- Identify typical communication milestones in different stages of childhood.
- Discuss the role adults can play in supporting the communication skills of all children.
- Discuss what to do if you are concerned with a child’s development.
“Communication works for those who work at it.” - John Powell
Children are able and ready communicators. They communicate through gestures, sounds, facial expressions, movements, behaviors, and language. This next section will highlight language and communication milestones for children from birth through age 12. It will be followed by a section that discusses these milestones by introducing three aspects of language and communication to think about: receptive language, expressive language, and conversation skills.
Language and communication develop with extraordinary speed during the early-childhood years. Most children babble around 6 months, say their first words at about 1 year, use combined words around the end of their second year, and by the time they are 4- and 5-year-olds, they have elaborate vocabularies and know basic grammar rules.
As you may have already learned in the Cognitive and Physical courses, milestones provide a guide for when to expect certain skills or behaviors to emerge. Think of milestones as guidelines to help you understand and identify typical patterns of growth and development or to help you know when and what to look for as young children mature. As a family child care provider, you can use this information, what you learn from families, and your own knowledge to enrich the interactions, experiences, and environments you create for children in your family child care program.
Infant and Toddler Milestones
Infants’ and toddlers’ abilities to communicate grow as they interact with others. The sounds, tones, and patterns of speech that an infant hears early on sets the stage for learning a specific language. They begin to understand words, express themselves using words, and learn the rules of conversation in their language.
Think of how exciting it is to hear young infants making new sounds each day, hear an infant say new words, or listen to toddlers stringing words together. The chart below highlights infant and toddler language and communication skills as they grow. Keep in mind that individual differences exist when it comes to the specific age at which infants and toddlers meet milestones; each child is unique.
Children continue to develop during the preschool years. They increase their vocabulary, use longer and more complex sentences, engage in problem solving, and talk about more than just what is happening at the moment. They talk about things that happened in the past, as well as things that will happen in the future. Think of how exciting it is to watch a 3-year-old grow from stringing a few words together to holding elaborate conversations. The chart below highlights preschoolers’ communication skills as they grow. It’s important to keep in mind that each child is unique and individual differences exist when it comes to the precise age at which children meet these milestones.
The school-age years are full of rich development in how children use language and develop literacy skills. Communication skills are vital to interacting and participating in all aspects of a child’s environment. To better examine the communication skills of school-age children and youth, we break communication up into four major components: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
Listening is a two-part process. The first part is actually hearing what is being communicated and the second part is relating that information to your own personal experiences or knowledge.
Listening and speaking are closely linked and tend to develop simultaneously. The act of speaking allows children and youth to express their feelings and emotions and share information. As children and youth develop throughout the school-age years, they develop more sophisticated speaking skills and vocabularies.
Reading is an essential part of the way we communicate. It exposes children and youth to various forms of dialogue and written language. School-age children and youth will begin as emergent readers who are learning how to identify sounds and view them as words on the page. As they grow, their reading skills will develop. Reading levels are usually categorized as grade levels; for example, a third-grade reading book. However, children and youth may vary in reading levels, even with their peers. Encouraging a love of reading and allowing children and youth to read what interests them are the best ways to keep them engaged with reading.
Writing is important to communication development because it allows children and youth to express themselves and share information. Traditionally, writing is putting pencil to paper, but we also need to include typing and sharing information digitally. Children will begin to understand that letters make up words, which make up sentences, and so on. Younger school-age children are learning how to spell words correctly and may spell words based on how they sound, rather than use correct spelling. This will continue to improve and develop over time.
The following Communications Benchmarks interactive guide contains common points for kindergarten through fifth-grade children. (This chart is also available as an attachment in the Learn section.) When looking at developmental milestones of any kind, remember that all children and youth develop at their own pace. While we use these milestones as a guideline, they are not the only aspect that should be considered when looking at child’s development.
- Follow one to two simple directions in a sequence
- Listen to and understand age-appropriate stories read aloud
- Follow a simple conversation
- Be understood by most people
- Answer simple yes or no questions
- Answer open-ended questions (What did you learn at school today?)
- Retell a story or talk about an event
- Participate appropriately in conversations
- Show interest in and start conversations
- Know how book works (read left to right and top to bottom)
- Understand that spoken words are made up of sounds
- Identify words that rhyme
- Compare and match words based on their sounds
- Understand that letters represent speech sounds and match sounds to letters
- Identify upper and lowercase letters
- Recognize some words by sight
- “Read” a few picture books from memory
- Imitate reading by talking about pictures in a book
- Print own first and last name
- Draw a picture that tells a story and label and write about the picture
- Write upper and lower case letters (may not be clearly written)
- Remember information
- Respond to instructions
- Follow two- to three-step directions in a sequence
- Be easily understood
- Answer more complex yes or no questions
- Tell and retell stories and events in a logical order
- Express ideas with a variety of complete sentences
- Use most parts of speech (grammar) correctly
- Ask and respond to "w" questions (who, what, where, when, why)
- Stay on topic and take turns in conversation
- Give directions
- Start conversations
- Create rhyming words
- Identify all sounds in short words
- Blend separate sounds to form words
- Match spoken words with print
- Know how a book works (e.g., read from left to right and top to bottom in English)
- Identify letters, words, and sentences
- Sound out words when reading
- Have a sight vocabulary of 100 common words
- Read grade-level material fluently
- Understand what is read
- Express ideas through writing
- Print clearly
- Spell frequently used words correctly
- Begin each sentence with capital letters and use ending punctuation
- Write a variety of stories, journal entries, or letters and notes
- Follow three to four oral directions in a sequence
- Understand direction words (e.g., location, space, and time words)
- Correctly answer questions about a grade-level story
- Be easily understood
- Answer more complex "yes or no" questions
- Ask and answer "w" questions (e.g., who, what, where, when, why)
- Use increasingly complex sentence structures
- Clarify and explain words and ideas
- Give directions with three to four steps
- Use oral language to inform, to persuade, and to entertain
- Stay on topic, take turns, and use appropriate eye contact during conversation
- Open and close conversation appropriately
- Have fully mastered phonics or sound awareness
- Associate speech sounds, syllables, words, and phrases with their written forms
- Recognize many words by sight
- Use meaning clues when reading (e.g., pictures, titles and headings, information in the story)
- Reread and self-correct when necessary
- Locate information to answer questions
- Explain key elements of a story (e.g., main idea, main characters, plot)
- Use own experience to predict and justify what will happen in grade-level stories
- Read, paraphrase or retell a story in a sequence
- Read grade-level stories, poetry or dramatic text silently and aloud with fluency
- Read spontaneously
- Identify and use spelling patterns in words when reading
- Write legibly
- Use a variety of sentence types in writing essays, poetry, or short stories (fiction and nonfiction)
- Use basic punctuation and capitalization appropriately
- Organize writing to include beginning, middle, and end
- Spell frequently used words correctly
- Progress from inventive spelling (e.g., spelling by sound) to more accurate spelling
- Listen attentively in group situations
- Understand grade-level material
- Speak clearly with an appropriate voice
- Ask and respond to questions
- Participate in conversations and group discussions
- Use subject-related vocabulary
- Stay on topic, use appropriate eye contact, and take turns in conversation
- Summarize a story accurately
- Explain what has been learned
- Demonstrate full mastery of basic phonics
- Use word analysis skills when reading
- Use clues from language content and structure to help understand what is read
- Predict and justify what will happen next in stories and compare and contrast stories
- Ask and answer questions regarding reading material
- Use acquired information to learn about new topics
- Read grade-level books fluently (fiction and nonfiction)
- Reread and correct errors when necessary
- Plan, organize, revise and edit
- Include details in writing
- Write stories, letters, simple explanations, and brief reports
- Spell simple words correctly, correct most spelling independently, and use a dictionary to correct spelling
- Listen to and understand information presented by others
- Form opinions based on evidence
- Listen for specific purposes
- Use words appropriately in conversation
- Use language effectively for a variety of purposes
- Understand some figurative language
- Participate in group discussions
- Give accurate directions to others
- Summarize and restate ideas
- Organize information for clarity
- Use subject area information and vocabulary (e.g., social studies) for learning
- Make effective oral presentations
- Read for specific purposes
- Read grade-level books fluently
- Use previously learned information to understand new material
- Follow written directions
- Take brief notes
- Link information learned to different subjects
- Learn meanings of new words through knowledge of word origins, synonyms, and multiple meanings
- Use reference materials (e.g., dictionary)
- Explain the author's purpose and writing style
- Read and understand a variety of types of literature, including fiction, nonfiction, historical fiction, and poetry
- Compare and contrast in content areas
- Make inferences from texts
- Paraphrase content, including the main idea and details
- Write effective stories and explanations, including several paragraphs about the same topic
- Develop a plan for writing, including a beginning, middle, and end
- Organize writing to convey a central idea
- Edit final copies for grammar, punctuation, and spelling
- Listen and draw conclusions in subject area learning activities
- Make planned oral presentations appropriate to the audience
- Maintain eye contact and use gestures, facial expressions and appropriate voice during group presentations
- Participate in class discussions across subject areas
- Summarize main points
- Report about information gathered in group activities
- Read grade-level books fluently
- Learn meanings of unfamiliar words through knowledge of root words, prefixes, and suffixes
- Prioritize information according to the purpose of reading
- Read a variety of literary forms
- Describe development of character and plot
- Describe characteristics of poetry
- Analyze author's language and style
- Use reference materials to support opinions
- Write for a variety of purposes
- Use vocabulary effectively
- Vary sentence structure
- Revise writing for clarity
- Edit final copies
How Children Communicate
As you study the charts above and in the attachment below, you will notice that some milestones are associated with children’s ability to listen to and understand language (receptive communication). Other milestones relate to children’s ability to express themselves using sounds, movements, gestures, facial expressions and words (expressive communication). And still other milestones pertain to children's knowledge and ability to engage in communication exchanges with peers or adults (social engagement). Let’s take a look at how these aspects of communication unfold as part of the remarkable development of young children from birth to age 12.
Receptive communication refers to children’s ability to listen to and understand language. Infants begin to understand language as part of their nurturing relationships with responsive, trusting adults and are able to make sense of gestures, facial expressions and words well before they are able to verbally express themselves.
During the preschool years, language comprehension increases dramatically. Children begin to understand more words, longer sentences, and more elaborate questions. They understand the names of most things in their daily environment (nouns for persons, pets, or things they see or use each day, such as mom, dad, dog, cat, shoes, ball) and actions they see or engage in each day (verbs such as running, hopping, drinking, or jumping). Children also begin to learn new descriptive words (adjectives such as soft, hard, or smooth), and emotion words (adjectives such as mad, sad, happy, scary).
Understanding language is closely related to young children’s cognitive development. Three-year-olds begin to use and understand “why,” “when,” and “how” questions. By the time they are 4, children understand many words for colors, shapes, and sizes.
Understanding language is also closely related to early literacy and math skill development. During the fourth year, children learn to understand letter names and sounds and number names and meaning. Receptive language is essential for success in preschool, as children need to understand how to follow directions and listen to what providers, other significant adults in their lives, or peers have to say.
As children move through the school-age years, their ability to remember information, respond to instructions, and follow sequences of information improves. They begin developing the ability to draw conclusions from what they hear and to form opinions.
Expressive communication is the ability for children to express themselves through sounds, gestures, facial expressions and words. A beginning point for expressive communication is the infant’s cry. Cooing is another form of early communication and can begin as early as one month. By six months, you can hear new sounds like “ma,” “ba,” and “da.” By 18-months, you may hear toddlers using two- and three-word sentences, such as “me go,” or “more drink, please.”
Preschool children learn to use new words every day. They use these new words in conversations and social interactions with peers and adults in their lives. Preschool children use expressive language throughout their day. They talk about their actions, emotions, needs, and ideas. They also respond to what others are saying. This becomes particularly apparent when you watch children playing with each other. They often talk about what they are playing with, describe their actions and ideas for play, and respond to what their friends are saying and doing. These examples highlight how oral language is closely related to social development. Sometimes children also use expressive language to engage in private speech. They may talk to themselves when they are engaged in difficult tasks or when they are excited. For example, a child building a high tower with blocks might say “one more, don’t fall” and a child completing a new or challenging activity might say “I finished the big puzzle all by myself!”
School-age children are sophisticated speakers. The youngest school-age children are understood by most people, can answer simple questions, can retell stories, and can participate actively in conversations. As they grow, they develop the ability to express ideas in clear and complete sentences, give directions, clarify and explain ideas, summarize, and use language for a variety of purposes.
Social engagement involves the understanding and use of communication rules such as listening, taking turns, and using appropriate sounds and facial expressions. Conversations involve both understanding (receptive communication) and expressing (expressive communication). Infants and toddlers learn the ways to use sounds, gestures, facial expressions, and words of their family’s language when adults interact, talk, read, or sing with them.
As children grow, social engagement becomes equated with conversation skills. Conversations involve both understanding language (receptive communication) and speaking (expressive communication). Conversation skills involve learning to take turns, listening, speaking, and maintaining interest in a topic. Preschool children begin having conversations with adults and eventually learn to carry out conversations with peers. By school-age, most children carry on complex conversations and can enter and exit conversations appropriately.
Effective Communication with Children
As a family child care provider, you must use your knowledge of child development to communicate appropriately with all the children in your care. Be prepared to use effective strategies for facilitating communication. When working with children of different ages, be mindful to do the following:
Promoting Communication for All Children
You must be prepared to support the communication needs of all children. Language development will be different for each child in your program, and the ways children communicate are strongly shaped by the people in their lives. Adults are the most influential models young children have. As a family child care provider, you play a key role in fostering the language and communication skills of all children in your program. You may need extra support for children who have identified special needs.
Children who have special needs may express language and communicate differently. You may need to adapt the curriculum, environment, and experiences to enable all children to be successful. For example, you might develop a simple picture board that you could use to help children with limited vocabulary say “more please” at snack time.
Some children in your program may have conditions that affect their language and communication development, including developmental delays, autism, neurological and perceptual disorders, or vision, hearing, speech, or language impairments. Children with individualized education programs (IEPs) or individualized family service plans (IFSPs) have a specific plan to help them meet their personal goals, and very often these children will need changes or adaptations to curriculum, family child care environment, and daily routines.
Children with autism or developmental disabilities also may have difficulties with communication. While some children may be able to engage in play and other experiences with verbal prompts and directions, other children may need visual supports that will make activities, routines or instructions meaningful and easier to understand.
For children with hearing impairments, you may need to adjust the speed or sound of your voice (speaking more clearly or at a slower pace). Children with visual impairments may use Braille or large-print books. Other children may require assistive technology. This may include communication devices that enable them to explore their surroundings and interact with others.
Ways you support the communication of all children:
- Create scripted stories about difficult routines and thoughtfully plan how and when to read them to young children. You can find downloadable samples at http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/strategies.html#scriptedstories. Scripted stories can also be appropriate (with some modification) for older children in your program. You might create a photo book or video about a school-age child’s routine, or you could work directly with the child to develop communication tools that will help them. For example, you might collaborate with a school-age child to develop a checklist about the routines they complete before or after school.
- Work with special education or early-intervention professionals to access training on assistive technology or other technology the child needs.
- Learn and consistently use common language techniques. You can repeat, expand, and extend children’s language. For example:
- Have problem-solving conversations with a trainer, coach or family child care administrator when there is an issue. If a school-age child’s speech is difficult to understand, for example, brainstorm ways to ensure that the child is a successful communicator in your program. Observe and act quickly if you see any signs of teasing or bullying. You might lead activities with families or children in your program to teach ways to embrace and respond to differences in a respectful way. Consider researching strategies you can use to foster an understanding of differences related to language, ability, culture, and other aspects of human diversity.
- Don’t give up. It can be scary as a family child care provider to try something new or to communicate in new ways with a child or family member. Celebrate small successes and be persistent in your efforts to increase communication.
The process of learning to communicate is specific to each child and family. Many aspects of a child’s environment may contribute to challenges with communication development. A family may wonder about their young child’s communication and language development and feel uncertain about what they are observing and what to expect.
As a family child care provider, you can learn first from a child’s family about any communication challenges their child may be experiencing. You can also offer additional developmental information to families, including possible warning signs for language delays or literacy development. The Kids Included Together website (https://www.kit.org) can be a valuable resource, as can the developmental milestones and "act early" information located on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/actearly/milestones/index.html. The table below also highlights possible signs of developmental delays for children at different ages:
Supporting Communication, Language, and Literacy
Effective communication skills are integral to children’s self-expression, their development of social relationships, and to their learning. The foundation for these skills begins at birth and is built throughout the childhood years. When you engage in and sustain interactions with children based on their interests, you help strengthen the child’s role as a partner in communication. Communication and language development happen best in the context of consistent, caring, and responsive relationships.
Your role as family child care provider also offers an opportunity to create an environment that provides what children need to become good communicators early in life. A communication-rich environment is characterized by intentional and frequent use of such strategies as:
- Learning about communication and language development in children
- Talking with and learning from families, as well as observing and identifying the developmental stage of individual children, and offering experiences and activities that can best support their development and learning
- Adding words and ideas to best describe children’s understanding of experiences
- Responding to children’s communication attempts and building on what children are saying
- Using new, complex, and interesting words in conversations
- Following children’s leads, cues, and preferences
- Talking with children throughout the day about the events of the day
- Embedding language games, songs, and rhymes into daily routines and experiences
- Asking children meaningful questions about their actions, interests, events, or feelings
- Reading to children frequently and providing opportunities for children to engage with books and printed materials
- Incorporating alternative ways and systems of communication based on children’s individual needs (e.g., using pictures or visual cues to foster communication)
- Providing daily opportunities to participate in activities that help children learn new skills or practice existing skills in fun, stimulating, and supportive environments
Understanding developmental milestones is an important aspect of working with young children. Learning about and understanding how children communicate will help you know how to support them in developing language and communication skills; it will also help you decide what kinds of learning experiences to plan in your family child care home. Consider the following in your daily work with children in your care:
In your daily interactions with children, you can purposefully plan activities that will enable you to generate information about children and how they develop and refine their communication skills. For example, you can observe how children communicate with peers or express themselves as they engage in daily work in your interest areas, how they follow directions as you lead them through activities such as circle time, or how they communicate during free play with peers. You should use this valuable observational information to plan activities that promote further development in children or to adapt goals and activities to meet the unique learning needs of individual children.
Be sensitive to individual children’s needs:
As you engage in these observations, remember that each child is different and that sometimes children may not reach milestones as expected. However, if you are concerned with a child’s development, talk with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. This may be difficult, but it can make the difference in meeting a child’s needs. You can share information with families about typical development and let them know your program is available to help. If you program provides developmental screening tools, these can help begin a conversation about your concerns. You should always talk to a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator for more information about ways to help the child progress in your family child care home.
Be responsive to families’ needs and preferences:
If family members approach you and share concerns about their child’s development, direct them to discuss their concerns with an early-childhood professional such as your trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. A professional can help you when dealing with developmental concerns and will describe or begin the process for identifying or referring the child.
Families with children under the age of 3 can contact their local early-intervention program. A free evaluation of the infant’s or toddler’s development can be completed for the young child to receive services and support that meets her or his needs. A pediatrician can also perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to a specialist.
Families of children older than age 3 can contact their local school district. The school district can arrange a free evaluation of the child’s development for the child to receive services and support that meet her or his individual needs. A pediatrician can also perform developmental screenings and possibly refer the child to a specialist.
Learn about the tools your program uses to help understand each child’s development. Your program might ask families to complete a tool like the Ages and Stages Questionnaire. This tool and others like it gives you information about each child’s unique development. Talk to your trainer, coach or family child care administrator to learn more about the tools and processes your program may use and who to talk to if families have questions.
The activities in this section aim at helping you learn more about: (a) how children in your program communicate, and (b) how responsive you are when it comes to promoting children’s communication. Read and complete the two activities below: Thinking about Communication and the Responsive Provider Checklist. Then, share and discuss your responses with a trainer, coach, or family child care administrator. If you need ideas for completing the activity, you can read and review the sample answers included.
Phonological awareness, or the ability to identify and be sensitive to how language sounds, plays a big role in reading development. Follow the link for an article from Reading Rockets on phonological and phoeemic awareness: https://www.readingrockets.org/helping/target/phonologicalphonemic. Next, read and review the resources below to learn more about phonological awareness, and what you can do to promote this skill. Then, take a few minutes to complete the Phonologically Rich Program Checklist attached.
If families are looking for ideas about good books for the home, you can direct them to Common Sense Media’s Best Books for Families (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-lists#). This website has book lists for children from preschool through the teenage years.
|Developmental delay||This may be suspected when children do not meet developmental milestones at the expected times; delays can occur in any area of development|
|Developmental milestone||A set of skills or behaviors that most children develop within a certain age range|
|Developmental screening||A tool used to help identify children who are not developing as expected and who may need supports; screening can be completed by pediatricians, teachers, and others who know both the child and child development well|
|Expressive Communication||The ability to use words to communicate with others|
|Phonological Awareness||Sensitivity to the sound structure of language|
|Private speech||When children talk to themselves|
|Receptive Communication||The ability to understand spoken words|
Berk, L. E. (2013). Child Development (9th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013). Learn the Signs, Act Early: Developmental Milestones. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/NCBDDD/actearly/pdf/checklists/All_Checklists.pdf
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.
National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2012). Early Childhood Generalist Standards: For teachers of students ages 3-8 (3rd ed.).
Trawick-Smith, J. W. (2014). Early Childhood Development: A Multicultural Perspective (6th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc.
Yopp, H. K., & Yopp, R. H. (2009). Phonological Awareness is Child’s Play! YC Young Children; Jan 2009; 64, 1.