More than words

22 May 2020

Nurturing language development in children should start from an early age, experts agree. But how can you support today’s parents to promote effective communication from the outset? Journalist Helen Bird reports.

It’s widely agreed and understood that language is the building block for all learning and the gateway to better outcomes in life (for instance, Gascoigne and Gross, 2017). The evidence speaks for itself – and there is plenty of it: language helps children to read, to write, to understand what they’re reading, to express their feelings and to form good relationships (for instance, Law et al, 2017).

Yet in England alone, a fifth of five-year-olds are behind with their language skills – rising to one in three depending on where you live (Save the Children (STC), 2015a) – with a similar picture in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (STC, 2015b, 2015c).

Meanwhile, a recent survey of nursery staff highlighted increasing reports of children biting in nurseries and pre-schools – because they lack the language to express their emotions, it’s been suggested (Learner, 2019).

And moving through the life stages, one in 10 university graduates in England has low literacy and numeracy, while nine million adults are functionally illiterate, OECD research showed (Kuczera et al, 2016).

So what’s going on? And while there is much evidence highlighting the crucial role of parents and caregivers in children’s early language development (for instance, Tamis-LeMonda and Rodriguez, 2009), is there more that community practitioners could be doing to help support them?

Why words matter

The list of positives around promoting effective communication from an early age is extensive. ‘Filling a child’s world with words helps them develop the language skills they need to be able to learn, have social interactions with others and make sense of the world around them and their place in it,’ explains Jonathan Douglas, chief executive of the National Literacy Trust.

‘Language impacts on all aspects of life,’ agrees Elizabeth Roche, team lead for children’s pre-school speech and language therapy at South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust. ‘It impacts on the child’s happiness, wellbeing, mental health, on their ability to learn and to earn a good wage in the future.’

So why are there such worrying statistics around children’s language development in the UK? The constraints of modern life are a hurdle for all parents, says Alex Charalambous, head of educational development at the Children’s Literacy Charity. ‘Societal changes and time restraints have played a part, with many parents working and running a household, leaving families little time to sit together and spend time reading.’

Indeed, a survey found the proportion of toddlers being read to every day had dropped by a fifth since 2013 (Egmont, 2018). Most parents of three- to four-year-olds cited ‘the struggle to find energy at the end of the day’ as the main reason, while others said it was down to ‘the child’s preference to do other things’.

Alex continues: ‘Schools are also very stretched, with many demands, and children who fall behind in their learning will find their gap widening as they go through the education system.’

‘People who live in poverty find themselves disengaged with education and do not see the value in learning to read and write’

The poverty trap

Socioeconomic status is also a huge factor. ‘The link between socioeconomic status, educational attainment and basic skills is stronger in England than in any other developed country,’ says Jonathan of the NLT. ‘As levels of social disadvantage increase, so too does the prevalence of language delay and difficulties.’

For instance, children in Wales who live in persistent poverty are twice as likely to score below average for language development at age five, while one in five children growing up in poverty in Scotland leaves primary school unable to read well (STC, 2015b and 2015c).

Unfortunately, this becomes a cycle of low literacy and poverty. ‘The cycle of illiteracy is a difficult one to break,’ says Alex. 

‘People who live in poverty do not have access to books or cannot afford to pay for courses, therefore they find themselves disengaged with education and do not see the value in learning to read and write.’

And the vicious cycle continues. ‘We know that young people who leave school with poor grades and low levels of literacy are more likely to experience unemployment, low incomes and poor health as adults,’ says Jonathan. ‘And on becoming parents, they won’t have the literacy skills needed to support their own children’s learning, perpetuating an intergenerational cycle of low literacy and poverty.’

Starting early

You can help to re-emphasise the vital role parents play in nurturing their children’s language skills, and the simple ways in which they can help.

‘As soon as the baby comes out, you have the beginnings of interaction,’ says Elizabeth, ‘which includes being face-to-face, smiling with the child… all of those non-verbal skills are also very important.

When talking to the child, we know that using “motherese” makes a difference. And it’s about developing that turn-taking between the child and the adult which is so important.’

Talking to children while they’re doing routine activities such as bath time and using simple language, Elizabeth says, are ways in which parents can encourage language development at home. ‘It’s about telling the children what things are, what they do, and giving them lots of opportunities to learn by being prepared to repeat. They’re very simple strategies that parents can do,’ she says.

‘It’s also important to remember social communication and to provide opportunities [for the child] to be with other children – whether that’s nurseries or playgroups, other friends and family or out in the playground. It’s about nurturing interaction with their peer group too.’

How else can you help?

How and when can CPs intervene and attempt to improve outcomes for children from a disadvantaged background? ‘We all have a responsibility in our professional roles to model to parents how to develop language skills with their children,’ says Alex.

‘Parents need to be shown simple, easy-to-follow methods that they can do in their day-to-day lives. They also need to know the importance of language skills and how it can help the relationship between them and their child. This is crucial to help a child feel safe to talk and able to express their needs.’ Of course this applies to families from all backgrounds.

A multi-agency approach is crucial, Elizabeth adds. ‘It’s about linking with the local speech and language therapy department and having a process in place to identify children who may be at risk of speech and language delay or disorder.’

In addition to the particular tool that health visiting teams use, whether the WellComm tool or the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, drop-in schemes at local children’s and family centres provide a safety net. ‘It’s in a free-play environment and the community therapist can have a look at the child and decide whether advice and support for the parents is enough, or a referral to speech and language therapy is needed,’ says Elizabeth.

And despite the Covid-19 restrictions, Elizabeth’s service is still accepting referrals, offering initial assessments by phone and follow-up consultations via video call. ‘We’re finding ways to do assessments using pictures and some families are able to share videos, which we can then both look at and provide a parent-child interaction therapy session,’ she says.

Last year, Public Health England (PHE) embarked on a programme to give further training to health visitors in England. Specifically, PHE started work to provide training that focused on early identification of language delay and promotion of early language developments (Nicholson, 2019).

For more resources, both professional and to signpost parents to, see below.

Talking tech

Finally, in this ever-expanding digital age, it raises the question, is the rise of technology driving the decline of language and communication skills all-round? The increase in children’s – and even parents’ – use of digital devices has raised concerns, particularly in light of findings that indicate some time-poor parents are relying on Alexa and other apps to read their children a bedtime story (BookTrust, 2019). But research recently determined there is insufficient evidence to confirm screen time in itself is harmful to child health (RCPCH, 2019).

‘It’s an interesting topic for debate,’ says Elizabeth. ‘I think we need to look at the advantages and disadvantages. If the children are having a bedtime story read by parents you have that interaction that is so important in a child’s life, but on the other hand, listening to stories you’re still developing that imagination, they’re still listening to rich language. So there maybe is a place for that.’

In fact, there are now apps that allow loved ones to read stories to family members in different households – perhaps an innovation that serves a real purpose now during the lockdown. Elizabeth says: ‘Technology is with us – it’s here – and we should be having wider discussions about how that activity can be communicative interaction for some of the time.’  

Resources for practitioners and parents

CPs can signpost parents with children under five to a wealth of digital resources, including:

  • The National Literacy Trust (NLT) help give disadvantaged children the literacy skills to succeed in life. Professionals can access evidence-based resources and training: literacytrust.org.uk
    Parents’ resources and advice: wordsforlife.org.uk and small-talk.org.uk, which shows how to maximise activities they already do with their child
  • The Children’s Literacy Charity works to close the literacy gap for all disadvantaged children: thechildrensliteracycharity.org.uk
  • Tiny Happy People from the BBC launched in March with feedback from health professionals. It helps parents develop their child’s communication skills right from pregnancy with engaging videos: bit.ly/bbc_tiny
  • Extra help during lockdown. The NLT, BookTrust and Department for Education have created extra resources for families during school closures: 
  • I CAN, the children’s communication charity: ican.org.uk


BookTrust. (2019) Parents swap books for tech at bedtime, new BookTrust research discovers. See: booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/news/news-2019/parents-swap-books-for-tech-at-bedtime-new-booktrust-research-discovers (accessed 21 April 2020).

Egmont. (2018) Number of toddlers being read to daily is in steep decline. See: egmont.co.uk/blog/number-toddlers-read-daily-steep-decline/ (accessed 27 April 2020).

ICAN and Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists. (2018)

Bercow: Ten years on. See: https://www.bercow10yearson.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/337644-ICAN-Bercow-Report-WEB.pdf (accessed 17 April 2020).

Gascoigne M, Gross J. (2017) Talking about a generation: Current policy, evidence and practice for speech, language and communication. See: https://www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk/media/540327/tct_talkingaboutageneration_report_online.pdf (accessed 6 May 2020).

Kuczera M, Field S, Windisch HC. (2016) BUILDING SKILLS FOR ALL: A REVIEW OF ENGLAND. See: https://www.oecd.org/unitedkingdom/building-skills-for-all-review-of-england.pdf    (accessed 27 April 2020).

Law J, Charlton K, Asmussen K. (2017) Language as a child wellbeing indicator. See https://www.eif.org.uk/report/language-as-a-child-wellbeing-indicator (accessed 27 April 2020).

Learner S. (2019) 'Too much screen time' blamed for children biting in nurseries. See: daynurseries.co.uk/news/article.cfm/id/1615931/too-much-screen-time-blamed-children-biting-nurseries (accessed 27 April 2020).

Nicholson W. (2019) Closing the word gap. See: communitypractitioner.co.uk/node/1287 (accessed 21 April 2020).

NLT. (2017) 1 in 8 disadvantaged children in the UK don’t own a single book. See: literacytrust.org.uk/news/1-8-disadvantaged-children-uk-dont-own-single-book (accessed 17 April).

RCPCH. (2019). The health impacts of screen time: a guide for clinicians and parents. See: https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-12/rcpch_screen_time_guide_-_final.pdf (accessed 27 April 2020).

Save the Children. (2015a) Early language development and children’s primary school attainment in English and maths: new research findings. See: https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/content/dam/gb/reports/policy/early-language-development-and-childrens-primary-school-attainment.pdf (accessed 27 April 2020)

Save the Children. (2015b) Ready to read: Closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in Scotland can read well. See: https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/content/dam/global/reports/education-and-child-protection/ready-to-read-scotland.pdf (accessed 27 April 2020).

Save the Children. (2015c) Ready to read: Closing the gap in early language skills so that every child in Wales can read well. See: https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/content/dam/global/reports/education-and-child-protection/ready-to-read-wales.pdf (accessed 27 April 2020).

Tamis-LeMonda CS, Rodriguez ET. (2009) Parents’ role in fostering young children’s learning and language development. See: child-encyclopedia.com/language-development-and-literacy/according-experts/parents-role-fostering-young-childrens-learning (accessed 25 April 2020).




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