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Speech, language and communication

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Speech, language and communication skills start developing from the moment a baby is born. There are five key aspects of development:

  • Vocalising and babbling, which starts in the first year of life
  • Developing non-verbal communication skills through communicative gestures like pointing, which also develop over the first year
  • Learning words, with most children learning to talk between 9 and 14 months of age
  • Learning to form phrases and simple sentences, at around 24 months
  • Learning to form complex sentences at 2-3 years of age.

Communication and language skills provide a strong foundation for children’s future learning and development, with children’s first teeth playing a crucial role in supporting speech acquisition. Children grow in confidence as they are able to use their new vocabulary and verbal skills to engage with the world around them, helping them to manage difficult feelings, and communicate to have their needs met.

Speech, language and communication skills are important for:

  • educational attainment and future employment
  • forming successful relationships throughout life, including lasting friendships, couple relationships and relationships with own children and families
  • healthy behaviour and social and emotional development.

Communication is at the heart of healthy relationships, and the same is true for the parent-child relationship. Attuned and sensitive interactions between care givers and babies can support speech and language development. A child’s ability to communicate well is also important for voicing and expressing emotions as they grow older, helping them to manage difficult feelings and communicate to get their needs met.

The environment children grow up in strongly influences their speech, language and communication development. This includes the number of words they hear at home, the early ownership of books, trips to the library, attendance at pre-school, parents providing a range of activities, and the number of available toys and books. Talking, singing, reading to and playing with babies and young children, even when they are too young to answer or join in, is essential for good language development.

View the speech, language and communication matter infographic

Scale of the issue

Speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) are among the most common developmental problems in childhood. One in ten children have a long-term SLCN, with up to half of children needing short-term communication support when they start school.

The gap in communication and language development between poor children and those from more affluent families opens up as early as eighteen months of age. Children who grow up in poverty and also speak English as an additional language are particularly at risk.

Vocabulary at age 5 has been found to be the best predictor of whether disadvantaged children can lead fulfilling lives in adulthood. Children are often able to catch up with their peers when their SLCN is identified early and they are provided with the specialist support they need. However without this, they can develop life-long problems.

  • Language development at the age of 2 years predicts children’s performance on entry to primary school.
  • The number of children identified as having SLCN has increased by 72% between 2005 and 2011 (Department for Education census).
  • 20% of children are not meeting expected standards in communication and language at age five (EYFS Profile results).
  • Language development at age two predicts a child’s reading skills at age five.
  • By the age of 3 disadvantaged children may have heard 30 million less words than children from affluent families.
  • Growing up in disorganised or noisy homes can affect children’s ability to express and understand language at age 3.

What promotes speech, language and communication in the early years?

Parent-child relationships: Babies and young children’s speech, language and communication development benefits from warm, sensitive and responsive parenting. When a baby or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child's brain that support the development of communication and language.

“Different kinds of support are important at different ages, from the close, fine-tuned contingency of early interactions, through facilitating and scaffolding the baby’s efforts to manipulate and explore his world, to talking to the baby and sharing picture books with him in ways that are responsive to his interests and own emerging language skills.” Professor Lynne Murray.

Home learning environment: The quality of the home learning environment has a bigger impact on young children’s speech and language development than parents’ education and income. For instance, the amount and quality of speech heard early in life can predict children’s future communication skills. Parents are able to build their children’s confidence in communication through speaking, listening, early reading and play.

Early education: High quality early education supports young children’s early language development, with disadvantaged children benefitting most. Early years teachers who are experienced in delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage are able to extend young children’s communication skills through planning play-based learning activities and regularly assessing progress, as well as identifying children who may need additional communication support.

What increases the risk of poorer outcomes?

Children are more likely to be identified as having SLCN if they are male, summer born, come from a low-income family, speak English as an additional language or have Special Educational Needs or Disabilities. However, all these risks factors can be mitigated by the level of care and support children receive. For example, the quality of the home environment and parents’ communication style can either help or hinder children’s speech and language development.

Evidence shows that delayed identification of need affects children’s future learning and development and can lead to negative outcomes later in life:

  • Educational attainment: Vocabulary at age 5 is a powerful predictor of GCSE achievement at age 16
  • Behaviour: two thirds of 7-14 year olds with serious behaviour problems have SLCN
  • Mental health: 40% of 7 to 14 year olds referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services had a non-identified SLCN
  • Employability: 47% of employers are unable to recruit people with good communication skills
  • Criminality: 65% of young people in the youth justice system have SLCN.

Examples of innovative practice in the A Better Start partnerships include:

Case study: Talking Together (Bradford)

Case study: Making it REAL (LEAP and Blackpool)

Key reading:

About speech, language and communication

Roulstone et al. (2011) Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes. London: Department for Education.

Saxton, M. (2010) Child language: acquisition and development. London: SAGE

Lindsay, G. & Dockrell, J. (2010) The relationship between speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) and behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD). London: Department for Education.

Click here for resources from A Better Start on Speech, Language and Communication

Scale of the issue

Fernauld et al. (2013) SES differences in language processing skill and vocabulary are evident at 18 months. Developmental Science. 16(2), 234-248.

Hartshorne, M. (2009) The cost to the nation of poor communication. I CAN Talk series issue 2. Dockrell, J. E., & Marshall, C. R. (2015). Measurement issues: assessing language skills in young children. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 20(2), 116-125.

Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. (2003) The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap by age 3. American Educator.Spring edition.

Risk factors for poorer outcomes

Gross, J. (2016) Keynote presentation at A Better Start learning and development event

Read On. Get On. (2015) Lighting up young brains: how parents, carers and nurseries support children’s brain development in the first five years. London: Save the Children.

Sylva, K. et al. (2004) The effective provision of pre-school education project. London: Institute of Education

Murray, L. (2014) The psychology of babies: how relationships support development from birth to two. Chapter 4. Cognitive development. London: Constable & Robinson.

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