Read Why you must talk to infants and toddlers, which discusses the language experiences that infants and toddlers need, how language develops, and how you might support infants’ and toddlers’ language learning.
Why you must talk to infants and toddlers
The earliest years are a sensitive time for the development of language learning. Infants are motivated to communicate from birth, learning about communication by looking at and listening to their caregivers. They watch faces and communicate by making noises and copying what others do: for example, watch what an infant does when you stick out your tongue at them! Infants will begin to imitate their caregivers and to engage in turn-taking which mimics natural conversation. In time, infants and toddlers begin to understand what is being said to them and learn how to say words and sentences clearly themselves.
While language learning will continue throughout life, infant experiences are the foundation. Therefore, it is very important that infants’ and toddlers’ experiences in this period provide them with sufficient language exposure to nourish their brain. Experiences of language-rich interaction has been described as ‘language nutrition’ for infants and toddlers.
Language is incredibly important in enabling both social and cognitive development. Developing language concepts helps build infants’ and toddlers’ brains and gives them the means to think and develop ideas and express themselves. It provides a way to communicate as well as to conceptualise and access knowledge, and is a tool for thinking, planning and problem-solving. It enables children to understand social situations and emotions as well as negotiate social difficulties. Without sufficient oral language development, children find it difficult to achieve important interpersonal and academic goals. In addition, children with impaired language development are more at risk of mental health issues and antisocial behaviour in adolescence. This means that the development of infants’ and toddlers’ language skills has many, far-reaching implications for their later learning.
What language experiences ‘feed’ infants’ and toddlers’ language development?
Both the quantity and quality of language that children experience in the first three years of life has important implications for their language development. Research shows that infants and toddlers who are spoken to more often have larger vocabularies and better speech development at age three than children who are spoken to less often. They have better cognitive development, social skills, literacy achievement and academic skills, and are better prepared for starting and succeeding at school. Research also shows that communication skill is clearly related to literacy development. Language and speech development at age three were also found to predict performance on vocabulary, language development and reading comprehension at age nine and ten years. Children with larger vocabularies find it easier to learn and comprehend new words later on.
Multiple studies have shown that the quantity of language spoken to the child predicts their later vocabulary. Infants and toddlers develop their vocabulary, sentence length, speech patterns and even the duration of their conversations based on what they have heard from their parents and caregivers. Therefore, children with more exposure to a greater variety of language are at an advantage in language learning.
However, quality is also important. Quality language interactions involve responsiveness to the infant or toddler. One feature of quality interactions is ‘serve and return’ like a tennis match. Here the infant’s or toddler’s attempt to communicate is recognised as communication by an adult, and the adult responds, developing an exchange with the child. This interaction pattern is important for building and strengthening networks in the brain. It affirms the infant or toddler’s experiences and enables new abilities to be nurtured and strengthened.
Research shows that meaningful exchanges of communication (when a caregiver’s response to an infant is appropriate and co-ordinated with the infant or toddler’s communication) are most beneficial for language development. This means that being exposed to television or adult conversations in which they do not take part does not help children’s language development. Finally, quality communication combines several modalities, for example, pointing to or touching objects while talking about them. This makes acquiring vocabulary easier for infants and toddlers.
Stimulating language development is really very simple – regularly talking, singing and reading books to infants and toddlers helps them to learn to listen, and gives them an opportunity to respond and be listened to. Engaging with infants and toddlers, and talking about what they are looking at and interested in, encourages and supports their innate drive to communicate.
How does communication develop?
A six-month-old infant has lots of communicative skills. She will be able to make sounds to herself as well as to gain the attention of others and to respond when someone is talking to her. She will watch your face when you talk to her and get excited, perhaps vocalising, kicking her feet or waving her arms, when she hears voices. She will smile and laugh when other people smile and laugh.
A one-year-old infant will be able to make talking noises, stringing sounds together, and he will take conversational turns, babbling for his turn in conversation. He can point or look at you to get your attention. He might be saying his first words and perhaps use gestures to communicate. He will certainly understand simple words, especially when accompanied by gestures, and will know the names of familiar objects and people.
An 18-month-old toddler can say about 20 words, although she might use them in a baby way, so that only familiar adults understand them. She will point to things when you ask her to, and understand a lot of familiar words and short phrases.
A two-year old toddler will understand between 200 and 500 words, and use around 50 himself. He will start to put short sentences of two or three words together, and ask simple questions such as ‘what’s that?’. He will enjoy pretend play and talk to himself as he plays.
Some children can have specific developmental difficulties. These can be related to making speech sounds correctly, fluency (hesitations and stammering), understanding language, or speaking and using language socially. Often such difficulties are due to delayed development, but some can be related to long-term speech, language or communication needs which require additional support and strategies.
How to support language development in the early years
- Talk! Every moment is a potential talking moment. Tell infants and toddlers what you are doing, what you see, what you notice about them or what they are doing, where you are going. ‘Yes, I see the water too! What a big splash!’ or ‘I love that blue truck you are playing with. It is driving up and down’.
- Talk through routines such as mealtimes and nappy changing. Describe sensations and textures: for example, ‘This yoghurt is smooth’ and ‘This banana is sweet’.
- Sing songs and rhymes, especially those with actions or lots of repetition. Rhythm and repetitive language make language learning easier for infants and toddlers.
- Read books everyday, sharing them together and talk about the pictures and characters. Relate books to everyday experience (for example, by seeing a firetruck on the road and linking it back to a story or song, or, if there is a dog in a book, relate it to the dog you know they have at home). Books are an important source of new knowledge and vocabulary and of language that is unlike everyday conversation. Sit an infant or toddler on your lap and cuddle as you read, as reading together also helps build strong bonds. It is never too early to begin reading and babies benefit from sharing books from birth.
Specific strategies for supporting infants’ language development
- Look into infants’ eyes, hold their hands and speak to them in a gentle voice.
- Use actions when you can, for example, waving when you say ‘bye bye’ and saying ‘up’ as you hold your hands out to an infant to lift them.
- Be face-to-face and give infants and toddlers a chance to respond to your talk with a sound or an action. Show infants and toddlers that you are listening so that they know you are interested in what they have to communicate. This encourages them to communicate more.
- Copy an infant’s babbling, taking turns with them and developing a conversation. Some of the earliest ways to encourage language development are looking into an infant’s face when talking to them, and repeating the noises that they make. Encourage toddlers to talk and take turns in conversation. These back and forth conversations in which children have to actively participate, really develop their brains. With young infants, it is important to also use touch and gestures as communication. Simply hold their hands and wait for them to smile – when they do, smile back. When they coo, coo back.
- Play peek-a-boo, asking ‘Where’s [infant’s name]?’ and then exclaiming ‘There you are!’
- Use real language rather than ‘baby talk’. But talk more slowly, emphasising key words and use shorter phrases, more repetition, gestures and facial expression, and a higher pitch. These are the features of ‘motherese’ or ‘parentese’, which research shows captures infants’ attention more easily, and is more easily processed than the kind of speech we usually direct to adults. Also, infants seem to understand that parentese speech is directed towards them, and are more likely to respond to and imitate an adult using parentese. Research indicates that infants being addressed in parentese spend longer looking at the adult, with greater focus, which enables more effective interactions. Parentese also appears to help infants separate out and recognise individual words, and seems to improve children’s word learning. Infants spoken to with parentese have larger vocabularies later on.
- Learn to interpret an infant or toddler’s signals so you can respond appropriately. This makes an infant or toddler feel understood and important.
- Notice what infants look at or touch, as in this way they are communicating their interests. Engage in shared attention with infants on these objects, accompanying your shared gaze or movements with talk. When infants and toddlers point to objects, tell them what they are to encourage these early communicative skills. Responding to pointing and gesturing will encourage infants and toddlers to engage in more of it. Research finds that infants who engage in more pointing and gesturing will later understand more words.
- Try to be mostly responsive to infants and toddlers, even if not consistently so. There are likely to be times when your response is delayed or absent while you attend to other tasks. But when these lapses occur within relationships that are mostly nurturing and responsive, they encourage children to develop resilience.
Specific strategies for supporting toddlers’ language development
- Repeat and expand on what toddlers say. For example, if they say ‘water’, you can say ‘more water’ or ‘water gone’. Adding more information can be a natural part of the back and forth of a conversation, and shouldn’t interrupt the flow of conversation.
- Make your language just challenging enough. It should enable the child to learn, but not be so complex that they become confused or lose interest in communicating.
- Don’t be afraid to ‘gift’ children new words occasionally. Rather than avoiding difficult or complex words, just explain them. New words build children’s understanding of ideas and concepts.
- Use the same concepts in different contexts, for example linking the water in the infant or toddler’s drink bottle with the water in a puddle and from the taps. This enables infants and toddlers to develop much a richer concept of water than if they only ever hear ‘drink your water’, for example.
- Support pronunciation by repeating what the child said using the correct pronunciation.
- Encourage extended or longer conversations.
- Offer comments, rather than ‘testing’ children’s knowledge with questions, because with comments you can give children more vocabulary, sentence structures and knowledge. However, you can ask toddlers open-ended questions and invite them to make choices. Narrate experiences or explain activities or routines.
Click here to read the full research review on The Education Hub website.
A gentle, quiet and calm environment for infants and toddlers need not be devoid of language. However, the language that is ‘gifted’ to children will be intentional, meaningful and authentic. The aim is not to fill in for an infants’ lack of words with your own, but to allow plenty of time for back-and-forth communication. Remember the quality of the words you offer can be more important than the quantity. Pauses create a natural rhythm of conversation, and invite infants and toddlers to vocalise. This is an essential part of learning language: learning the social patterns of communication.
Research strongly backs the use of parentese – a form of using language in which you use a lot of repetition and emphasis, and separate sounds a bit more than you would with another adult or older child. However, this does not mean speaking to children in a sing-song voice all the time, or using silly, nonsense words and sounds in a way that demeans the infant. We want to speak to children in ways that reflect our image of the infant or toddler as capable and competent. Using language carefully, intentionally, offering repetition in an authentic fashion – all of these can help language learning without us resorting to an entertainer-type role for baby’s attention. We can definitely draw from this research on the features of parentese (slower pace, more varied intonation, higher pitch, shorter phrases and lots of repetition) that are documented to help children learn language.
It can be helpful to think about the language we use with infants as a gift – we are giving infants and toddlers words with which to understand and negotiate their worlds, and the more and varied words they have to do this, the better! You can gift children new words and sentence structures when you converse with them, comment on their actions, and when you read books and sing songs (here is a chance for introducing language and concepts from their own cultural background). The language that is gifted should be attuned to what it is the children are experiencing and noticing, and it should be contingent on where infants are looking or what toddlers are doing. When reading books or singing songs, notice what children are attending to. Don’t just read the text in the book, but make conversation about the illustrations, and respond with language to children’s pointing (whether with their fingers or with their gaze).
When ‘commentating’ (offering a running commentary on what children are doing), be judicious in your choice of words, speak slowly, and repeat. Commentating and offering vocabulary and sentence structures on the things that matter to children can show them that you really see them and value them. However, this commentary should not be an endless monologue full of rhetorical questions that you answer yourself! Describing quietly and respectfully what children are doing meets many of the principles we learned about in Part 1: listening (and watching) for cues, responding to cues, showing presence and joint attention.
When conversing with children using the concept of ‘serve and return’, you might initiate a conversation by asking a question that is meaningful to the child (‘which bib would you like?’ or ‘do you see the bird on the fence?’). Then provide opportunities to respond, as well as plenty of time and a strong belief and expectation, even for the youngest infants, that they will. You carefully interpret their response, and frame it in ways that enable you to feed it back into the conversation.
All of these ways of gifting children language are aligned with the principles of effective infant-toddler pedagogy. They are focused on the child, demonstrating and relying upon attunement, intersubjectivity and reciprocity. The art of communication with infants and toddlers is truly a dance – each move or vocalisation of the child is intentionally echoed or elaborated in order to build a respectful attuned relationship. The learning of language is intimately integrated with the learning of how to be in relationship.
Watch this interview with Linda Clarke, where she discusses how infants and toddlers learn social and emotional skills, and how teachers can support the development of these skills.
Linda is a Senior Tutor at Massey University. She has a background as an early childhood teacher, and her doctoral research explores the use of practice-based coaching to promote teaching practices that support and enhance toddlers’ social and emotional competence in early childhood centres. Watch the video and answer the reflective questions in your workbook below.
Linda Clarke – Senior Tutor, Massey University
Supporting infants and toddlers to develop social skills
Social skills are the skills that we use to get along with others in ways that are healthy for ourselves, and for other people. They include the skills to communicate, to express emotions appropriately, to regulate emotions, to regulate our behaviours, to see perspectives of others, and they’re such important skills, because they help us form friendships and they help us form relationships. For infants and toddlers, these are skills that many of them, especially the more complex ones, are still developing. So, infants and toddlers have some social skills – they’re learning a lot of social skills. But one thing I want to note is that having social skills doesn’t mean that we are outgoing or exuberant or super-friendly – it doesn’t have to mean that. Social skills are different than temperament. So, we can be outgoing and have great social skills, of course, but it’s also okay to be shy, or slow to warm up, or a little reserved, and that doesn’t mean we don’t have social skills. Temperament is different.
What opportunities are there for infants and toddlers to learn social skills in early childhood environments?
An infant would communicate by waving arms, waving legs, by looking, by tracking, vocalising, crying, reaching out. So those are already pretty amazing communication skills that an infant has. Now, those communication skills and social skills will grow when somebody responds to the infant. So, when a teacher or an older child responds in ways that are serve and return – back and forth – the infant’s social skills will grow, and they’ll know that they have agency, that they can begin a communication – an interaction – that they can form relationships with the others, that they’re listened to, that they are important, that someone’s going to respond to them, and care for them if they’re upset, if they need something, or if they simply want to talk. Just in some seemingly quite simple things, there are incredible opportunities for social skills, but if that opportunity isn’t taken, just the opposite learning could happen for an infant, if there is consistently no response.
How important are the relationships that teachers form with infants and toddlers?
I guess relationships is a little bit of a catch-cry. Of course, they’re important in the foundation of our teaching. We’re responsible for forming professional relationships with all the infants and toddlers in our care, and for ensuring that happens within the group of infants and toddlers in our care. So, there’s a bit of team work there, really. In forming professional relationships, interactions and intentionality are really important. We need those toddlers and those infants to know that they have someone – that they have a secure base, and someone who cares about them. There’s so much for infant and toddler teachers to do. This really actually takes skilful and specialised teaching, because we also need to be attuned and be able to listen to infants and toddlers. We’ve got to have a good knowledge base of their developments so that we know what their needs are, and how we can support their learning and wellbeing.
We need to be able to be calm and unrushed. Sometimes our early childhood education environments are kind of busy, so bringing a calm, unrushed presence to that is so important to support learning. In the context of interactions and relationships and responsiveness in early childhood centres, social skills can happen during play, during routines, during activities. When infants and toddlers are participating and when they’re just watching. Every moment is an opportunity to learn and potentially an opportunity to teach.
What are specific strategies that teachers can use to support children’s social skills?
There are specific teaching practices that teachers can use to foster social skills, and teaching practices are the actions or the words that we use to support children’s learning. There is some great information about social emotional learning in He Mapuna te Tamaiti, and there are some great examples of teaching practices within that resource as well.
Going back to emotional knowledge and skills, and how we foster that in the infants and toddlers – because emotional knowledge is such an important part of social learning, you really can’t separate the two – reading books about emotions is a really useful teaching practice, because that brings in an emotion-rich vocabulary. Infants and toddlers hear more emotion words, and they hear a range of emotion words. They begin to understand the names for their feelings. We can have conversations about emotions, talking about a character in a book, for example: well, he looks frightened, I wonder what scared him. Reminiscing is great, as well: remember when we were really scared in the thunderstorm? We can be expressive, and make emotion faces, and just engage in everyday conversations about emotions.
Also, when toddlers and infants are experiencing feelings, it’s really important that we help them to work through that and support them to co-regulate. We do that by naming it to tame it. So, when we name an emotion that an infant or toddler might be feeling, they get to learn the word for their feelings, and they know that it’s okay to feel that way when we affirm the emotion. I’ll give another example. Say a toddler is struggling to put her gumboots on, and it looks like she’s frustrated, a teacher can say, ‘whoa it looks like you’re really frustrated – I feel frustrated too when I can’t get my gumboots on’. Sometimes that’s all that it takes to help a child to start to feel better.
As well as supporting all that emotional literacy, we can support social skills in so many ways. Again, reading books about social skills and friendships, using puppets – there are all sorts of great resources out there that we can use to help to engage infants and toddlers in conversations and learning about social skills. During everyday activities and play, we can use prompts, such as if I’m sitting with a toddler at a table, and we see a friend walking past, I might say, ‘oh look – there’s Mia. Say: “hi Mia, come and play”’. So, just those little scaffolds to help children interact are very useful.
Routines are really important, because when we have calm predictable routines, then infants and toddlers know what to expect, and their sense of belonging, and their sense of security grows, and we’re really setting them up for success. So, that’s going to support their social learning, as well, and routines give opportunities to prompt again, especially in terms of asking toddlers to help each other. We could ask an older toddler to help a younger toddler to wash their hands, or a group of toddlers to help with set-up, perhaps setting out the tablecloth. I could go on and on. There are so many teaching practices that we can engage in, but what I would say is if you’re interested in supporting infants and toddlers’ social skills, is to have a look in He Mapuna te Tamaiti and get some great ideas from there.
How can teachers model social skills?
Yeah, so as well as the types of prompting I talked about in the teaching practices, we can model in intentional ways like that as well. For example: ‘oh, I’m going to share some of my playdough with Linda, because she doesn’t have any’. So, we can talk about our own valued social interactions. The other very important thing is to understand that, as teachers, we are always role-models. So we model social skills in the relationships we have with our colleagues, with whānau, with all the children in the care, and with all the people we interact with. Infants and toddlers are great observers, so they see this.
We can be good role-models or bad role-models obviously, but I think the relationships we form are important in another way, too, because when we do have respectful relationships with others within our early childhood centres, you can kind of feel that in the room. It’s tangible, really – that feeling of warmth and respect and care for others in an early childhood environment. Conversely, when there is ill will, we can feel that, as well. Infants and toddlers of course, can feel that, and that’s certainly not going to set them up for success and not prove to be a way to role-model the ways we want them to interact with others, in ways that are healthy for themselves and others.
How can teachers respond to peer conflicts?
I want to acknowledge a group of teachers, or several groups of teachers actually, who I talked to through my master’s degree. I talked with them about toddlers’ peer conflicts, and they shared their strategies with me, and their thoughts about toddlers’ peer conflicts. I learned so much from them. So, what I’m going to talk about now really comes from those teachers, so ngā mihi kia a ratou.
Conflicts are really interesting, because they’re emotionally-charged – not just for the toddlers but for the teacher as well. It’s important for teachers to consider how do we frame conflicts? For many of us, and I know I used to feel this way, I’d think, well conflicts are bad – I don’t want them to happen, I don’t want them to be happening in this early childhood centre, I want everyone to be peaceful, and playing together harmoniously, especially when parents walk in. But that’s not the reality. The reality is that conflicts are learning opportunities. They don’t happen because infants or toddlers are being naughty. They happen because they’re still learning their social skills, and they don’t yet have those really important social skills that they need to compromise, to negotiate, to see the perspectives of others, to have that cognitive flexibility where they can quicky change their mind. That hasn’t developed yet, so toddlers need our support to learn during peer conflicts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to solve a conflict, but it means that we’re going to support them to learn when conflicts happen. So, unfortunately there isn’t a formula or a recipe for what teachers should do, because every conflict is going to be different, and it’s going to depend on the child, it’s going to depend on the situation, it’s going to depend on our relationship with those toddlers involved.
I think one of the first things that we should do is, of course, make sure that any children involved in a conflict are physically safe. If there’s likely to be biting or some serious pushing, of course, we’ve got to go in and make sure – intervene to make sure that those toddlers are safe. From there: a big breath, because conflicts are emotionally charged, and then going in and bringing a calm presence into the arena of conflict. Sometimes when we move into a space where toddlers are in conflict, and we’re calm and we’re relaxed, and we’re there to help, that might be all it takes to help those toddlers to calm down and to sort it out themselves, but perhaps they do need more. So, then we might name it to tame it. We might name the emotions we think the toddlers are feeling. Perhaps they’re angry, perhaps they’re frustrated, perhaps they’re sad. We might also name the problem: ‘whoa – two toddlers, only one truck’. That might be enough.
All through these strategies, we need to stop and listen, as well, and give those toddlers time to process, to perhaps respond, to perhaps take some action. So, we do all of this quite slowly. From there, they might need more scaffolding – more support. It’s just a matter of kind of working it out as we go. Even though I don’t like to be a ‘don’t do this’ sort of person, I’m going to give a few dont’s, because it’s so important as teachers that we don’t go into the arena of conflict trying to seek a sense of justice. If we go into the conflict seeking a sense of justice, we’re not coming from a framing that this is learning. We’re coming from a framing that someone is being naughty, or someone is to blame. So, there’s no point in trying to figure out who started it. It really doesn’t matter, because this is about the learning.
Our role isn’t to seek justice, or to find out those little details. Our role is to support toddlers’ learning. Often, we might think conflicts are about possession of toys. That’s quite often what they look like. So, we might rush and get another toy, or say, ‘go and get another truck’. But, in fact, conflicts between toddlers, while they might look like the fight is over possession, are often caused because toddlers are trying to interact with each other, and they don’t know how. So, they’ll go up and they’ll grab a toy. Maybe what they’re really trying to say is, ‘I want to play with you and the truck’. So, that’s really something to keep in mind: while conflicts often look like they’re about possession of toys, in fact they might not be.
I want to finish with this really important point that came from the teachers I worked with. They said one of the most important things they do when they’re working with children in conflict, and when they’re working with children full-stop, is to remember to always uphold the child’s mana. I think if we go into our teaching with that thought, that we are always going to uphold the mana of others, then we’re going to be well set to support social skills.
As Linda points out, social skills are also communication skills. We communicate in order to socialise and to move into relationship with others. When we pick up on and build upon an infants’ communicative gestures and sounds, we begin to form a very social relationship with them, that enables us to work together and share perspectives on the world. Yet social skills involve more than just being able to communicate. We also need to be aware of and able to manage our own emotions and be attentive to those of others. Learning about emotions and about appropriate ways to behave and be social with others are skills that have their foundation in the earliest years.
Linda also explains that emotion knowledge is built through developing an emotion vocabulary – in other words, talking about emotions. Talking about emotions when children are actually experiencing them is very powerful, and helps not only with children’s language development and emotion knowledge but also with co-regulation.
Co-regulation is a key skill for the infant and toddler teacher. It involves teachers in joining children when they are feeling distressed or overwhelmed by an emotion, and helping them to regulate down to a calmer state. Different infants and toddlers will have different ways to become calm, and part of your understanding of each child that comes from careful observation and attuned interactions should relate to learning about how best to help soothe and calm them when upset or overwhelmed. You might like to think about how moments of co-regulation are opportunities for learning about emotion.
When it comes to helping toddlers with peer conflicts, did you notice many of our principles of infant and toddler pedagogy were mentioned? Being calm, being present. Going slowly and unhurriedly, for example, as well as listening and observing (without making assumptions about what the conflict is about). There were also some of our key communication strategies there too, such as commentating, or putting into words what you notice about the conflict situation. Again, these moments are powerful opportunities for learning social and emotional skills and knowledge, especially when your strong knowledge of and relationships with the children can be brought to bear.