Communicating with children

by Wendy Lee

It sounds so obvious, though something that I’m increasingly feeling is worth a mention how we communicate with children. While many of us are very comfortable talking with children who have lots of language, some of us might struggle with getting the best out of younger children, or those with language difficulties whose language is in the earlier stages of development.

To ensure success, these interactions in particular demand a shift in balance towards the child. We need to consider our own levels of language as there’s often an adjustment that is needed, a more active and measured approach to be taken, some more thinking to be done. This can be challenging in the fast paced, technologically driven world in which we live, though nonetheless crucial for our children’s development.

There are lots of good reasons to be good at communicating with young children. Adults have a vital role to play in the development of children’s language, and warm, responsive interactions with children are key to this. Children benefit, not only in terms of their language development, but in their social interaction, emotional resilience and of course in their learning.

Language development is extremely complex, though if we are genuinely interested in what children have to say, can adjust our own language, and take the time to talk, listen and be responsive, we won’t go too far wrong. The research around early childhood and language development reflects this (though far more eloquently and with actual evidence!)

Language learning is obviously a highly interactive process, but the bottom line from all the research so far is that talking to children in a way that incorporates what they are interested in and adjusting the complexity of what we talk about as a function of the child’s interest and developmental level, are centrally involved in promoting successful language development. [1]

The research on language development emphasises the importance of the quantity and particularly the quality of language at home as a key predictor of academic achievement. [2] As children get older, the ways in which we talk with them continue to influence their language development and learning. In research that looked at what constitutes a communication supportive classroom for example, a significant element focused on the way in which adults communicate with children; how they facilitate language learning interactions with and between children. [3]

For example, aspects such as pace and pausing were key; adults using a slower pace, pausing expectantly and frequently during interactions, ensuring children had time to process incoming information, formulate responses, understand turn taking and actively participate in conversations. Strategies such as confirming we have understood children’s communicative intentions, commenting on activities (as opposed to always questioning) and extending with additional syntactic or semantic information are important to model and extend children’s language. Adults can also recast children’s utterances, giving a clear model of the right grammatical structure, label or morphology. Labelling of unfamiliar objects, actions or abstract language, such as feelings can help support vocabulary learning. Using open questions, such as why… or how… helps to extend children’s thinking and encourage discussion. The research highlighted a number of language learning interactions such as these and developed a useful observation tool to help professionals determine which strategies they were actively using and which needed more attention. [4]

Oracy is key for all children; however, many children are struggling to acquire language, so much so that it impacts on social and emotional development and on learning. The UK’s Millennium Cohort Study found that children from the most socio-economically disadvantaged groups are twice as likely to experience language delay. [5] They highlighted in their research that language delay is as common as childhood obesity, affecting as many as 1 in 5 children, concluding that support for the development of oral language skills needs to be one of the top priorities of child education and health sectors, and should be integrated into the curriculum from preschool through to secondary school. [6]

When children are struggling in this way, we need to consider adjustments of our own language levels. We might use a whole range of strategies to support and encourage Oracy skills, though we need to ensure these are appropriate and accessible to the children we are communicating with. It sounds simple, though it is this adjustment that can be the most challenging for practitioners.

Here are some top tips for communicating with children (download a free poster HERE)

  • Pacing and pausing – shows children we’re listening; models turn taking; allows processing time; supports active participation.
  • Commenting – allows children to take the conversation in the direction of their thinking and ensures we’re not asking questions they already know the answer to.
  • Asking open questions – supports thinking, especially higher order questions like why and how.
  • Responding to what the children say – it is important to acknowledge what they have said and build on their ideas. Essential for language learning and emotional development.
  • Adding and extending the children’s language – shows we’re listening; provides clear models of language; builds from their starting point; important for language development.
  • Making it meaningful – relating new words or ideas to the children’s own lives helps to contextualise new ideas and supports retention.
  • Following the child’s lead – supports development of language, conversation and learning.
  • Considering levels of language – adapting our language ensures children can access, process and respond.

For children who are struggling, it is important that adults:

  • Know children’s language levels and communicate with them responsively, pitching language at the appropriate level and following their lead.
  • Are aware of language loads – for example:
    • decontextualised language can be more challenging than concrete, here and now language;
    • long sentences can be difficult to process;
    • grammatically complex sentences are more difficult to understand;
    • asking questions multiple times or rephrasing can be challenging.
  • Find ways to check children’s understanding, recognise whether they do or don’t understand and know how to seek clarification if needed.
  • Know how to simplify language, keeping it concrete and using lots of visual support if needed.
  • Know how to provide structures for oral sentence and narrative building to help those children with expressive language needs.
  • Provide facilitated practice of conversations that can build confidence with interaction.
  • Understand that children can struggle with any or all aspects of language learning, and may need these taught explicitly.

Being able to adjust our language is important to ensure all children are included. Without this adjustment, language can be the barrier, rather than the path to learning. For this to happen, it is useful to understand the components of language and what typical development of language looks like, so that we can use appropriate language learning strategies and adjust our speech accordingly.


[1] Lieven, E., Theakston, A., and Rowland, C.

[2] Hart & Risley, 1995; also Roy, Chiatt & Dodd, 2014



[5] Millennium Cohort Study: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

[6] Law, J., Mensah, F., Westrupp, E., & Reilly, S. (2015) Social disadvantage and early language delay, Centre of Research Excellence in Child Language, Policy Brief 1. Available at:

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