be quite brief, we should look out for these signs and use them as opportunities for learning. It is important to foster and maintain joint attention. When children are participating in joint attention, it is the perfect time for language learning.
Eye gaze, smiling/laughing at the same time, and pointing are good signs of joint attention. To help children participate in joint attention:
- know what interests the child
- follow their eye gaze and gestures
- show interest in what they are focussing on
- label what it is they are looking or pointing at
- respond to their communication attempts
- engage them in interactions
- play social games to share attention together.
Educators should use lots of language to describe, comment, ask questions, and respond to children, whenever they show signs of joint attention.
Key developmental milestones
The following ages and stages are a guide that reflects broad developmental norms, but doesn’t limit the expectations of 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 Language Users (12 - 36 months)
As children’s comprehension develops, so does their engagement with their world. Children’s receptive vocabulary is always larger than their expressive vocabulary. This means that children will understand lots of adults’ words but might not yet be able to use these words themselves to label and describe things.
- 24mo e.g. "in" and "on"
- 36mo e.g. "under"
Growing ability to follow instructions
1–2 years of age
- Can follow simple 1 step instructions (e.g. “Give the cup to mum”).
2–3 years of age
- Can follow 2 part commands (e.g. “Go to your room and get your jacket”).
3-4 years of age
- Can follow 3 part instructions (e.g. “Point to the cat, dog and monkey”).
2 years onwards
- Understanding here and now questions:
- What’s this?
- What’s ...... doing?
- Is that a .....? (yes or no)
Language and emergent literacy learners
(30 - 60 months)
It is amazing how quickly language and emergent literacy learners start to understand complex language.
- 40mo e.g. next to
- 48mo e.g. behind, in front of, above; below; bottom
- 60mo e.g. before and after
- 5 years+ e.g. alongside; without; via
3 years onwards
Understanding questions requiring description & some interpretation
- What is happening in the picture?
- Where’s the .....?
- What is a ....... for?
4 – 5 years
- Understanding questions requiring evaluation, interpretation & prediction of situations:
- What do you think will happen next?
- How do you think s/he feels?
- What is not furniture/animal etc in this picture?
- What is a .....? (definition/description)
Understanding questions that reflect on past, present & future, or require explanations.
- What will happen if s/he doesn’t ....?
- Why do you think s/he did that?
- How can s/he do that?
- When do we ....?
Making meaning and expressing ideas
Children often understand much more language than they are saying themselves. Educators and parents play key roles in developing children’s oral language development. We foster children’s ability to make meaning and express their ideas by creating rich language experiences. This means engaging in:
Discussions using complex language, describing
- objects (e.g. the tallest tree)
- actions (e.g. when we have finished building the castle…)
- processes (e.g. wash your hands just before you eat)
- thoughts and feelings (e.g. you wanted to start playing)
- explanations (e.g. we have to water the plant because it gets thirsty)
- see grammar
Opportunities to discuss stories and topics in detail (e.g. exploring where water comes from, and where it goes, i.e. the water cycle).
Theory to practice
can foster strong language skills by ensuring that children are exposed to lots of rich language. We need to create these opportunities for rich language and meaningful interaction:
Essential formative experiences come from transactions that parents and other caring individuals have and can provide children …
They do not depend on money or special toys or equipment - but, they do involve parents’ and caregivers’ time, skill, and active commitment. (Sparling, Ramey, & Ramey, 2007, p. 105).
When children have opportunities to interact meaningfully with adults, they develop their ability to make meaning from these interactions, and express their ideas in more mature ways.
Children’s understanding of language starts with the “here and now” (concrete):
- e.g. “what is that?” “it is a duck”.
Later children start to understand more abstract concepts:
- e.g. “how do you think he feels?”
and then later concepts requiring interpretation or analysis:
- “why do ducks kick their legs underwater?” (Blank, Rose & Berlin, 1978).
Educators can deliberately use language to help scaffold children’s understanding depending on their level of language development.
Meaningful and rich language experiences have an impact on children’s long term development.
In research like the Abecedarian studies, children who had received high quality early childhood education - with a focus on language development - had significant improvements in their educational achievement and job outcomes (Campbell et al., 2008).
Links to VEYLDF
Use these teaching practices to develop early language users’ ability to make meaning (understand) and express their ideas:
Use these teaching practices to foster early meaning making and expressing ideas, including:
- eye gaze
- joint attention
For early communicators (birth - 18 months) early language users (12 - 36 months) and language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)
See the following teaching practices:
For early language users (12 - 36 months) and language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)
- Look at the other learning foci for more examples of oral language outcomes
- Check that children are understanding what you are saying, by using targeted questions
e.g. ‘Is that the long one, or short one?’; ‘Which one is the circle?’
Links to experience plans and videos
For early communicators (birth - 18 months) and early language users ( 12 -36 months) and language and emergent literacy learners (30 - 60 months)
For early language users (12 - 36 months)
For language and emergent literacy learners(30 - 60 months)
Links to learning foci and teaching practices
Blank, M., Rose, S. A., & Berlin, L. J. (1978). The language of learning: The preschool years. Grune & Stratton.
Bloom, L., & Lahey, M. (1978). Language development and language disorders. New York, NY, US: John Wiley & Sons.
Campbell, F. A., Wasik, B., Pungello, E., Burchinal, M., Barbarin, O., Kainz, K., … Ramey, C. (2008).
Young adult outcomes of the Abecedarian and CARE early childhood educational interventions.
Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(4), 452–466.
Sparling, J., Ramey, C. T., & Ramey, S. L. (2007). The Abecedarian experience. In M. E. Young & L.
Richardson (Ed.) Early child development from measurement to action (pp. 103-127).
Washington, DC: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.