In this part of the course, we look at how infants and toddlers develop rich communicative repertoires and language, and how they develop and sustain social relationships. One of the key messages from the research is that infants and toddlers need to hear a wide quantity and quality of language in order to become effective speakers and listeners themselves. In this part we are going to think about how to integrate that recommendation with the principles for effective infant and toddler pedagogy that we learned about in Part 1.
The aims of this part of the course are:
- To learn about the importance of language-rich environments for infants and toddlers
- To consider how to align language-rich environments with the principles of effective infant and toddler pedagogy
- To develop a greater understanding of the social and emotional learning that accompanies infant and toddler communication and relationships
This will involve:
- Reading about how to support infants’ and toddlers’ language development
- Reflecting on how plentiful language experience aligns with the principles for effective pedagogy discussed in Part 1
- Exploring ways to increase your language input with your focus child in your own centre
- Watching a video in which Linda Clarke discusses how infants and toddlers develop social and emotional skills
- Reflecting on how you manage your own emotion in your daily teaching practice
Revisit your learning so far
Thinking back to serve and return as a model for quality interactions with infants and toddlers, what kind of communications might an infant or toddler ‘serve’ to you, and in what ways might you ‘return’ these?
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.
How can you reconcile the idea of providing children with lots of language with the principle of quiet and calm environments that we learned in Part 1 is so important for infants and toddlers? In a similar vein, you might like to reflect on your thoughts on the use of parentese or baby talk in interactions with infants and toddlers. Can this be used respectfully and in a calm manner, do you think? (Hint: it might be important to define the style of parentese we want to use with infants and toddlers).
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.
Relate your learning to practice
Try out one of the ideas below for increasing your language input to your focus child, and then answer the reflective questions that follow. You could:
- Practice talking through a routine or process, or
- Practice commentating on children’s play, or
- Practice picking up on and adding language when children ‘serve’.
Try to think about the quantity and the quality of the language you offer. If you have the opportunity to record your conversation with the child (using audio or video), it will make it easier to reflect on the quantity and quality of your language input to the child, and you might also notice the more subtle responses that the child makes. Again, share your video and your reflection with your critical friend and see what they think.
- How do you feel using this strategy? For example, does using language this way feel awkward or natural?
- How does the child respond?
- What do you think about the quantity of talk you are offering? Could you ever talk too much? How would you know?
- What quality was the talk you provided?
When we think about supporting communication, we must remember that learning to communicate involves so much more than learning to use language. To collaborate with others in ways that enable children to share meanings and understandings requires a whole host of personal, emotional and social skills. Infants and toddlers are learning social and emotional skills alongside language as they learn to be effective communicators.
Watch a video
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 ECE centres.
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.
With a focus on providing infants and toddlers with calm environments, and on being emotionally available for them, even when they are dealing with difficult emotions themselves, how do you keep yourself emotionally grounded? It is incredibly important for infant and toddler teachers to be highly aware of their own emotional state, emotional triggers, and to have tools for managing emotions. How do you deal with emotions as they come up for you, such as when dealing with emotionally-charged situations such as a toddler’s peer conflict, or an infant’s incessant crying? How might you develop your self-awareness and reflection to improve your skills in this area so that you can be truly emotionally available and present to the children in your care?
The main points to take away on supporting infants’ and toddlers’ communication development are:
- Children’s early years are a sensitive period for learning language. It is crucial that infants and toddlers are provided with plentiful exposure to language during this time.
- Language development is best promoted through meaningful exchanges of communication with responsive caregivers, particularly when teachers talk about topics of infants’ and toddlers’ focus and attention, as well as through reading and singing.
- Teachers also need to intentionally teach social skills and emotional knowledge and understanding, which, like language development, are important to developing communication skills.
How do you promote social interactions and language-rich environments in your centre?
Take a look at our guide to oral communication development which defines the different purposes and processes of communication, and all the different components of communication that children need to master.
Check out He māpuna te tamaiti, the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s resource on supporting children’s social and emotional competence.