Attention and Engagement is an intervention model which aims to develop natural and spontaneous communication through the use of visually based and highly motivating activities. The primary objective is that the sessions are fun and “offer an irresistible invitation to learn”!

Aims of Attention and Engagement

  1. To engage attention
  2. To improve joint attention
  3. To develop shared enjoyment in group activities
  4. To increase attention in adult-led activities
  5. To encourage spontaneous interaction in a natural group setting
  6. To increase non-verbal and verbal communication through commenting
  7. To build a wealth and depth of vocabulary
  8. To have fun!

Stages of Attention and Engagement

The Attention and Engagement programme progresses through a series of stages, building on each skill level. Each new stage is introduced when the group is ready to expand attention skills.

Stage 1: The bucket to focus attention

A bucket is filled with visually engaging objects and toys, aiming to gain the shared attention of the group. The adult leader shows each item to the group and uses simple repetitive vocabulary to comment on the various objects.

Stage 2: The attention builder

Visually stimulating activities are shown to the group by the adult leader, aiming to sustain attention for a longer period. The activities are fun, visually engaging and can often involve delightful mess!

Stage 3: Turn taking & re-engaging attention

The adult leader demonstrates a simple activity, often modelled with another adult in the group. Some children are then invited to have a turn but only if they are comfortable to do so. Not every child in the group will get a turn, which then teaches important emotional regulation skills, as well as the essential skills of waiting, turn-taking and learning through modelling.

Stage 4: Shifting & re-engaging attention

Stage 4 aims to develop the skill of engaging and shifting attention. The adult leader demonstrates a simple creative task, and then gives each child an individual kit to copy the task. The children take their kits to a table, complete the task independently, and then everyone returns to the group to show their completed tasks.

Parents/carers role:

Within the group:

  • Allow your child to move around the room if they want and as long as there is no risk of then hurting themselves - if they try to enter the tough tray or reach for activity items the therapist will pause the activity and wait for you to bring them back to you
  • Model good attention to activities  
  • Feel free to comment such as wow, uh oh, bubble, splash, etc.

At home:

  • Reduce distractions
  • Use the whiteboard to outline what is going to happen
  • Carry out the Bucket activity daily
  • Create play routines, add key language using single words, repeat the routine once they are familiar with it to build anticipation and pause to create opportunities for your child to respond

Gradually increase the length of activities and the number of sequential activities to include stages 2-4 as advised by the therapist.

Stage 1 vidoes

Listening is not the same as hearing. A child may hear an instruction, but they may not be able to listen to it as their attention is fixed on another activity. Listening requires concentration and a child will need practise to establish good listening skills.

A child with attention and listening difficulties may be easily distracted and have difficulty focusing on tasks. Children with a hearing loss (including those with ‘glue ear’) may require some extra support to establish good listening.

Activities to support the development of attention and listening - level 1

Acknowledging the presence of another person

Encourage the child to look at you and share attention. Use silly noises and voices, singing and pulling faces to gain attention

Use noisy or flashing toys, mirrors, bubbles, pop up toys, fans and feathers to gain attention and encourage anticipation

See ‘People Games’ in the Play section for more ideas

Looking, following and tracking objects

Play with interesting toys and encourage the child to look and follow its movements. For example, rolling a noisy or flashing ball

Play with musical instruments or shakers. Shake the instrument to the side of the chid. If they turn to the sound, give them the instrument as a reward.


If a child does not respond to their name, try touching their arm as you say it.

Children struggle to focus when there is lots of background noise. It’s always a good idea to have play times without the TV or radio on during the day.

Give the child one or two toys at a time- too many can be distracting.

Children love repetition! Repeat, repeat, repeat games they enjoy.


Activities to support the development of attention and listening - level 2

Identifying a named object from a choice of two

Give the child two or three objects (for example a car, a banana and a ball) or simple pictures and ask them to select the one you request, for example ‘find the ball’.

Joining in with nursery rhymes and action songs

Sing familiar songs repetitively and then wait for the child to join in with an action or sound, ‘row row row your ……’

Developing anticipation

Encourage the child to respond to a given signal, by using familiar phrases such as ‘1 2 3’ or ‘ready steady go’, while rolling a ball, going down a slide, pushing a car or knocking down a tower. Encourage the child to listen for the word ‘go’ or number 3, before they slide, roll or push. Increase the length of the pause, to encourage the child to wait for a longer period of time.

Some children may not be able to focus on a whole story. Leave a gap for them to join in at key moments with repetitive phrases i.e. ‘so I sent him back!’

See People Games in the Play section for more ideas.


Encourage parallel play by playing alongside the child. Copy their play and make simple comments without distracting them.

In the setting, try to introduce new activities one to one if a child has attention and listening difficulties.

Make sure you have the child’s attention before introducing something new.


Activities to support the development of attention and listening - level 3

Identifying one or two named objects

Give the child a small number of objects, for example:

  • Full size objects; a teddy, a doll and a cup
  • Miniature objects; cow, pig, sheep

Ask the child for one or two of the items, for example ‘find the teddy’ or ‘find the cow and the cup’. Begin with objects, until the child is secure with the idea, and then move to miniature object and simple pictures.

Play a posting game with shapes, toys or pictures. Ask the child to post one of items into the post box but they must wait until you say ‘go’. Gradually increase the time between the instruction and ‘Go’ by counting silently in your head, for example ‘post the apple… go’.

Ask the child to hide a named object while you shut your eyes and then make a big show of looking for it, for example ‘hide the cat’.

Play shops. Let the child be the shop keeper. Visit the shop and ask for one or two items for example ‘can I have a carrot and banana?’

Listening carefully to sounds

Set out a range of vehicles and/or animal toys in front of the child. Make one of the noises i.e. ‘moo’ or ‘beep beep’. Encourage the child to find the toy that makes that noise.

Line up musical instruments such as a drum, triangle and tambourine. Play each one so the child can hear what sound it makes. The child turns round and you make a noise with one. The child has to choose which one you are playing.

Play musical statues – stand still when the music stops.

Encourage the child to find a noisy toy which has been hidden. This may include a loudly ticking clock, a musical box or a ticking egg timer.

In a group, pass an object around a circle to music. When the music stops the child with the object jumps up and says their name.

Play a marching game- let the child stamp or march around the room to the beat of a drum or to music while keeping in time. Extend this activity- when the music is loud the child needs to stamp, when it is quiet they need to tiptoe.

Play sound lottos to encourage matching sounds and pictures.

Go on a sound walk and identify the sounds you can hear inside and outside.

Play a ‘secret message’ game - the adult whispers a short message into the child’s ear. They then pass it around the group.



Gain the child’s attention by using their name before giving an instruction.

Let the child choose the activity from a selection- they are more likely to focus when they are interested!

Keep activities short and end with a reward!


Activities to support the development of attention and listening - level 4

Listening, acknowledging their name and carrying out an action

Encourage the child to listen for their name when sitting in a circle. When they hear their name they need to catch a ball or beanbag that is thrown to them.

In a group ask each child to listen for their name and then perform a simple action, for example stand up.

Using a familiar story book, substitute the name of the characters in the story with children in the group.

When a child hears their name they must put their hand up and say ‘that’s me’. For example, ‘Jack saw a mouse and the mouse looked good!’

Play a parachute activity - the children listen for their names and swap places.

Remembering and carrying out a sequence of two items or actions

Give a simple action to do when the child hears a musical prompt. For example when they hear the drum they must run to the door.

Give the child two actions to perform, for example “Touch your ear and your nose”. Extend this to play the ‘traffic light’ game - ‘Red’ means sit down, ‘Amber’ means stand still and ‘Green’ means run.

Identifying three named objects

Play a ‘washing line’ game with real objects or pictures. Give the child instructions involving three items, for example ‘hang out the dress, the sock and the pants’.

Play shops. Let the child be the shop keeper. Visit the shop and ask for three items for example ‘can I have a carrot, a strawberry and some crisps?’

Copying a rhythm

Introduce this section by encouraging the child to copy a series of 2 or 3 simple actions, for example the adult can touch their nose, pat their head and clap. Can the child copy?

Play with musical instruments and ask the child to copy a pattern of three beats. Do this whilst they look and listen, then, when they are confident, they can carry out the activity just by listening.

‘Pass the beat’ around a group- the adult plays a beat and ‘passes it’ to the next person to copy.

Repeat a clapping rhythm by looking and listening, then just by listening.

Activities to support the development of attention and listening - level 5

The demands placed upon children when they start school require them to attend at Level 5.

Following a series of instructions

Carry out ‘barrier games’- set up a screen or divider between two children. Give them both identical sets of beads and a string. Ask one to thread them and at the same time tell the other what they are doing e.g. “yellow, then blue, then red”. The second child has to do the same. At the end the two strings should be identical. If this is difficult, pair the child with an adult.

Encourage the child to carry out two and three step instructions, for example ‘pick up the pencil and give it to Mrs Smith’.

Identifying four to five named objects

Play the washing line or shopping game (see Level 3-4) but with an extended list of four to five items. Introduce a fantasy element, for example ‘Pretend you are going on holiday and you need to take…’

Joining in and interacting with a story

When reading a story with animals in it, ask the child to listen for one animal and make the noise or mime the animal when they hear it.

During group time, set out a range of objects in the middle. Make up a story, for example about a child’s birthday, and the child needs to collect the appropriate object or picture when the object is named.

Give the child a set of pictures or objects involved in a story. Ask them to hold up the items as they hear them. The activity can be extended by adding more objects or pictures and putting them into a row as they hear them.

Listening for a given sound and recalling a linked action

The child has to remember the ‘code’ for different musical instruments. Introduce two instruments and link them to an animal, for example when they hear the drum they pretend to be a dog, when they hear a tambourine they pretend to be a snake. Extend the activity by introducing more instruments and animals/vehicles/actions.


Carry over the skills practised in these activities to everyday classroom situations.


Activities to support the development of attention and listening - level 6

Developing active listening

Adults in the classroom can ‘role play’ how not to listen. One member of staff can read a story while another member of staff demonstrates poor listening behaviours, for example not looking, fidgeting, interrupting, talking to others around them. The children can then identify these behaviours and the class can discuss how to do ‘good listening’ together and agree on listening rules for the class. This can be made into a visual poster.

Encourage children to ask for repetition or clarification and to let an adult know if they haven’t understood.

Create an environment where the children are encouraged to ask questions if they are unsure, have a go or a have a sensible guess.


Create a visual ‘good listening’ poster for the children to refer to.

Give the children a small double sided card- one side red, one side green. If a child understands the task they place the card green side up on the desk. If a child doesn’t understand they place the card red side up. This will indicate to the teacher which children need some extra support.


Top tips for attention and listening


Use the child’s name before giving them an instruction. Make sure you have their attention before speaking (it may take up to 10 seconds for them to move their attention to you, especially if they are doing something they enjoy).

Use visual aids to support a child’s attention such as using puppets, props and pictures for story time.

Create a visual ‘good listening’ poster for the children to refer to. Talk about good looking, good listening and good sitting often and make sure this is modelled and reinforced.

Modify the classroom environment to maximise listening potential. Seat children with attention and listening difficulties towards the front of the classroom with a clear view of the teacher and reduce background noise as much as possible.

For children who find sitting on the carpet difficult try a carpet square, fiddle toy or sand timer to encourage them to stay on the carpet.

Show that activities have a clear start and finish point. Introduce two boxes or baskets- one for ‘start’ and one for ‘finish’. Put the activities the child needs to do (or a visual representation of this) in the start box. When the activity is done, the child can move this to the finish box.

To support a child to move from one activity to another, use a ‘now and next’ approach. Use an object or picture to represent what the child is doing now and show them what they will do next.

Alternate between more active activities and quieter activities.

You may find that strategies to support comprehension will also support children with attention and listening difficulties.

The demands placed upon children when they start school require them to attend at Level 5.

Some children will need support to develop their attention to this level. Strategy support may need to continue through all Key Stages.


The development of play is very closely linked to the development of language. Play helps to develop a number of skills including listening and attention, eye contact, turn taking, understanding and using language, problem solving and imagination.

Play is best when it is child led- let them choose, follow their interests and join in! Play enables a child to try out new skills and roles without fear of failure and it provides an opportunity for expressing emotions in an appropriate way.

Above all, play should be voluntary and fun.

The types of play:

There are lots of different types of play. A child may have difficulty in developing these skills for reasons including:

  • Physical and/or sensory difficulties – the child is unable to fully
  • explore the environment.
  • Poor attention and a short concentration span – the child is unable
  • to fully engage in play activities because of distractions.
  • Social communication difficulties – the child may be happy to play
  • alone but reluctant to share and take turns.

Types of play include:

  • People Play
  • Sensory Play
  • Cause & Effect Play
  • Physical Play
  • Constructive Play
  • Imaginative Play
  • Social Play

People play

One of the earliest stages of play a child will enjoy is people play. This involves them interacting with others and can be done without toys. Children enjoy the repetitive nature of these games and they can support the development of turn taking, eye contact, anticipation, joint attention and listening.

People Play Ideas:

  • Peek-a-Boo: Put a blanket or soft sheet over your child’s face and say ‘”Where’s (name)?” Then quickly pull the blanket away and say “There s/he is!” or “peek-a-boo!” Try to wait a little longer each time before pulling the blanket away to increase their attention. Try putting the blanket over your face and have your child pull it away to find you instead.
  • Chasing/Tickling Game: Hold out your hands and look expectantly and say “Tickles” before tickling your child. Leave your hands out a little longer each time before tickling your child to encourage them to wait and anticipate what is coming.
  • Bubbles: Blow some bubbles up into the air then hold out the bubble wand and wait for your child to look or show they want some more. Wait a little longer each time before blowing the bubbles to encourage longer attention. Ask “More?” Wait and look for signs that they want to continue. This might be a word or a sound, a look, a gesture or a smile.
  • Balloons: Blow up a balloon and hold it out and wait for your child to look before letting it go. Wait a little longer each time to encourage attention. If your child is very motivated when you blow up the balloon, blow in a small amount of air only and ask “More?”. Wait for your child to show you that they want you to blow more before carrying on.
  • Singing: Sing familiar rhymes with actions such as ‘Round and Round the Garden’, ‘Wind the Bobbin’, ‘Row Your Boat’ or ‘Twinkle Twinkle’. Leave gaps in the songs and see if you child will show you they want more of the song or even fill in the missing word/action. You can also sing songs that have an action that your child can anticipate e.g. “we all fall down!” in ‘Ring around the Roses’. Wait a little longer each time before saying ‘down’ to encourage attention and anticipation.


  • If a child does not respond to their name, try touching their arm as you say it.
  • Children struggle to focus when there is lots of background noise. It’s always a good idea to have play times without the TV or radio on during the day.
  • Give the child one or two toys at a time- too many can be distracting!
  • Children love repetition! Repeat, repeat, repeat games they enjoy.

Exploratory play

A child will explore objects and toys using all their senses. This helps them to understand the world around them. The child should have access to a range of toys and everyday objects which are of interest to them. Observe how they play and if necessary demonstrate how to use the objects appropriately. Show them how to use objects in real situations e.g. give them a spoon to hold while they are feeding. Let the child explore and take the lead; your role should be to extend and guide their play. Activities should be adapted if the child has physical and/or sensory difficulties. Toys must provide experiences of looking, listening, feeling, smelling and tasting.

Exploratory Play Activity Ideas

  • Messy Play- Encourage the child to explore food based items such as jelly, beans or spaghetti through touch, taste and smell.
  • Texture Play- Explore lots of different textures including sand, water, play doh or shaving foam.
  • Noise Making- Use musical instruments and shakers to explore sounds.
  • Treasure Boxes- Encourage the child to explore ‘treasure boxes’ filled with natural objects such as shells, wood, pine cones, leaves etc.
  • Object Feely Bags- Encourage the child to explore a ‘feely bag’ containing items of different sizes, colours, shapes, smells and textures.

Other resources can include

  • Mobiles
  • Touch and feel books
  • Balls

Cause and effect play

Cause and effect play teaches children that their actions have an effect on their environment. This is an important communication skill.

Cause and Effect Resources

  • Messy Play: Encourage the child to explore food based items such as jelly, beans or spaghetti through touch, taste and smell.
  • Texture Play: Explore lots of different textures including sand, water, play doh or shaving foam.
  • Noise Making: Use musical instruments and shakers to explore sounds.
  • Treasure Boxes: Encourage the child to explore ‘treasure boxes’ filled with natural objects such as shells, wood, pine cones, leaves etc.
  • Object Feely Bags: Encourage the child to explore a ‘feely bag’ containing items of different sizes, colours, shapes, smells and textures.

Physical play

Physical play is motivating and fun. This type of play is particularly good for active children and for those who find it more difficult to concentrate. It encourages playing with others, sharing and turn taking. The adult can comment on the child’s actions and model vocabulary which the child may find more tricky, for example ‘jumping’, and ‘under’.

Physical Play Games

  • Hide and Seek
  • Chasing
  • Action Rhymes such as ‘Wind the bobbin up’ or ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’
  • Ball Games
  • Racing Games using ‘Ready, steady, go’
  • Peekaboo with play tunnels.
  • Soft Play Areas
  • Trampolines
  • Bikes & Scooters
  • Parachute Games
  • Dancing

Constructive play

Children learn to co-ordinate their fine motor skills through a variety of activities e.g. building, threading, stacking, interlocking games, craft activities. It can help them to develop a problem solving approach. The child stores visual information which they use at a later date, thus developing memory skills. Importantly it can give the child a sense of achievement when they complete a task.

Physical Play Games

  • Building with wooden blocks of varying sizes
  • Building with interlocking bricks e.g. Duplo, Lego
  • Train tracks
  • Threading cotton reels, beads, pasta shapes
  • Craft activities – cutting and sticking
  • Junk modelling with cardboard etc.
  • Stacking beakers or cups
  • Inset boards and jigsaw puzzles
  • Den building

Imaginative play

Imaginative play is very important in encouraging children’s language development. Early imaginative play begins through imitating familiar events such as drinking from an empty cup. The child will move on by continuing to imitate everyday activities and starting to recognise that dolls and teddies represent people, for example when mum baths the baby, the child baths the doll. The child will then begin to recognise miniature ‘small world’ toys such as a doll’s house. The child will begin to engage in ‘make believe’ play involving invented people or objects, for example playing ‘schools’, pretending to be a superhero or pretending an empty box is a spaceship.

Stage 1

Explore a range of everyday items. Carry out real life scenarios and model how to ‘pretend’ with the real objects. The adult can model this, for example pretending to drink from the child’s empty cup, pretending to open the door with a key.

Stage 2

Introduce a teddy, doll or favourite character toy into the pretend play with familiar objects, such as giving the teddy a drink, washing the doll etc

Stage 3

Expand on your child’s pretend play by encouraging them to copy sequences of everyday events, such as brushing the doll’s teeth, putting pyjamas on and putting them to bed.

Stage 4

The child will begin to understand that miniature objects relate to real objects. Encourage a range of small world play such as playing with cars and a garage, trains and doll’s houses.

Stage 5

The child will start to explore make believe play and take on the role of others, for example pretending to be a superhero or a teacher. Encourage dressing up and real life props to support this. At this stage children learn to pretend an object is something else (symbolic play), e.g. pretending a box is a boat.

Social play

Solitary: a child will initially play alone. They explore and learn with the objects they use but do not attempt to play with others. As they become older they may still have periods when they need to play alone but it is important to not become stuck at this stage.

Parallel Play: children start to play alongside each other, for example standing around the water tray. They watch each other and may attempt occasional interactions. Towards the end of this stage they may begin to co-operate with other children by sharing or passing toys and they may take turns with at least one other child.

Co-operative Play: children enjoy the friendship of other children and want to interact with them. They learn to play together, share and take turns in small groups. Disagreements will sometimes still occur. Later the children can take part in activities without close adult supervision. Their play routines become more imaginative and they should be able to take part in meaningful conversations.

Moving from Solitary to Parallel Play:

  • Join the child in an activity that interests them. Play alongside them.
  • Copy their play with an identical set of toys.
  • Try to extend your interactions with the child by encouraging them to accept toys from you, for example passing more stacking cups if they are playing with this toy.
  • Praise any attempts they make to interact or copy you.

Moving from Parallel Play to Co-operative Play:

  • Become more interactive by developing two way interactive games, for example rolling a car or ball to them and asking for it back.
  • Group games with a parachute can be fun and motivating and encourage shared enjoyment.
  • Introduce simple turn taking games such as skittles, pop up pirate.

Some information and ideas based on Elklan Language Builders (2009)

Understanding language refers to the ability to make sense of spoken and written information. It is dependent upon a number of skills.

Children who may be experiencing difficulty in the area of understanding may also have problems with attention and listening skills and vocabulary development (see appropriate sections).

Children with difficulties with understanding may:

  • Need instructions to be given one to one
  • Need instructions to be repeated
  • Need support to join in group discussions
  • Engage in distracting behaviour, of self and others
  • Appear to follow instructions but are actually using visual cues such as, watching what others do in the classroom
  • Complete tasks inappropriately
  • Repeat instructions rather than carry them out
  • Have poor concentration
  • Need more time to respond
  • May try to hide their difficulties understanding e.g. watching other’s faces to try to guess the answer, changing the conversation topic
  • An older child may learn to read but not be able to understand what they have read
  • May have difficulties storing information and remembering instructions given

Processing language and top tips

Language processing is complex. It is more than listening or understanding and is dependent upon the integration of a whole range of skills which include:

  • Hearing
  • Sustaining attention
  • Sorting out and making sense of the sounds you hear
  • Holding auditory information in memory (see auditory memory leaflet)
  • Making links between words and ideas
  • Associating new information with old
  • Putting the whole thing together to make sense

…….And it all happens AT SPEED!.....

For this reason, a child who has difficulties with understanding and processing spoken information will begin to rely on visual prompts and clues. These can be an essential support for learning e.g. Makaton signing to support early understanding.

Visual supports such as visual timetables, pictures and symbols and daily routines should be available in early year’s settings to support understanding. In order to cope with busy and often noisy settings, the child will benefit from a range of strategies to support understanding and processing.

You can help by:

  • Making sure you have the child’s full attention (see tip tops from the attention and listening section)
  • Being face to face
  • Keeping your language simple – giving short instructions
  • Giving the child time to think and respond
  • Emphasising the most important words in the sentences
  • Use visual supports to aid understanding e.g. gesture, facial expression, objects and pictures.



If the child doesn’t follow the instruction you have given, it is possible that there has been a breakdown in communication. Try to work out where this breakdown has happened. You could think about: Was your instruction too long or too complex? Were the words you used too difficult? Did you have the child’s full attention? Did you give them time to respond?

Early understanding

From around 9 months of age, a child begins to start using all the clues around them to understand what is going on. These include clues such as, gesture and tone of voice, as well as familiarity with the situation. For example, if a mother asks a child to sit down, whilst pulling out a chair, tying their bib on while food smells fill the room, the child is likely to understand what she wants them to do. The child, however, understands few of the words, interpreting them as part of the whole situation.

Strategies to develop early understanding:

  • Keep sentences short and simple
  • Be repetitive by using the same phrase for a particular activity
  • Use gesture and actions to support what you say
  • Make eye contact with your child when you are communicating with them
  • Praise and encourage your child when they respond

Activities to try:

Mealtimes, bedtime, getting dressed, bath time, going shopping, family member arriving home, favourite television programme.

  • Choose one or two sentences to use consistently
  • e.g. “It’s dinner time”
    • “Wash your hands”
    • “Let’s put your bib on”
  • Use gestures and actions to accompany these sentences.
    • e.g. Show your child their plate and cutlery
    • Let your child smell the food
    • Show them their bib, and then put it on
    • Pull out their high chair

Later, begin to say the sentence before you use the gestures and actions. This will help your child to learn to anticipate mealtimes on hearing just your sentences.

Understanding the key words in a sentence

This tells us the number of key words that a child has to understand in a sentence to carry out an instruction. It involves the child making a choice between objects, places etc.

  • 0 word level – see section on situational understanding
  • 1 word level
  • 2 word level
  • 3 word level

In order to be sure that there is true understanding at any of the stages, there must be a choice for the underlined words.

For example:

1 word level Where’s the car?

Equipment needed: car, brush

2 word level Give the ball to dolly.

Equipment needed: ball, car, teddy, dolly

3 word level Put the spoon in the bag.

Equipment needed: shoe, spoon, bag, box, in/on/under

As language develops, it is normal for a child’s understanding to be at a higher level than their spoken language e.g. a child may understand a 3 word level instruction, but may only be joining 2 words expressively e.g. ‘daddy car’.

1 key word level

To carry out simple instructions containing one key word.

When carrying out the activity, a choice of objects/people should be available for the underlined words.

  • Make a photograph book of the child’s preferred objects/activities or family members. Ask the child to find a picture on request e.g. ‘Where’s Mummy?’
  • Make a simple posting box out of a shoe box. Present up to 3 – 5 picture cards in front of the child and ask them to put one in the box e.g. ‘Where’s the car? Put it in the box.’ If developing a child’s understanding of verbs, action pictures can be used e.g.‘Who is washing? Put it in the box.’
  • Set up a washing line. Ask the child to find objects to hang on the line e.g. ‘Where’s the sock?’
  • Set up a toy shop. Give the child a shopping basket and ask them to purchase individual items e.g. ‘Buy an apple’.
  • Give the child a doll or teddy and a sponge. Ask them to wash body parts e.g. ‘Wash nose’ If developing a child’s understanding of verbs, ask them to make the doll jump/sit/sleep/run.

2 key word level

To carry out simple instructions containing one key word.

When carrying out the activity, a choice of objects/people should be available for the underlined words.

  • Using a doll’s house, give the child a doll and ask them to make the doll do things in specific places e.g. ‘Make the doll jump on the bed’.
  • Play a hiding game. Use a selection of small everyday objects and different containers e.g. box, bag, cup. Ask the child to hide an object e.g. ‘Put the spoon in the box’ and then encourage another child to look for it.
  • Washing dolly and teddy. Sit dolly and teddy in a bath. Give the child a sponge and ask them to wash body parts e.g. ‘Wash dolly’s ears.’ ‘Wash teddy’s nose’ (N.B. both dolly and teddy must be visible).
  • Hold a tea party with either toys or other children and have at least three or four tea set objects. Ask the child to give them out to others e.g. ‘Give the plate to Zak’.
  • Pretend to be at the circus. The child is the animal trainer and the adult is the ring master. The child must help the animals perform their tricks (have three animals available) e.g. ‘Make the elephant dance’; ‘Make the horse jump’.

3 key word level

  • Have a toys picnic. Set out a plate and bowl in front of a teddy and the same in front of a dolly. Lay out a choice of toy food and ask the child to give one item to teddy or dolly e.g. ‘Put the banana on dolly’s plate’, ‘put the apple in teddy’s bowl.’
  • Play an action game involving a choice of toys e.g. teddy, duck and frog and a hoop and a small mat. Place the hoop and mat in front of the child. Show how the toys can jump, sit, dance, run, sleep etc. Put the toys on a table and ask the child to make a toy perform an action in a certain place e.g. ‘Make the frog dance in the hoop’, ‘Make the teddy jump on the mat.’
  • Play a game of giving presents to large or small toys. Have a large and small teddy and a large and small dolly. Lay out three small objects (or pictures) and ask the child to give them to the toys e.g. ‘Give the ball to the big teddy’, ‘give the cup to the small dolly.’
  • Have a selection of plastic animals and small furniture. Demonstrate how the silly animals have come into the house and are playing on the furniture. Show how they climb on and under furniture. Put the animals in front of the child and ask the child to hide them e.g. ‘Put the cow under the table’, ‘put the pig on the chair’.
  • With a small group of children, demonstrate all the different things toy animals can do e.g. run, dance, jump and walk. Ask the children to make the animals move to another named child e.g. ‘Make the cat jump to Sally’, ‘Make the pig run to Zak.’

To download the 3 key word level pack, please click here.

Understanding concept words

Concept words are important for children to learn as we use them a lot in everyday language. Concepts words include:

  • Colour e.g. blue
  • Size e.g. big
  • Length e.g. short
  • Position e.g. under
  • Time e.g. before
  • Negatives e.g. not
  • Possession e.g. ‘mummy’s’

TOP TIP: When introducing concepts it is important to introduce only one concept at a time. For example: Put together a collection of ‘big’ items and talk about them being ‘big’. The next stage is to introduce ‘big’ and ‘not big’. The final stage is to talk about things being ‘big or small’. Make sure that at first the small objects are very small and the big objects are very big, so that it is easy to see and understand the difference. Introduce a colour such as ‘blue’. Put together a collection of blue items and talk about them being ‘blue’. Next, find a range of different coloured items and describe them as ‘not blue’. Using sorting hoops can be particularly effective i.e. blue things in the ‘blue’ hoop and different colours in the ‘not blue’ hoop.

The activities below are designed to support the development of concept words. As the child gets older, you will need to expand these activities to give the child an opportunity to learn more complex concept words.


To match up to 4 colours (red, yellow, blue, green)

Language: red; yellow; blue; green; find; same; match; another

  • Hide and seek – hide a red brick and ask the child to find one the ‘same’ or ‘another red brick’.
  • Balloons – use two balloons of each colour. Hold a blue balloon and ask the child to find the other blue one.
  • Clothes – hold one red sock and ask the child to find another red sock. Continue with other items of clothes and colours.
  • Bricks – build towers using the same colour bricks.
  • Puzzles and games which give opportunities to match and name colours e.g. Snail Race, Match a Balloon, dominoes.
  • Use a range of coloured materials e.g. card board, tissue paper etc. Stick matching red pieces onto the red piece of card.
  • Balls and buckets in outdoor play- throw the red balls into the red bucket, and continue with the other colours.

To sort objects by colour.

  • Playhouse – set the table in the playhouse with matching cutlery and crockery for each setting.
  • Use a variety of hoops, balls etc and ask the child to find a blue ball or jump in a red hoop.
  • Dressing – set out a range of clothes and dress the dolls or teddies in a specific colour.
  • Sorting – sort objects such as fruit, compare bears, beads, cotton reels into the correct colour sets.
  • Dressing up – collect a range of coloured cards and matching coloured sets of clothes (e.g. hat, scarf, gloves). Hold up one of the cards and ask a child to put on the clothes which match the colour.
  • Have a selection of coloured beads/bricks/cars etc on the table. Ask the child to find the blue car.
  • Have a selection of crayons/paints available. Ask the child to find a named colour crayon/paint.
  • During physical play, have coloured hoops and balls/beanbags. Ask the child to find a named colour ball/beanbag and throw it into the same colour hoop.
  • Have coloured fish in the water tray/magnetic fishing game, and ask the child to catch a named colour fish.


To identify big and little objects.

  • Language: big; little; Which is..? find; point to
  • Hide objects in big and little boxes. Ask the child to find a big box and see what’s inside.
  • Playdough – different sized cutters e.g. big and little circles. Ask the child if they can make a big circle.
  • Goldilocks and the 3 bears – set the home corner with items from the story, encourage re-enactment and matching object sizes to bears e.g. little bear and the little chair.
  • Bury big and little toys in the sand tray e.g. dinosaurs, lorries, toy people. Ask the child ‘Where is the big dinosaur?’
  • Have big and little containers in the water tray. Ask the child to find a big cup to fill.


TOP TIP: Make sure the objects are very short or very long and use gesture initially to help with meaning.

To identify long and short objects.

Language: long; short; Which? Point to; show me; find

  • Playdough – ‘Can you roll a long/short sausage?
  • Ribbons – Explore and play with long/short ribbons. Use the ribbons in the outdoor play area, watch them flow around in the air as the child runs. ‘Wave the long ribbons in the air.’
  • Make a collage using long and short strips of paper. ‘Can you find a long piece?’
  • Sort a range of equipment and toys according to length e.g. long and short trains, clothes, socks, skipping ropes, toy snakes.


To follow simple instructions involving ‘in’, ‘on’ and ‘under’.

Language: in; on; under; put

  • Use throughout everyday routines e.g. ‘put the cars in the box’ during tidy up time.
  • Encourage the child to complete simple obstacle courses during physical play e.g. ‘Can you go under the chair?’
  • Hide an object e.g. a teddy. Talk about where teddy is e.g. ’He’s under the book.’
  • Use simple instructions when cooking e.g. ‘Can you put the spoon on the plate.’
  • When using small world play e.g. the dolls’ house, give the child simple instructions e.g. ‘Can you put daddy in the bath’, ‘Put baby on the table.’

Position words which develop later include: in front of, behind, next to, inside, outside, above, below. These can easily be introduced within the routines of the session e.g. snack time, outside play time etc.


To understand basic concepts of time

TOP TIP: Remember that the child’s use of verb tenses is related to the child’s awareness of the passing of time. Use the child’s personal experiences to develop this for example, ‘today you are painting the tree’, ‘yesterday you painted the house’ and ‘tomorrow you will do the sky’.

TOP TIP: In a setting, use a velcro picture/written timetable to teach the concept you wish to develop e.g. ‘now’, ‘next’, ‘later’

Language: next; then; day; night
  • Read stories which are on the subject of time e.g. going to bed, and day time activities.
  • Design areas in the play house which clearly show activities for day time and an area where beds are made – encourage the child to re-enact.
  • Use a variety of small world play equipment to give the child opportunities to re-enact bed time and day time.
  • Have a range of photographs of activities we do in the day and at night, encourage the child to sort the photos into day and night activities.
  • Look at clothes we wear in the day and when we go to bed encourage the child to wear appropriate clothes when playing in the playhouse.
  • Describe the routine of the day as it occurs. ‘First we are going to have a snack and then we will go out to play.’
  • During a circle time, use prompt pictures to talk about what they did yesterday and what is going to happen today. At the end of the session, think about what they might do tomorrow.
  • Ask the child to put a simple photographic sequence in the correct order e.g. getting dressed, brushing teeth, familiar story.


To understand the concept of negatives
  • Language: no, not (this is about understanding the significance of this little word which so changes the meaning of a sentence)
  • Have symbol cards for ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Give the child an object/picture and ask them ‘Is this a banana?’ The child puts the object/picture on the appropriate symbol card.
  • Have a choice of two action picture cards/photographs. Ask the child to find ‘Who is not walking?’
  • Have a choice of two objects/pictures of objects. Ask the child to give you the one that is ‘not a car.’
  • During small group activities, talk about what the children are wearing and ask them to stand up if they are not wearing trousers.
  • When playing with a parachute, ask any child who is not a boy to run underneath.
  • Use an activity scene, e.g. children playing in a park and ask questions like ‘Show me a boy who is not standing’.
Language: can’t, don’t, won’t, didn’t, wouldn’t

Model in activities like PE e.g.

  • Girls – do run
  • Boys – don’t run

TOP TIP: Children need to recognise that ‘n’t’ equals ‘not’; ‘can’t’ equals ‘cannot’, ‘didn’t’ equals ‘did not’. You will need to make this explicit for some children.


To carry out a simple request involving possession.

Language: ………’s

  • Have a dolly and teddy sitting in front of the child. Have a plate in front of each toy. Give the child a piece of toy food and ask them to ‘Put it on dolly’s ’
  • Ask the child to bring in photographs of his family members/pets etc. Show them to all the children. Then lay a selection of the photographs out on the floor and ask the child to find ‘Susie’s mummy.’
  • Have two dressed toys in front of the child e.g. teddy and dolly. Ask the child to show you ‘teddy’s coat’, ‘dolly’s shoes’ etc. Similarly, this can be done with pictures.
  • Set up a picnic with a small group of children. Give simple instructions e.g. ‘put the spoon in Joseph’s cup.’
  • Ask the child to be a helper and find ‘Ashram’s coat’.

Understanding grammar

Grammar is a term used to describe how language is structured and organised.

For a child to understand language, they need to be able to make sense of a range of elements including:

  • plurals e.g. cars
  • pronouns e.g. he, she, they
  • possessive pronouns e.g. his, her, their
  • questions e.g. what?, where?
  • tenses e.g. painted, painting, going to paint


To understand plurals.

Language: Plural ’s’ e.g. hats, balls, spoons

  • Give simple instructions throughout the daily routine for example,
    - ‘Can you put the chairs around the table ready for snack-time?’ ‘Can you bring me two books please?’ Can you bring the paintbrushes?’
    - Singing rhymes, songs and finger-plays – e.g. ten green bottles, five little frogs
  • Dressing up, getting changed/dressed – ask the child to put socks on, jumper on, so that they hear a range of plurals and singular nouns.

Language: Plural ‘es’ – e.g. buses, brushes, glasses, watches; Plural ‘ves’ – e.g. knives, leaves, scarves and Irregular plurals – e.g. mice, men, deer, sheep

Model these plurals to children throughout everyday routines and activities.


Children often confuse pronouns when they are developing their language. Examples of pronouns include: me, I, you, he, she, mine, yours, they, them, we, us.

To respond appropriately to a simple request involving pronouns i.e. ‘I’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’

Language: I, he, she, they

  • Have a circle of children where the adult says something about himself/herself, e.g. ‘I have black hair’, the next person in the circle is encouraged to say something about himself or herself ‘I have brown shoes’.
  • Have a small circle of children. Give each child an object, the adult models ‘I have a car, he has a bear’. The child then says ‘I have a bear, she has a cup’ etc. You could extend this to having some pairs of children sitting together within the circle both holding the same object where the preceding child would say ‘I have a horse, they have some bears’.
  • Have a boy and girl doll and a collection of objects in front of the child. Give the child an instruction e.g. ‘She wants a ball’ and encourage the child to give the object to the correct doll.
  • Draw a boy and girl on a large piece of paper. Encourage the child to colour in items on the picture following simple instructions e.g. ‘He has red hair’, ‘They have green eyes.’
  • Have a picnic with a boy and girl doll/other children. Describe what the children are eating/drinking. After the picnic, ask the child e.g. ‘What did he eat?’ ‘What did she drink?’ ‘Where did they sit?’
  • Have a selection of photographs or pictures of boys and girls doing the same things. Ask the child to select the correct picture following a simple statement e.g. ‘They are running.’

To respond appropriately to a simple request involving possessive pronouns i.e. ‘his’, ‘her’, ‘their’.

Language: his; her; their

  • Using a boy and girl doll, ask the child to ‘Wash his face’, ‘tickle her nose’, ‘point to their ears.’
  • Draw around two children. Use cut out clothes or paints and ask the child to ‘paint her shoes’, ‘put his hat on’, ‘paint their hair’.
  • With a small group of children, talk about what they are wearing, then ask simple questions e.g. ‘point to his shoes’, ‘where are their noses?’
  • Have three cards showing a boy, a girl and a group of children. Using a range of pictures of objects or clothing, encourage the child to put the named item on the correct card e.g. ‘this is his coat.’
  • Give a bag to a boy and a girl. Ask the child to put an object in the appropriate bag following a simple instruction e.g. ‘This is his ball.’


To respond to simple questions involving tenses.


Remember that the child’s use of verb tenses is related to the child’s awareness of the passing of time. Use the child’s personal experiences to develop this for example, ‘today you are painting the tree’, ‘yesterday you painted the house’ and ‘tomorrow you will do the sky’.

Language: painted, painting, going to paint

  • Talk about the child’s routines using visual prompts e.g. what they are doing, what they have done and what they are going to do.
  • Keep a daily diary with the child. Each day talk about what the child did yesterday and what they will do tomorrow.
  • Comment on the child’s play e.g. during physical play when the child is standing on a box, ask them “Are you going to jump?” As they jump off, say “You’re jumping”, then comment “What did you do? – you jumped”.
  • Read the child a story. Ask the child questions e.g. ‘What did the boy do?’
  • When the child is engaged in an activity e.g. construction, painting, talk about what they are doing, what they have done and what they are going to do next.


Language: and, because, but, so, or, if, until

  • To encourage the use of ‘and’ start with connecting nouns, e.g. bucket and spade. A simple pair association game or an opposite jigsaw will help to develop this stage.
  • When the child can cope with this basic level, you can introduce ‘and’ between phrases, e.g. ‘the boy is standing and the girl is swinging’.
  • Again take opportunities throughout the day to encourage development of joining words.

Understanding reasoning and thinking

When talking to children, you will need to be aware of the complexity of the questions you ask. The Blank, Rose and Berlin (1978) model shows us the development of the types of questions children are able to understand. 3 year olds will generally be developing their understanding at levels 1 and 2. 5 year olds will typically be developing their understanding at levels 3 and 4. It is particularly important to be aware of these levels of questioning in teaching and SLT offer a range of training packages for practitioners which include more information about this model. Please contact us or see our ‘professionals area’ for more information. Previous learners have reported that this has made a huge difference to their practice.

Level 1- naming things e.g. ‘point to the tree’, ‘what’s this?’

Level 2- describing things e.g. answering questions with who, what and where? ‘find something I can eat?’ ‘who is swimming?’ ‘where is the boy?’

Level 3- talking about stories and events e.g. ‘what might happen next?’ ‘what will Mummy say?’ ‘tell me the story’ ‘how does daddy feel now?’

Level 4 - solving problems and answering ‘why?’ questions e.g. ‘what will happen if it rains?’ ‘what could you do if you there are no paper towels left?’ ‘why is the boy crying?’

Activities to target specific questions words

To respond appropriately to a simple question involving ‘where?’
  • Hide a toy in the playhouse/dolls house/outdoor area and ask the child ‘Where is teddy?’
  • Use a simple story with a hidden character and ask the child e.g. ‘Where is the duck?’
  • Ask a small group to find somewhere to stand around the room or outdoor area. Ask the child ‘Where is Charlie?’
  • Have a variety of containers in front of the child. Hide a small toy and ask the child ‘Where is the mouse?’
  • Set up a treasure hunt and encourage the child to find ‘treasure’ by asking ‘Where is it?’

To respond appropriately to simple instructions containing ‘what?’

  • Have a range of familiar objects in a bag. Adult to ask ‘What is this? Encourage the child to respond appropriately using a noun e.g. ‘ball’.
  • Hide objects in the sand tray. Encourage the child to find an object and respond to the adult’s question ‘What have you found?’
  • Look at a simple picture book or photographs with the child and encourage them to name the object in the picture, in response to the adult asking ‘What is that?’
  • Play a musical instrument or make a sound out of the child’s sight and ask the child ‘What can you hear?’
  • During simple imaginative play, make a toy carry out an action e.g. running and ask the child ‘What is teddy doing?’
  • Looking at a simple picture book or photographs with the child and encourage them to respond to questions e.g. ‘What is the cat doing?’

To respond appropriately to a simple question involving ‘who?’

  • Have photographs of familiar adults and children in a bag or box. The child selects a picture and the adult asks ‘Who is it?’
  • Show the child some puppets before hiding them out of sight. The adult says ‘Knock knock. Who is there?’ The child is encouraged to guess which puppet is hiding.
  • Pass a hat around the group to music. When the music stops, the adult asks the child ‘Who’s got the hat?’
  • All the children select a musical instrument. The adult asks the child ‘Who has the drum?’
  • Present the child with a range of action pictures. Ask the child ‘Who is running?’

At the last stage of this model, children will start to develop reasoning and thinking skills.

Activities to develop reasoning and thinking for older children

Inference and Deduction are important thinking skills which enable us to work flexibly in the world. They involve using information to work things out.

Inference: basing a decision on an assumption

Deduction: basing a decision on a known fact

Prediction: using available information to suggest a possible outcome

Detective Games

Working from pictures, get the children to be detectives and answer questions which require some thinking

  • Provide a picture of a room with a high chair and ask the question ‘Do you think a baby lives in this house?’
  • Provide a picture of a girl putting her wellies on and ask the question ‘Why is she putting her wellies on?’

Work from pictures first, talking through the possibilities and make explicit the relationships where necessary. Eventually extend the skill into other forms, spoken passages or reading.

Double Meanings

Understanding that many words can mean more than one thing. The context is what helps us to recognise the meaning

e.g. park

  • I went to the park to play on the swing.
  • I was fed up because I could not find anywhere to park my car.

Non Literal Language

Understanding that there may be a hidden meaning which isn’t made explicit

e.g. ‘I’ve been waiting for this bus for years’.


Comparing one thing with another

e.g. As dead as a doornail.


Application of a word to something not literally possible

e.g. Food for thought.


An expression with a non-literal meaning

e.g. My mum has green fingers.


Expressing the meaning by tone of voice/manner of speech where this then contradicts the words

e.g. That’s a great idea (with non verbal communication suggesting the opposite)

During adolescence language becomes more sophisticated. It is often abstract and very specific to the subject being taught.

There is increased use of:

  • Verbal teaching styles
  • Sarcasm
  • Prediction
  • Justifying
  • Comparing
  • Inferring
  • Problem Solving
  • Idioms e.g the boot’s on the other foot; He calls a spade a spade; She laughed her head off

When a child or young person is unable to understand spoken language there may be an impact on their behaviour. The child or young person may:

  • Opt out of class discussion
  • Give up or walk out
  • Have wandering attention
  • Disrupt others
  • Become withdrawn
  • Become disaffected

Expressive language is the ability to use spoken words.

Early expressive language starts with early vocalisations progressing to single words and moves through a developmental pattern allowing children to develop skills to use spoken words for a range of purposes including:

The means, reasons and opportunities model (the one with the circles you did for us)- see the text for indication of where to put it.

Plurals, Pronouns, Use of verb tense leaflets: within ‘activities to develop early grammar’ section

  • Express needs, wants, feelings
  • Volunteer information and make comments
  • Direct others
  • Give an account
  • Start and take part in a conversation
  • Use language to interact with peers
  • Use of language to negotiate
  • Ask a relevant question
  • Use language to imagine
  • Give an explanation
  • Use language for reasoning
  • Use language descriptively

Please explore the following sections for more information:

About expressive language & top tips

Generally a child will be able to understand language before being able to use it expressively. Children who are having difficulties using spoken language may also have difficulties with attention and listening, vocabulary development, understanding and speech (please see appropriate sections).

Children who are experiencing problems with expressive language may:

  • Have difficulty putting words together
  • Only use key words and miss out the ‘little’ important words such as, ‘is, the, a’
  • Have difficulty using correct word ending such as ‘–ing’ for the present tense and ‘-ed’ for the past
  • Have limited and/or inappropriate vocabulary
  • Have difficulty in finding the right word
  • Have difficulty putting words in the right order in a sentence
  • Use non-verbal communication (e.g. pointing, gestures, taking an adult to an item) instead of speech or to accompany speech

You can help by:

  • Making sure that talking is fun and worthwhile for your child. It is mainly through play and real life situations that children learn to talk.
  • Speaking slowly, calmly and gently. Give the child an easy pattern to follow.
  • Listening to what the child is saying, instead of focusing on their pronunciation.
  • Letting the child know you are listening by turning to face them.
  • Being positive and giving praise and reassurance in order to develop the child’s confidence.
  • Trying to reduce background noise when you want to talk to the child.
  • Following the child’s interests.
  • Trying not to ask too many questions.


Try not to anticipate your child’s needs, wait to see if they can ask themselves or if they need some help offer them a choice e.g. ‘apple or banana?’

Repeat back clearly what you think the child has said and add another word for example, child says ‘teddy tummy’ and the adult repeats back ‘tickle teddy’s tummy’ or ‘teddy’s big tummy’.

Repeat back grammatically correct sentences to your child to help develop their use of grammar e.g. child says ‘he go shop’, adult repeats ‘yes, he is going to the shop’.

Give the child time to talk without interrupting them.

Provide visual clues to help the child order ideas effectively before expressing them.

With older children, you can explain word endings and why we need to use them e.g. ‘when there is more than one, we add an ‘s’ to the end’.

Remember, children get fed up with naming things which they know the adults really know!

Key word levels (expression)

One word level

First words generally appear around 12 months of age and are commonly:

  • Labels for important people, animals and toys in the child’s life e.g. mummy, pet’s name, teddy
  • Words to express wants and needs g. no, again, more
  • Familiar objects e.g. cup, book
  • Social words e.g. hello, bye bye
  • Things of particular interest g. trains
  • Symbolic words e.g. choo choo, moo moo

Short phrases such as ‘all gone’, ‘sit down’, ‘get up’ are learnt as one unit and are therefore classed as being at a one word level rather than a two word level.

Two word level

When a child has around 50 words, they begin to join words together e.g. ‘Daddy gone’, ‘want drink’, ‘Mummy car’. These could have several meanings e.g. ‘this is mummy’s car’, ‘mummy has gone in the car’, or ‘let’s go in the car, mummy.’

At this stage, the child begins to use a few action words e.g. cry, sit etc. They try to talk about events using a mixture of jargon and words. They will ask for help (e.g. ‘wash hands’) and begin to ask questions.

Three word level

At around three years of age, the child begins to join three words together and possibly four e.g. ‘Daddy gone work’, ‘Mummy go shop’.

Gradually the child will begin to use a wider variety of words as their understanding of the world around them grows e.g. descriptions using size (big/little); positions (in/on/under); colours (red/blue/yellow/green); properties (wet/dirty); emotions (happy/sad) etc.

Activities to develop key word levels

To produce a range of play noises modelled by an adult. E.g. shhh; mmmm; ssss

  • Join the child at his choice of play and model play sounds e.g. ‘brmm’ when playing with cars; ‘shhh’ when a toy is sleeping; ‘sss’ for a snake hissing/sausages frying; ‘ch ch’ when playing with trains. Begin to make the noise and then pause, waiting for the child to join in.
  • To produce a range of play words modelled by an adult. E.g. splash; bang; wheee; crash; pop; beep beep; animal noises; everyday noises (e.g. ring ring; knock knock)
  • When playing with small world toys, demonstrate a doll going down the slide, saying ‘Whee’. Give the doll to the child to copy.
  • When singing ‘Old MacDonald’, use toy animals to support the child’s comprehension. Sing the song slowly, pausing after you have made the animal noise.

To use a range of early words spontaneously. E.g. more; again; gone; bye bye; fall down, help.

  • Encourage the child to wave and say ‘bye bye’ to familiar people at appropriate times.
  • Join a child at their choice of activity. Imitate their actions with the toys e.g. running a toy car over their body; building a tower of bricks; building a sandcastle. After repeating this several times, pause, and wait for the child to indicate that they want it repeating. Model the use of ‘again’ before repeating the action.
  • When playing in the sand pit, hide a favourite toy and say ‘gone’. Encourage the child to find it again.
  • Provide small amounts of food and drink at snack time and wait for the child to ask for ‘more’. Prompt the child by modelling the word.
  • Blow some bubbles and encourage the child to pop them. Ask ‘More?’ and blow again. Next time, wait until the child attempts to ask.
  • Place a toy out of reach (but in sight) or do up the bubbles lid too tightly so that it gives the opportunity for communication. Model ‘help’ to encourage them to request.

To use an increasing number of single words (nouns and verbs). In developing the use of language, ensure that the child is familiar with the objects/pictures and is able to give them on request (demonstrating one word level understanding).

  • Use a feely bag containing objects or pictures. Encourage the child to name each object as they remove it from the bag.
  • Make a photograph book of the child’s family members, pets, favourite objects/toys. When looking at the book, encourage them to name them by saying e.g. ‘Who’s that? It’s……..’
  • Use lotto games/inset puzzles. The adult offers a piece to the child and says ‘It’s a ….’ Let the child replace the piece and encourage them to name it. Model the word if they make no attempt to say it.
  • Place pictures/photographs face down on a table. The child selects a picture, and posts it into a post box when they have named it. This can also be used with verb (or ‘action) pictures, with the adult saying ‘Look, the boy is……..’
  • Make a fishing game with pictures or photographs of objects or actions attached to the fish. As the child catches the fish, they name the object/action.

Introducing ‘action’ words or verbs is really important to help develop a child’s sentence structure. Other activities to help develop the use of verb words are:

  • Using action songs e.g. ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round’, ‘this is the way we wash our hands’ etc.
  • Using small world characters that your child enjoys to demonstrate different actions e.g. kicking, sitting and let the child have a turn at telling the character what to do giving them a chance to use their verb words.
  • Throughout the day, talk about what you/others are doing e.g. ‘look that baby’s crying’ and encourage your child to do the same. Giving sentence prompts may help e.g. say to your child, ‘look that boy is…’ and wait for them to respond.
  • Throughout play activities, ask children to run, jump, clap their hands. Let the child have a turn at asking the others to do an action.

To use short phrases containing two key words.

  • Respond to a child’s single words by modelling back a two word phrase e.g. if the child says ‘car’, the adult responds ‘Yes, mummy’s car’ or ‘Yes, driving the car’.
  • Use action pictures/photographs in the posting and fishing games. Encourage the child to describe the actions using two words e.g. ‘Mummy brushing’, ‘Mummy hair’ or ‘brushing hair’.
  • During creative activities, encourage the child to describe objects using simple adjectives e.g. ‘red car’, ‘blue scissors’, ‘big brush’.
  • Encourage the child to talk about what they are doing in the home corner. Model two word phrases initially e.g. ‘washing cup’, ‘feeding dolly’.
  • Ask the child to be in charge and give instructions during a small group activity e.g. ‘touch nose’, ‘clap hands’ etc.

To use phrases containing at least three key words.

  • Respond to a child’s two word phrase by modelling back a three word phrase e.g. if the child says ‘mummy hair’, the adult responds ‘Yes, mummy is brushing hair’.
  • Model phrases about objects which interest the child during his choice of activity e.g. ‘train is going to the station’, ‘the tractor is pulling the trailer’.
  • Use pictures to sequence familiar stories and encourage the child to talk about what is happening.
  • Use a puppet or picture as a visual stimulus for the child to discuss e.g. introduce a puppet with a plaster on his knee. Encourage the child to talk about what they think has happened.
  • Be silly! Ask the child what you have done wrong e.g. put a sock on your head.

Activities to develop early concepts

Children will need to understand concept vocabulary before they are able to use it expressively (please see concept development in the understanding section).


To name up to four colours

Language: Red; yellow; blue; green; colour(s); Which one?

  • Tie ribbons to coloured balloons (e.g. red ribbon to red balloon). Ask the child to choose one of the ribbons and pull out one balloon. Encourage the child to name the colour of the balloon they have chosen.
  • Have a range of coloured transparent sheets/materials (cellophane, acetate, perspex). Give the child the opportunity to experiment with the materials, looking through the pieces and saying what colour they can see.
  • Play games which include colours e.g. jigsaws and matching games. Encourage the child to name the colours as the game is played.
  • Have a selection of red and blue bricks. Encourage the child to tell you the colours as they build a tower of bricks. Increase the amount of bricks and colours which are used once the child becomes familiar with the colour names.
  • Share books which are on the subject of colours. Ask the child to name the coloured objects/characters in the book.
  • Make a colour table or special box containing items of the same colour. Ask the child to find more items. Encourage the child to name the items as they find them.

TOP TIP: Begin by focusing on one or two colour names and then increase the number of colours.


To describe objects as big or little

Language: little; big; which is..?

(Remember children may use ‘small’ instead of ‘little’)

  • Have a very large teddy and a very small teddy so that the difference between the two is very clear. Hold the big teddy and say ‘I’ve got big teddy’. Point to the little teddy and say ‘There’s ……..’
  • Ask the child to put the hat on the big (or little) teddy and encourage them to say the words as they do.
  • Provide a selection of children and adult’s clothes. Play games where the child chooses a piece of clothing to put on e.g. a big hat, and say whether it is big or little.
  • Play rolling, throwing and catching with big and little balls.

TOP TIPS: Start with big objects and give the child chance to begin to understand the concept of ‘big.’ Then introduce small items.

Make sure that the small objects are very small and the big objects are very

big, so that it is easy to see and understand the difference.

Use gesture and a ‘big’ or ‘little’ voice to emphasise your meaning.


To describe objects as long or short

Language: long; short; which?

  • Roll play-dough sausages and ask the child to say whether it is long or short.
  • Have a variety of ribbons or strips of fabric to play with during outdoor play, some very short and the others very long. Let the child explore the ribbons and use the words ‘long’ and ‘short’ to describe them.
  • Use tights/socks to make snakes. Encourage the child to talk about the lengths of the snakes.

TOP TIPS: Make sure the objects are very short or very long!

When you say the word ‘long’ extend it e.g. ‘L—o—n—g’. Say the word quickly to indicate ‘short’.


To use language to describe position

Language: in; on; under

  • Read ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff.’ Ask the children to re-enact the story using puppets and props and describe the positions of the characters throughout the story e.g. ‘The troll is under the bridge’.
  • Use obstacle courses/climbing frames and ask the child to hide around the equipment. Ask ‘Where are you?’ Encourage the child to answer e.g. ‘I’m in the tunnel.’
  • Using the sand tray hide one of the familiar toys e.g. a dinosaur. Say ‘Where is the dinosaur?’ Encourage the child to describe the position of the dinosaur e.g. ‘he’s under the bucket.’

Early grammar

As a child’s understanding of word endings, word order and structure develops, the child begins to use those elements in spoken language. The development of grammar occurs in stages, as the number of words used increases.

Tenses – children begin by using the present tense ‘-ing’ e.g. ‘it going’. By around 4 years of age, they are able to use the past tense, though not always correctly e.g. ‘me falled down’, ‘he wented’. Talking about future events is the most difficult for children to learn and to express grammatically in spoken language.

Negatives – children use ‘no’ at an early stage to refuse/reject an object or action. This later develops into the use of the word ‘not’ and later still the shortened version e.g. ‘don’t’, ‘won’t.’

Plurals – ‘s’ is used early on in development to mark more than one of something e.g. ‘my cars’, ‘apples’. Remember if the child cannot produce the sound ‘s’ they will not be able to use plurals. Some children will not develop a clear ‘s’ until they are 5 years old.

Pronouns – children begin to use early pronouns ‘you’ and ‘me’ at around 3 years of age. They then begin to use other pronouns such as ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’ before developing ‘his’, ‘her’ and ‘their’ at a later stage.

Possession – at around the age of 3 – 4 years, children begin to use ‘s’ to show possession e.g. ‘mummy’s hat’, ‘daddy’s book’.

Question words – by age 3½ children are using ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘who’ questions routinely. Later they begin to use ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ to question. By 4 years of age, sentences are becoming grammatically correct most of the time. For further information on question forms, please see ‘understanding reasoning and thinking’ in the ‘understanding’ section.

Activities to develop early grammar


To use the past tense to describe an action

Language: action words ending in ‘ed’ e.g. jumped, painted, looked

  • Copy me- perform an action e.g. jump into a hoop and then ask ’What did I do?’ be careful to use a verb that in the past tense has an ‘ed’ form. Repeat this with a variety of actions and ask the children to describe what you have done.
  • Simon did- ask the child to copy an action as in ‘Simon Says’, and then ask ‘What happened?’

To use the future tense e.g. ‘going to…..’

Language: ‘going to.., we will’

  • Using a visual timetable encourage the children to say what will happen next in the pre-school/school e.g. ‘We will have a snack.’
  • Plan a party for the pre-school/school. Decide what will be needed e.g. ‘We will eat sandwiches.’ ‘We are going to have some crisps.’
  • Choosing games such as dressing up. Ask the child to choose clothes to wear ‘I am going to choose the hat.’ This can be extended in other activities e.g. choosing which colour paper they would like to use or which toy they would like.


To use ‘yes’ and ‘no’ appropriately.

Language: yes; no

  • Ask questions occasionally which encourage a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer from the child e.g. ‘Would you like a drink?’ ‘Is this your coat?’
  • Play hiding games using children and objects e.g. in a story ask ‘Is this the dog?’ ‘Do you think Michael is behind here?’
  • Share story books and ask ‘Can you see …?’ Encourage the children to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ (This is a very early stage of development and most children will not need additional activities.)

To use ‘not’ + object/action.

Language: not

  • Encourage the child to describe actions during group games e.g. ‘Jonathan is jumping.’ ‘Katie is not jumping.’
  • Ask the child to hide an object in the playhouse or around the room/outside. The adults and other children ask questions to help find it e.g. ‘Is it in the sand?’ Child responds ‘Not in the sand’


To use simple plurals.

  • Respond to children’s requests literally- e.g. when a child asks for his/her shoe lace to be tied, only tie one.
  • Organise a toy tea party for dolly, teddy etc. Ask the child what is needed. Encourage them to reply e.g. ‘We need plates, cups’ etc.
  • Look at a range of books and talk about how many items or objects are featured in the page. For example, ask the child what they can see in the picture so that they are able to respond ‘There are three frogs’ or ‘There are lots of flowers’.
  • Use stories where there is one or more character e.g. Noah’s Ark. Talk about the animals in pairs e.g. two elephants.


To use simple pronouns e.g. ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’.

Language: he; she; they

  • Look at a collection of photographs/pictures of boys and girls and encourage the child to describe what is happening e.g. ‘she is swimming’, ‘they are eating.’
  • Read a story about a girl or boy or both, emphasising the pronouns e.g. James went to the shops, and Sally – she went to the park. Then ask questions e.g. ‘Where did she go?’ using the pictures as prompts.
  • Draw two blank faces with the only clue to girl/boy being their names. Draw or cut out facial features on card and stick them on to the boy/girl. Ask the child to describe the features of the faces e.g. ‘She has blue eyes’, ‘He has black hair.’
  • Using boy and girl dolls/puppets carry out simple actions and ask the child what the doll/puppet is doing e.g. ‘He is jumping’, ‘they are sleeping’.


To use possessive pronouns e.g. his, her, their.

Language: his, her, their

  • Dress two male and female dolls/puppets in clothes. Take their shoes, coat and hat off and put them in a pile in the middle of the floor. Ask the children to choose a piece of clothing and ask them ‘Whose is it?’ Look at the clothes in more detail. E.g. ‘This is her jumper, her jumper is red’, ‘Their shoes are black.’
  • Model phrases such as ‘Put it in her drawer-Sarah’s drawer’ and point to reinforce the instruction.
  • Using pictures or dolls, say point to ‘his’ or ‘her’ nose. Ask the child to direct you to point to the boy’s/girl’s body parts e.g. ‘Point to their feet.’
  • In a group highlight children with similarities e.g. same colour shoes. Show the group, ‘Their shoes are brown.’ Get them to have a go.


To ask questions involving ‘what?’ ‘where?’ ‘who?’

Language: what? where? who?

  • Give each child an opportunity to be in charge at snack times and encourage them to ask the others what they would like to drink or eat.
  • Similarly a child is a waiter in the home corner cafe and is encouraged to ask the other children what they would like to eat and drink.
  • Show and tell sessions. Children bring in objects from home and talk about them. Encourage the rest of the group to ask questions about the objects.
  • Re-enact familiar stories, encouraging children to join in with simple repetitive phrases e.g. ‘Who is that trip trapping over my bridge?’ ‘Where’s Spot?’
  • What’s in the bag? One child knows what object is put in the bag, while the others have to try and work it out, asking questions such as ‘Where is it from?’, ‘Who uses it?’, ‘What is it made of?’


These are the words that we use to join two pieces of information together in one sentence.

Language: and, because, then, so, but

  • Have a selection of items e.g. pictures/toy foods and model the use of the word ‘and’ e.g. ‘please may I have an apple and some crisps and some chocolate?’ Then ask the child to take a turn, encouraging them to use ‘and’ themselves.
  • Play silly games with some ‘why?’ pictures and ask the child ‘why?’ something has happened to encourage them to use the word ‘because’. You can model this for them first.

TOP TIP: You can also use the ‘why/because?’ jigsaw on the Twinkl website.

Activities to develop expressive language skills in older children

Barrier games

This can be used for both talking and listening. The child or children either side of the barrier have identical sets of equipment.

One child has a picture or constructs an assembly of objects and then gives instructions to the other to enable him/her to duplicate the picture or assembly.

How do I feel?

In a small group imagine a situation and talk about how you would each feel and what you might say (speech bubbles resource is good here).

Silly stories

Collection of objects/pictures, e.g., horse, lady, man, child, dog, ball, pirate, dinosaur. Adult starts story “Once upon a time there was a dinosaur”. Next child (house) continues the story “He lived in a house made of chocolate”. Next child (ball) “One day he found a ball under his bed” …..


Colour Coding approach. Children take one colour question ‘Who, What, Where, When’ and sequence a story using their own ideas. For more information, visit

Mind map activities

An excellent way for supporting new vocabulary and talking.

Defining and describing

Have a range of objects in a bag or a range of pictures. One child takes an object or picture and is allowed to give 3 pieces of information to describe their item. The rest guess.


Barrier game. One child has an object or picture and the rest ask questions to find out what it is. You cannot say the name of the item.

A good resource is guess Who?

What do you know?

Use a composite picture and take turns in the group (mini circle time). Each child gives a new piece of information about the picture. Extend by talking about a particular object or event in which everyone has been involved.

Tell me how to do it

Use a classroom activity or event which has already been experienced and get a child to re-tell the event in his/her own words.

Allow a child to explain to the others how to play a particular game.

Developing story telling (narrative) skills

  • Expose children from an early age to stories.
  • Talk about the ‘beginning, middle and end’ of stories you read together.
  • Use visual resources e.g. a story frame to think what happened first, next, then and last.
  • Make good use of question forms such as ‘Who, What, When, Where & Why” to develop reasoning skills.
  • To encourage inferencing and predictions, ask questions such as: What could they have done differently? How could they have done things better? What do you think they mean by that?

TOP TIP: Ask your Speech and Language Therapist about the Blacksheep resources to support narrative skills.

Sequencing skills

Sequencing is an essential skill which underpins many aspects of speech and language. It is the ability to recognise and predict pattern and order. We need sequencing skills to give information such as telling someone about a specific event.

Speech and language is all about sequences:

  • Sounds in words
  • Words in sentences
  • Recalling a sequence of events
  • Describing a sequence of actions
  • Following a sequence of instructions
  • Rote sequences such as days of the week, numbers, alphabet

As children approach school age they will need to learn the special vocabulary of sequencing, words such as start, next, finish or first, second, third.

TOP TIP: Some general work on sequencing will be beneficial for all children but particularly for children with specific speech and language difficulties such as dyspraxia.

Visual sequencing activities

There is often more than one word that can be used in sequencing e.g. first or start, middle or next etc. It is therefore important to decide, in planning, the vocabulary you will use. Use this regularly and consistently, allowing for lots of opportunities for repetition. Make sure that everyone uses the same vocabulary. Begin with visual pattern experiences.

Display visual timetables depicting the routine of the pre-school/school. If the pictures are velcroed to the wall the children can sequence the events themselves.

Copy and continue patterns of two items:

  • Pegs in a peg board
  • Threading cotton reels/beads
  • Building a tower of bricks
  • Clothes on a washing line e.g. sock, glove
  • Lining up – boy, girl
  • Line up coloured cars and trains, farm animals
  • Compare bears, mini motors, mini fruits etc.

Increase the number of objects as the child becomes more competent.

In group games encourage children to copy an action after you. Introduce another one, then see if the child can sequence the actions e.g. wave, then clap. Puppets could also be used to demonstrate the actions.

Dressing and undressing skills are useful to encourage a child’s ability to sequence. They need to know the order in which the clothes are put on. This can be practised when getting undressed for P.E. or dressing a doll or teddy. Commercially made picture games can also be used.

Auditory sequencing activities

This involves the child following sequences of information that they have heard rather than seen.

  • Make sequences with all sorts of noise makers/musical instruments (seen and heard)
  • Copy the sounds of two different animals in sequence e.g. moo, quack, moo, quack.
  • Action songs and rhymes e.g. Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.
  • Make sequences of speech sounds related to Jolly Phonics pictures – p, s, p, s. You could make this into a game e.g. race track or ladder. Make sure the child can make the sounds you incorporate.

Word finding difficulties

Learning vocabulary is an ongoing, lifelong process. Each new word has to be effectively processed, stored and then retrieved when needed. Some children have difficulty recalling names for people and objects. Many of us experience this from time to time when we say the word is ‘on the tip of my tongue’.

Strategies to help with word finding difficulties:

  • Encourage the child to use gesture or mime to supplement speech.
  • Ask the child to show you what they mean, by pointing to the object or a picture of it.
  • Cue the child in with the first letter or syllable e.g. ‘It’s a ba…..banana’
  • Give the child choices to help him/her remember the word e.g. is it a carrot or a potato?
  • Avoid speaking for the child. This may frustrate them or stop them from trying.
  • Reflect back and question – repeat the child’s phrase.
  • Accept any reasonable attempt at a word. It doesn’t have to be perfect. The important point is the child to get his message across – COMMUNICATION in its widest sense.
  • Closure – use a build up sentence but let the child ‘close it’ by saying the last word e.g. ‘You’d like a drink of…….. ‘ or ‘You need to go to the ………’

Please see the ‘vocabulary’ section for further information and activities.

Children who:

  • regularly use non-specific language (‘thingy, whatsit, you know’) in speaking and writing
  • hesitate in contributing a response
  • have difficulties understanding what is asked of them
  • substitute words of similar sound
  • substitute words of similar meaning
  • appear to forget new vocabulary
  • rarely participate in class discussions

MAY be experiencing problems with vocabulary.

Children who are having difficulties with vocabulary will benefit from a structured approach to TEACH them the skills to effectively organise, store and retrieve new words. Learning vocabulary is a lifelong experience.

“Vocabulary at age 5 is a significant predictor of educational success at 30” (Feinstein and Duckworth, 2006)

“Vocabulary experts agree that adequate reading comprehension depends on a person already knowing between 90 and 95% of the words in a text” (Hirsch, 2003).

Please explore the following sections for more information:


In order to effectively process, store and retrieve words, we need to be able to use two sorts of information: semantic (what it means) and phonological (how it sounds).

Semantic (What it means)

e.g. helmet

  • Category: clothes
  • Function: protects your head
  • Associations: motorbike, gloves, building site
  • Similarities: hat, cap, hood
  • When you might use it: dangerous activities

Phonological (How it sounds)

e.g. helmet

  • Syllables: two
  • Rhyme: pelmet
  • Initial sound: ‘h’
  • Final sound: ‘t’
  • Other sounds in word: e/l/m

Unless we know a range of words our ability to use language to communicate will be limited. Essential building blocks for sentences will be:

  • Nouns: (Names of things) dog, house, cloud, monument
  • Verbs: (action words) sit, run, sleep, jump
  • Adjectives: (describing words) big, red, hot, happy
  • Adverbs: (describing how you do something) happily, quickly
  • Pronouns: (words which stand for nouns) I, we, it, they
  • Other: under, through, next, yesterday, because, when, so

TOP TIP: Make vocabulary important in the classroom. Research has shown that even the most able child will not quickly acquire new words without explicit teaching.

Teaching topic vocabulary

For each new topic, the class teacher should categorise new topic words into the following categories:

Essential - These words are integral to the topic and should be words used in everyday conversation.

Desirable - These words are useful for the topic and they will be encountered again.

‘Might be nice’ - These are less common words which are topic specific.

Have a few sessions before the topic starts to talk about the new words and record which words the child already knows. Ensure the child understands the essential words and then use a word map or vocabulary grid to work on learning the desirable words. This will support the child to learn how the word sounds, its meaning and how to use it in a sentence.

Review how many words the child understands/uses half way and at the end of the topic. Send the list of words home so that parents can talk about the words with their child too.

For example- a ‘Rivers’ topic:



‘Might be nice’












Using a multisensory approach:

Use a multisensory approach to ensure accurate storage of the words, for example if focussing on the word ‘gorilla’:

  • Look up the word on the internet, do some research and look at pictures.
  • Talk about what gorillas look like, what they might feel like, smell like etc.
  • Use the written word with the picture to ensure links to literacy
  • Talk about words which mean a similar thing i.e. monkey, chimpanzee, ape. Talk about the differences between these things.
  • Use the word in a sentence, i.e. ‘I saw a gorilla at the zoo’.
  • Create a song or rap about the target word.

Using a vocabulary grid:


What does the word mean? Can the child describe where we might see/find it. What it is used for etc. Something else with wheels or that is transport.

Phonological Awareness – Can the child say what sound it begins/ends with? How many syllables? A rhyming word (doesn’t have to be a real word)

Speech – Ask the child to say it several times

Grammar – Put the word in a sentence

Orthographic – read and write the word.


You can drive it. It has four wheels. It is a type of transport.

Starts with /c/. One syllable. Rhymes with far

Car, car, car……

My mum’s car is blue

Car, car


It is a tool. Other tools are things like screwdrivers, spanners. Find it in a tool box in shed.

Starts with Dr. One syllable. Rhymes with pill, sill, kill, zill

Drill, drill, drill…..

The man is using his drill

Drill, drill

From the Tall Ships Project

Vocabulary activities to support word learning and retrieval


Use this activity to reinforce the names of items and the categories to which they belong. For example, have a range of food items to sort into fruits or vegetables.You can make it more interesting for younger children by hiding items around the room or by placing picture cards face down so the child does not know which one they have selected.

Odd one out

Use a selection of items from one category and one item from another. Can the child spot the odd one out? e.g. apple, sock, banana

Word association games: finding links

Picture pairs



spade/bucket sun/moon

Verb links


swims, drinks

fish swims, boy swims, drink juice, drink water

Describing links



hot water, hot day, hot sausage

Think a link

The first person chooses an item, the next person chooses another item to go with it and so on. For example ‘sock’, ‘shoe’, ‘welly’, ‘rain’, ‘puddle’.

Explain a link

An extension of the game above. Ask the children to explain their link and decide as a group if the link is acceptable.

Making sentences

Have a pile of pictures. The first person chooses a picture and has to say a short sentence containing the target word. To help children develop flexibility several children could make up a sentence for the word. At the higher levels this could be used to explore words with double meanings.

Silly or sensible

The adult says a short sentence containing a target word. The child or group have to decide whether the sentence is acceptable – SENSIBLE or not – SILLY.

To extend this activity, can the children sort out the silly sentences by changing words to make more sense? Again this activity can help children develop flexibility by seeing that a silly sentence can be corrected in more than one place.

e.g. I like to eat worms
Correction- I like to eat toast
Correction- I like to hold worms

Alphabet names

Have a sheet with the alphabet listed. Take a category e.g. animals and then think of an animal for each letter of the alphabet. This can be really hard – encourage the children to seek help and use the opportunity to send them to another area to ask a teacher if they know the item you are stuck with.

What is it?

Children listen to clues about the item they have to guess. Remember that this game is much easier when the items are physically present.

e.g. This is something we use to open the door. It is silver and shiny.

Give a clue

Role reversal of the above. Young children find it impossible not to say the name of the item, but with practice, can learn to play this game. As a group you can work together to think about which clues work well and which are not very helpful.

e.g. target word: cat
clue: it says miaow
clue: it has a tail

How many

Pick a category and see how many words you can come up with in one minute i.e. animals, transport, parts of the body, vegetables, things you can wear. This can be done individually or in a group. Repeat this category again after a week or 2- can you beat your score?

TOP TIP: Encourage children to use strategies if they cannot think of the word they need. For example:

  • Say the first sound of the word
  • Demonstrate what you do with the object
  • Describe what the object does: “You can eat soup with it” (spoon)
  • Make a sentence up which includes the word :“I go to school in the …… “ (car)
  • Describe what the object looks like :“It’s got 4 legs and says meow” (cat)
  • Describe what it is not : “It’s not a cat its a ….” (dog)

Children start to listen to sounds before they are even born. Babies begin to play with sounds through babbling, this then progress to using real words. A child’s speech sound development is gradual, some sounds develop much later than others so they will not be able to say them all straight away. For example the “m” sound is usually present by 3 years of age whereas the “r” sound may not develop until the age of 7.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is our ability to hear and recognise the sound patterns in words. It involves rhyming, identifying the syllables in a word and breaking words up into individual sounds e.g. c-a-t. Phonological awareness skills are very important for speech sound production and are essential for the development of reading and writing.

A guide to typical speech sound development

Some speech sounds are usually developed earlier than others. This table can be used as a guide for typically developing children.

Children who have additional needs can be expected to develop sounds later. This should be taken into account before referral. Please speak to your named therapist for further advice.

Speech Sound

90%of children will have acquired these sounds by the following ages

m n p b t d w

3 years

h y f

4 years

s z k g ng

4 – 5 years

v sh ch j I

6 years

r zh th

7 years

Clusters (br, sp, gl)

8 years

Typical speech errors and when to refer
Some speech errors are commonly made by typically developing children. They will usually resolve without intervention as the child matures.

Some examples are listed in the table below along with when to refer if the error doesn’t resolve on its own. Remember children with additional needs may need longer.


Problems with most sounds


Refer at:

3 years

Missing off consonant sounds from the ends of words



3 and a half years

Using ‘t d’ sounds in place of ‘k g’



4 and a half

Using ‘t d’ sounds in place of ‘s z’



4 and a half

Using ‘p b’ sounds in place of ‘f v’



4 and a half

Using ‘w y’ sounds in place of ‘I’



6 years

Difficulty with ‘sh’



6 and a half

Difficulty with ‘ch j’



6 and a half

Difficulty where two consonant sounds come together



7 and a half

Using ‘w’ sounds in place of ‘r’

‘s’ with “lisp” quality (sounding like ‘th’)





8 years

8 years

Some errors are more unusual (see below) and it is a good idea to refer to speech and language therapy for assessment if they are present

Missing off consonant sounds from the beginning of words



Using ‘k’ ‘g’ sounds in place of ‘t’ ‘d’




Using one sound in the place of many (favourite sound)





Difficulties with vowel sounds





Top tips

  • Speech-Sound-Record-Images1 (2)Speech-Sound-Record-Images1 (2)Accept the child’s attempt at a word but also repeat the correct version back to them. For example, if they say “tup, mummy” (meaning “cup”), adult says: “yes, there’s your cup”. Avoid asking the child to try again or repeat after you as they may not be able to do this at the moment and it may cause frustration. Giving a clear model will help.
  • Try not to correct the child as this may make them anxious. We want to encourage them to talk as much as possible to help to practise these sounds.
  • If you have not understood, describe the difficulty as yours. For example ‘sorry- I’m not listening very well today’. Ask them to show you instead.
  • Make quiet times. Turn off the television or radio when you are talking, playing or looking at the books together. This will help the child to listen to your speech more easily. Face the child when you are talking together. Sit opposite each other when playing or talking. This helps them listen and see how sounds are made.
  • Speak simply in short sentences, for example, “here’s teddy”, “cuddle teddy”. This gives the child time to listen to words and how they sound. It’s easier for them to copy if you keep it simple.
  • Listen to the child with patience however unclear they are. Focus on what they say rather than how they say it.
  • Ask relatives or friends to do these things too. Talking should be fun, not hard work.
  • Get interested in sounds! Find some fun sounds that you hear every day e.g.
    • In the street: car starting, fire engine siren, bicycle wheels
    • In the park: ducks quacking, dog barking, children playing
    • Inside sounds: clock ticking, vacuum cleaner, mobile phone ringing

All about dummies:

Dummies can be comforting for babies, but overuse may result in:

  • Less babbling – babies with a dummy in their mouth are less likely to copy and play with sounds.
  • Difficulties with pronunciation- while a child has a dummy in their mouth they will be unable to produce and practise a number of sounds made with the lips and tongue including ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘p’, ‘b’, ‘t’, ‘d’, ‘f’, ‘v’, ‘s’ and ‘z’.
  • Dental problems- sucking a dummy often can result in a gap between the top and bottom teeth which can result in difficulties with pronunciation.

Activities to support: syllables

Level 1: Moving to Sound

  • Action and movement games – Using one musical instrument or soundmaker, ask the children to perform an action or movement when the instrument is played. Actions could include clapping hands or raising arms in the air. Movements could include standing up or sitting down, taking a large stride, a hop or a skip.
  • Musical statues – The children move around to the sound of a musical instrument or soundmaker and freeze into a statue when it stops. Make the periods of silence between sounds longer and longer so it becomes more and more difficult for the children to stay still.
  • Musical bumps – This is a variation of musical statues but in this game children sit down as soon as the music stops.
  • Musical chairs – A group of children can play musical chairs. They must move around to the music and then sit on a chair when the music stops. The catch is that a chair is taken away each time and one child is “out” when they lose their seat.
  • Dance Together – Hold hands and dance with the children so that they can feel the rhythm.
  • Musical Instruments – Beat the musical instruments in time with the music. Hold the child’s hand to help them experience the rhythm.

LEVEL 2: Copying Patterns

  • Nursery Rhyme Rhythm – Beat out the rhythm of a known nursery rhyme or song on a drum or tambourine.
  • Me then You – In small groups practise clapping loudly, softly, quickly and slowly. Introduce the idea of clapping/tapping patterns, e.g., three short sounds followed by two short sounds. Talk about the pattern as you are clapping/tapping it. Encourage the children to repeat or echo the pattern.

LEVEL 3: Clapping the beats

  • Clapping Names – Go around the group clapping out the names of the children
  • Guess a Name – Clap the rhythm of the name of someone in the group. Ask the children to stand up if they think it is the rhythm of their name. Repeat the rhythm along with the name of that child. All the children then clap the rhythm of the child’s name.
  • Guess a Song –During a planned music session, clap the rhythm of a nursery rhyme or song that the children know. Can they recognise which one it is? It might be helpful to give the children a visual clue or give them two titles to choose from.

LEVEL 4: Clapping the beat/s in a given word

  • Rhythms in words – Adult starts the activity by showing the child an object/picture, e.g. dol-ly and then claps out the number of syllables. The adult then shows the child another object, e.g. ted-dy and asks the child to clap the syllables in the object word. A good place to start is with two syllable words. This is because children often find it more difficult to recognise single syllable words. Gradually increase the number of syllables in words to a maximum of 4, i.e. ‘he-li-cop-ter’.
  • Stepping the syllables – When carrying out this activity use vocabulary familiar to the child. Place hoops on the floor. The child is given an object e.g. teddy and jumps from hoop to hoop with each syllable of the word. Extend this game by asking the child to put out the number of hoops they need before “jumping the word”. In a group situation this provides excellent learning opportunities for all the children as this involves looking, listening and doing. Extend this game by putting out two hoops and three hoops. Contrast words with two and three syllables.
  • Sorted! – Collect together a selection of objects with 1 – 3 syllables, e.g., cat= 1, dolly = 2, banana = 3 etc. Have three hoops on the floor and place a picture of one dot in one hoop, two dots in another hoop and three dots in the other hoop. Mix the pictures face down on the floor or put them in a bag and shake them up. Explain they are in a mess and need to be sorted out. You may need to model this game a couple of times, then ask the children to take a turn to choose a picture or object, clap and say the word and put it in the right hoop for the number of claps in the word. If the child needs help, clap and say the word with them at first. Check the words together at the end by clapping and saying them.
  • Syllable Steps – Make some cut out foot prints and arrange them around the inside of a circle, one in front of each child. Collect together a selection of objects with 1 – 3 syllables. Choose a child, ask them to stand up and choose an object. They have to move along the footprints the right number of steps to match the number of syllables in the word, e.g., three syllables = three steps. The child then swaps places with the child sitting opposite where they stop.

Activities to support: rhyme

LEVEL 1: Exposure to rhyme

  • Rhymes with actions, for example ‘row, row, row your boat’, ‘five little ducks’ and ‘wind the bobbin up’.
  • Rhyme to fit in with the routine of your setting. ‘This is the way we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands’ to the tune of ‘Here we go round the Mulberry Bush’
  • Rhyming story books, e.g. ‘Each Peach Pear Plum’, encouraging the children to join in when they have heard the story several times.
  • Rhyme time bags and song bags

LEVEL 2: Rhyme Play

  • Scribble Talk – Play with sounds to make silly speech, e.g., mibble, fibble, tibble, wibble.
  • Rhyming pattern play – In a small group the adult produces a simple rhyming sound pattern, ba, da, and the children then continue round in a circle adding to the string ba, da, fa, la, sa, ta.
  • Yummy mummy – You will need a list of easy rhymes that all (or most) of the children will be able to say. Two syllable forms are often easier to hear/remember initially, e.g. ‘abby’, ‘oppy’, ‘icky’or ‘ummy.’ Also some sound picture cards with no written letters. If you have selected e.g. ‘ummy’ say this three times and then get the children to join in. Explain that you are going to add a sound to the start of the word, for example ‘m’. Show the card at the same time. Say mummy three times and then get the children to join in. Demonstrate that the end bit is not changing, e.g.” Mummy… ummy.” Continue with a few different sounds – it doesn’t matter if the children produce a nonsense word.

Variations: Children can do it in turns round the circle. Introduce the idea that the same ‘end bits’ are rhyming. At the end, run through all the “words” you have made.

LEVEL 3: Finish the Rhyme

  • Rhyming Pairs – Make up some silly rhyming couplets with children:
    I like rice – it’s very nice
    I like fish – on a dish
    I like jelly – it wobbles in my belly
  • Forgetful Puppet – Sing or say nursery rhymes using a ‘forgetful’ puppet who sometimes forgets to say the rhyming words, for example:
    ‘Jack and Jill went up the …..?’
    Sometimes the puppet could accidentally put in the wrong word!
    ‘Jack and Jill went up the stairs!’

Talk about how some of the words sound the same – they rhyme!

LEVEL 4: Making a rhyming string from a given word

  • Rhyming string – adult to produce a word, e.g., hat, the child has to produce further rhyming word/s – bat, mat. Some children may need to be given a clue, e.g., I can think of something that says miaow.
  • Stepping Stones – stick pictures on to card, number them from one to six and place them at intervals across the floor. Throw a dice and ask the child to stand on the picture with that number. The child then has to give a word which rhymes with the picture they are standing on.
  • Go Fishing – make a set of cards using pictures that the child is familiar with. Attach a paper clip to each. Make a fishing rod out of a stick with a magnet attached. Take it in turns to catch a fish from the pond. If the child gives a word that rhymes with the picture they keep their ‘catch’. If not they have to put the fish back in.
  • Skittles – make a set of cards using pictures that the child is familiar with. Attach one to each skittle. Throw a ball at the skittles. If the child knocks a skittle over they have to give a word that rhymes with the attached picture. Remember some children will need a clue.

LEVEL 5: Rhyme Detection

  • Rhyming basket – collect together items that rhyme, e.g., hat/bat, sock/clock, fish/dish etc. Start off with just a few items. Put some items on the table and ask the child to find an object in the basket that rhymes with one on the table.
  • Hide and Seek – use pairs of pictures that rhyme. Give each child one of the rhyming pair pictures. Hide the others around the room. Ask the child to find their matching pair.
  • Odd One Out – have a selection of pictures, two that rhyme and one that doesn’t, e.g., key, bee, man. Ask the child to pick up the two pictures that rhyme as you say them.

Activities to support: alliteration


Recognising Sounds

  • Matching sounds- Can the child match a sound to an object? For example finding a fire engine if they hear a siren or finding a cow if they hear ‘moo’.
  • “Old MacDonald had a Farm” – Sing this song. Encourage the child to join in with the animal sounds. Show the child pictures of the animals when you make the sounds. Can the child point to the appropriate picture when you make the sound?
  • Lost animals – You will need several animal puppets/toys. Explain to the children that they are going to be zoo keepers and the animals have escaped. Their job is to round up the lost animals and collect them in the bag to return to the zoo. Hide the animal puppets/toys around the room and tell the children to listen very carefully. When the children hear a sound they must find the animal that is making the noise.


Recognising Differences in Sounds

  • Butterflies and Elephants – Shake a tambourine and the children run like butterflies. Bang the tambourine and the children stamp like elephants.
  • “Spot the Difference” – Introduce two identical shakers to the child. Talk about how they look and sound the same. Let the child play with them and listen to the sound they make. Put the shakers to one side and repeat the above with two identical drums. Next choose one shaker and one drum, play them and point out how they sound different. Explain to the child that you are going to play a listening game. Place either a shaker or drum in front of the child but out of reach. Place the other shaker and drum behind the screen. Make sure the child is ready and ask them to listen carefully. Play one of the instruments behind the screen. Ask the child if the instrument makes the same sound as the one in front of them. If it does talk about them being the same, if not then talk about them being different.


Introducing Speech Sounds

  • Children find it easier to learn new sounds with visual support from pictures and actions. We recommend using ‘Jolly Phonics’ cards. Remember to use the ‘pure sound’ when carrying out these activities, i.e. ‘p’ instead of ‘per’.
  • Magic wand – The adult introduces the magic wand, which moves round the circle, stopping occasionally and pointing at one of the children. As the wand moves “it” makes a neutral sound, e.g. humming. The children are warned that when it stops it will make a speech sound and they will have to listen and then find the correct sound picture card. Children who find this hard can just repeat the sound.
  • Puppet says – Introduce the puppet to the children and say that he is going to be the “leader” in a game. To choose a sound you could ask a child to pick a sound card out of a bag. Practise making the sound together with the action. Once you have chosen three sounds, the puppet will ‘say’ a sound and the children have to do the action.
  • Simple Soundaround – Allocate sound pictures to individual children, e.g. ‘p’, to the first child, ‘t’ to the next child, ‘s’ to the next child and then ‘p’ to the next child and so on. The children sit in a circle on chairs or carpet squares and swap places when their sound is said. The command “All the Sounds” means everyone changes places. The adult could pass the role of leader to a child who is listening particularly well. Watch out for sounds that some children can’t say as leader.


Identifying initial sounds in easy words

  • My Mother went to market – she has to buy things that begin with the same letter and the list of things she buys grows and grows – a sandwich, a sock …. You may want to give the children clues by having the items or pictures in a basket and pull them out one at a time.
  • Magic Box – This is a useful activity to reinforce one sound. Collect objects which begin with the target sound. Use a box. If possible make the box look special e.g. by covering it with colourful paper. Put one object inside. Pass the box around the room and sing “Magic box, what’s inside? What’s the sound you’re trying to hide?”(to the tune of “This old man he had one, he played nick nack….”). When the song stops, open the box, name the object and talk about the sound it starts with. A variation of this game could include objects which start with different sounds e.g. ‘d’ and ‘s’. The children can then sort the objects.
  • Postman game – Make two distinct areas into two shops. Use two large cards with a picture on each (or real objects) and explain that each shop only sells things which begin with the same sound. This is the ‘s’ shop and this is the ‘b’ shop. Collect together objects which start with the two sounds. Use a postman’s bag and perhaps a hat. In turn, hand each child a bag which has an object inside. The “postman” opens the bag and delivers the object to the correct shop.
  • Sick of Sounds – Have two posting boxes with a picture of an animal on the front of each one, e.g., Mickey Monkey, Lenny Lion. Explain that the animals are hungry and want the children to help feed them – but they are fussy eaters and will only eat things that start with the same sound as their name. You can use sound picture cards to remind the children of these sounds. The children then take it in turns to take food pictures from a bag and feed them to the right animal. If they make a mistake model the error, e.g., is it a luffin or a muffin, is it a meaf or a leaf etc. At the end the animals can be ‘sick’. Empty the boxes and go over what they have eaten, emphasising the start sounds.
  • Run and Touch – Stick three sound pictures up on the wall. The children take it in turns to listen to a word and they have to run to the sound picture the word starts with.

Sound plays videos

Top tips videos 

Social skill is the term used for relating to and interacting with others. It involves social understanding, social communication and social relationships. Social skills include an awareness of self and others, an understanding of the communication process, a desire to communicate and a means to communicate with others. The skills of social communication include:

  • Joint (shared) attention
  • Proximity
  • Eye gaze
  • Interpreting and using facial expression
  • Understanding and using body language
  • Prosody (volume, speed, tone of voice)
  • Turn taking
  • Conversational skills
  • Understand implied meaning
  • Using language for a range of functions

TOP TIP: Whilst we have split these skills into separate areas, in everyday life these skills overlap and are not used in isolation. Children need to understand the social meaning behind each aspect of good social communication. This is more important

than prompting pupils to use the skills. Simply teaching the children ‘the what’ will not be enough as they will also need to understand ‘the how, where and why’ of social communication, demonstrated within situations that are meaningful to them.

Advice and activities to develop social communication skills


The foundations of early interaction involve learning to share attention, wait, and take turns. This can start with early activities/games a parent and child do together e.g. blowing bubbles, tickling games.

Please refer to the Play and Attention and Listening sections for more ideas.

Some good strategies to remember:

  • Reduce the clutter. Only have the activity you want to work on available.
  • Use visual means to help the child focus e.g.
    • Objects of reference: Show real objects to your child to help them make sense of what is about to happen, for example, show them the same plate every time they are due to have their dinner. The child can then begin to associate objects with a routine or activity.
    • Now/next board: these boards can be used with the child to indicate what is going to happen but also highlights the end point of the activity by showing them what is going to happen next. For example: “Now painting then play with cars”.
    • Visual timetable: put photos/pictures in order on a timeline to help the child understand what is happening over a period of time/throughout their day.
    • Finish box: Once an activity is finished you can put the symbol/work activity in a finish box to signify it has ended.
  • Start from where the pupil is at – join their focus of attention.
  • Use the pupil’s name first to attract their attention before you speak.

PROXIMITY (personal space)

Children with social communication difficulties may feel uncomfortable when others are within their personal space.

Be aware of the child’s tolerance of the proximity of others – stay outside their personal space.

Be aware of any sensory needs the child may have and adjust for these as much as is possible.

Children with social communication difficulties can find it tricky to understand social rules. They may need help to know where it is appropriate to: say hello, shake hands, kiss, cuddle, hold hands. Teach socially acceptable alternatives.

Having a carpet can help the child understand where it is appropriate to sit and can protect their personal space.


Good timing of eye contact is important for social interaction and communication.

Children need to learn when, why and for how long to look at others.

Holding objects at eye-level may encourage a pupil to look at you, or prompting with a ‘Look’ symbol or gesture.

Make sure you are at the right level for the child to make eye-contact – ‘get your face in the right place!’ (Dave Hewitt, Intensive Interaction). Some children may find eye to eye contact uncomfortable, encourage them to turn towards others rather than look at their faces.

Give praise as appropriate e.g. ‘good looking’.


Facial expressions can be difficult to ‘read’, especially for children with social communication difficulties. Sometimes we give mixed messages – what we say may not be what we mean, for example, saying ‘no’ whilst smiling. For older children, social skills programmes, like the Social Use of Language Programme and Socially Speaking contain a range of teaching activities.

Some ideas to consider:

  • Take photos of facial expressions and of the contexts. Match the photos to different feelings and to possible reasons for feeling this way.
  • Introduce a mood chart, using photos or symbols, to indicate how children feel about different activities or events.
  • Use a story or clip from the internet. Encourage the child to identify the feelings of characters from their facial expressions, body language and tone of voice.


Teach social gestures, including: head nod (yes); head shake (no); handshake (hello); wave (bye); finger-point (requesting and responding); thumb up (like or good); thumb down (don’t like or not good); standing alongside (to gain attention) hand up (to speak in class); raised palm (stop/wait); shrug (don’t know).

  • Use real contexts and video clips to explain the meaning of body language, linked to facial expression and tone of voice.
  • Use visual cues such as signs or symbol cards to prompt appropriate body language and social gestures such as, helping children to show ‘good listening’.

E.g. Here are 5 ways to SHOW that you are LISTENING to people:

  1. Turn towards the person who is speaking.
  2. Nod your head.
  3. Say “Mmm”, “Aha” or “Yes”.
  4. Ask a question about the speaker’s topic.
  5. Make a comment (say something) about the speaker’s topic:
  • Happy topic – make a happy comment and smile
  • Sad topic – make a calm comment and look sad
  • Cross topic – make a calm comment look calm

PROSODY- volume, speed, intonation, emphasis

  • Visual prompt cards e.g. Quiet voice please!
  • Use visual and/or auditory representations of quiet (mouse; rustling tissue) and loud (lion; drum)
  • Demonstrate different volumes in different situations – children to consider appropriacy.
  • Use a video or tape recorder to provide feedback as to whether the speed of the child’s speech is too fast / too slow / acceptable.
  • Use a gesture or symbol card e.g. to remind the child to speak more slowly.


  • Work on turn taking as a one-to-one activity to start with.
  • Develop the concept of turn-taking through structured games and activities with clearly marked turns.
  • Activities children enjoy such as tickling games create opportunities for turn taking e.g. encourage the child to indicate ‘more’ by taking your hand or looking at you before continuing. Please see ‘play’ section for more ideas.
  • Use visual prompts to indicate whose turn, e.g. photos; written names to move up a Velcro strip or check off a list; a ‘My turn’ symbol card.
  • Use a visual cue to indicate when a turn starts, how long it lasts and when it ends, for example a sand timer.


Language can be used for a range of reasons:

  • Express needs, wants, feelings
  • Volunteer information and make comments
  • Direct others
  • Give an account
  • Start and take part in a conversation
  • Use language to interact with peers
  • Use of language to negotiate
  • Ask a relevant question
  • Use language to imagine
  • Give an explanation
  • Use language for reasoning
  • Use language descriptively

Supporting social communication skills in older children

As children get older, they may present with:

  • Having a literal understanding of languageg. difficulties with understanding rhetorical questions, sarcasm, implied meanings, metaphors, jokes. Be specific – say what you mean and mean what you say.
  • Having difficulty understanding how much the listener already knows about a topic and how much information is appropriate to provide.
  • Lacking flexibility and having difficulty generalising learning
  • Understanding the ‘subtleties’ of social interaction and conversation e.g. how to change or maintain a topic appropriately; how to start and finish a conversation, how to understand an implied meaning.
  • Having difficulty understanding emotions
  • Transitions
  • Making and maintaining friendships

You can help by:

  • Restricting your language to short unambiguous phrases.
  • Trying to keep children ‘on topic’.
  • Keeping your instructions direct and in the order you wish them to be carried out e.g. ‘first go and get your history book then go to the library’ instead of ‘before you go to the library, go and get your history book’.
  • Be clear in what you want the child to do e.g. ‘I want you to go and fetch Mr Smith’ instead of ‘Would you like to fetch Mr Smith for me?’
  • Make instructions e.g. ‘please sit down’ rather than ‘don’t wander around’.
  • Make use of the child’s motivations and real life experiences to help their learning.
  • Help the child through demonstration to understand appropriate conversational rules e.g. how to ask for help, how to request clarification.
  • All children respond well to a clear system for rewards e.g. a visual sticker system. Consistent use of this is important, particularly for a child with social communication difficulties.
  • Certain situations such as, transitions between lessons and/or activities can cause an element of anxiety. Try to maintain a routine that is safe, calm and predictable. Consider the use of pen portraits to support children in an unfamiliar situation.
  • Work to the child’s strengths such as, use visual means of teaching and learning e.g. written instructions, information and key words; diagrams; tables; charts; maps; illustrations; photos; objects.
  • Provide extra support for subjects with a high language content e.g. English, RE, History.
  • Group tasks can be difficult because of the social demands of working with others- support by:
    • Allocating students carefully
    • Working with the same person / people where possible
    • Making sure the student understands what to do within the group
    • Supporting and withdrawing gradually
    • Making sure the others are listening
    • Giving time to organise and settle
  • Home-school communication is important. Families can supply useful information about the pupil’s anxieties and coping strategies. Try a home school diary.
  • Children may need to be forewarned of changes in routine or planned events.
  • Children with social communication difficulties can at times say something that can be misinterpreted as being rude. Carefully explain the rules/social requirement- you can use social scripts to support this. A social script will support a pupil’s understanding of a particular issue and explain how to respond in a socially acceptable way.
  • Children may find unstructured times difficult e.g. break times, school holidays. Help them to plan their time, such as by using visual schedules, calendars, diaries or planners. Other suggestions include:
    • Provide a safe haven where the student can go
    • Introduce a buddy system
    • Encourage them to attend clubs/games
    • Yr 11s could help in Yr 7 clubs
    • Undertake Role Play
    • Give defined options – give them choices about what they can do at break
    • Structure / separate the key stages
    • Rotate or stagger lunch breaks
    • Provide activities to be getting on with
    • Teachers to get there before students
    • Teach the cues that indicate unstructured time
    • Pre-teach through role play
    • Use Buddy systems
    • Pre-teach through using social scripts
    • Work on friendship skills – concept, strategies for making and keeping friends. ‘Friends’ club and special interest groups can help.
    • Explicit discussion of class rules including ‘good listening’ behaviour and a visual display of these.

Learning to talk, like learning to walk, is never completely smooth and does not happen straight away. Young children often stop, pause, start again and stumble over words. Between the ages of 2 and 5 years it is normal for a child to repeat words and phrases and hesitate with “um’s” and “er’s” when they are sorting out what to say next. Approximately 5 in every 100 children stammer for a time when they are learning to talk. Many find it easier to talk fluently as they get older.

What is stammering?

A child who stammers may:

  • Repeat parts of words several times, for example ‘mu-mu-mu-mummy’
  • Stretch sounds in a word, for example ‘ssssstory’
  • Seem to find it difficult to get started and no sound comes out for several seconds, for example ‘………..I got a teddy’
  • Stop what they are saying half way through the sentence
  • Have tense or jerky speech
  • Be putting extra effort into saying their words.

More information can be found on the British Stammering Association website

Research has found that children and babies learn to communicate when they have a means, a way of communicating, opportunities to communicate and reasons to communicate.  They also need adults who are responsive to how they communicate.


  • Speech
  • Signs
  • Symbols
  • Facial expression
  • Gesture
  • Touch
  • Behaviour
  • Vocalisation
  • Written word
  • Objects of reference
  • Eye contact
  • Body movement
  • Physical posture


  • Basic needs - request / refuse
  • Express feelings - get attention
  • Want something to happen or not!
  • Give and receive information
  • Make and maintain relationships
  • Pleasure of chat - socialising


  • Time and space
  • Real choices / options
  • Responsive people and environment
  • Shared 'language' and interests

For example:  if your child is in the garden playing on their own and everything is available to them, they do not have any reason to communicate as they are happy and can meet their needs independently. You are not there so there is no opportunity for them to communicate and a means of communication will not be developed as this is not being modelled to them by an adult.

Means of communication

Everyone needs a means to communicate but there is a lot more to communication than just talking! Think about Pingu and Mr Bean, they do not not use many words but everyone understands what is happening including what they are thinking and feeling. Communication can be verbal, for example babble, making noises, saying words, phrases and sentences or non-verbal for example; crying, facial expressions, showing emotions, pointing, gestures or using signing or symbols. Research show that only 7% of communication is verbal, even for adults, therefore developing non-verbal communication is really important. It is also importamnt for all of the adult in the childs environment to be aware of their preferred method of communication whether its verbal and/or non-verbal.

Observe your child: How do they communicate?

Spend some time watching and observe your child to see what methods of communication they use.  Do they make eye contact, pass you things, tap you, take you by the hand, point, reach for items or gesture. 

Just because they might not be talking does not mean that they are not communicating.  Interpret their attempts at communication as meaningful.

Reasons for communication

Everyone needs a reason to communicate. Children are unlikely to communicate unless they really want to and are motivate otherwise there is simple no point.

 Children may communicate to:

  • express feelings; e.g. tired, hungry, poorly, happy, etc.
  • indicate wants and needs e.g. to make requests, choices, reject items or to gain attention

Later children may communicate to greet, instruct, comment, ask questions or for the pleasure of chat, socialising, forming relationships and to share information.

What is your child motivated by?

Identify the things that motivate your child. For example; they might love certain food, toys, activities, songs, TV characters, rough and tumble play, numbers or letters, materials such as sand and water, ordering, filling and emptying. 

We much encourage communication by creating opportunities for children to request the things that motivate them.

Opportunities to communicate

As parents and carers and adults we need to provide opportunities for children to communicate.  Strategies to help include:

  • Not anticipating your child’s needs: as adults we are very good at anticipating what our child needs or wants.  For example day they have a drink of milk first in the morning so normally you would get it out for your child. This is good to establish routines initially however if done repetitively it wastes and opportunity to communicate.  Instead you could put their empty bottle out and wait to see how they communicate. Always model appropriate communication at these times using a single word such as drink, want, gone, more or milk.
  • Avoid the helper role: wait and see what your child will do, don’t jump in too quickly. If they need help with something this is a good opportunity to communicate and ask for help using any means.  For example they might bring the item to you, they might pick it up, bang it, or take you to the item.   Remember to model a key word such as help, open, want, etc.
  • Ensure that they have someone there to communicate with who can pick up on their subtle attempts at communication. It’s really good to follow your child’s lead and join in with their choice of activity. Try to ensure that others such as siblings, peers, and even adults do not talk for your child as this will take away a good opportunity.
  • Wait to allow your child to respond to your comments and initiate with you. Try counting to 10 in your held before you step in.
  • Reward your child's attempts at communication by interpreting them as being meaningful: When your child responds to you after you have paused and waited even if only with a brief glance it is important to reward your child with what they want. With repetition your child will learn that this behaviour gets a reward. Your child will then begin to use this non-verbal communication more intentionally.

Activities to develop requesting

Offer choices

The easiest choices to make are between something that you are really motivated by and something that you are not; don’t be afraid to offer items that you know your child does not want/like as this will help them to develop their cause and effect understanding and their ability to choose (e.g. ‘Do you want broccoli or car?’).

Hold up the objects so that they can see them and say the words.

When they become good at indicating their choice, make the choice harder by offering 2 motivating things e.g. ‘Do you want car or train?’.

If this becomes too frustrating for your child offer choices in less motivating situations (e.g do you want to wear the yellow t-shirt or the blue t-shirt?, do you want red bubbles or blue bubbles in the bath?).

Remember to offer a choice, wait for your child to respond and then reward them. 

Watch this video for further information:

Offer items bit by bit

Give your child a small amount of something motivating, for example; one piece of jigsaw, one brick, one crisp, one piece of train track, one slice of banana, etc.

Ensure that they can see that there is more available and wait for them to respond.

Then model a key word such as more, chocolate, bubbles, etc. and reward them with more.

Watch this video for further information:

Place items out of reach, but in view 

Put a highly motivating toy or snack in a clear bag or box and wait for your child to communicate to request it. For example; put your child's comforter in a clear bag or box, put out all of the train set but have the trains in a clear box , put an out Inset puzzle board but keep pieces in clear bag.

Place their favourite toy on a shelf and wait for them to respond – this may cause some behaviours and frustrations (please consider that if your child likes to climb it may be safer to put their toy in a clear bag/box that they cannot open instead). This behaviour is a means of communication from which you can model how to respond (e.g “want”, “open”, “more”).

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Use toys that they need help with

 Use toys that your child can not operate on their own such as: wind up toys, pop up toys, bubbles, balloons, jack in a box, spinning tops, music boxes, etc.

  • Give them time to try to work the toys themselves and wait for them to respond
  • Model a key word such as help, open, wind, or label the item
  • Then reward them with the toy
  • Then repeat the process and model more or again

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Create people games

 These are games that you play together without toys, for example peek-a-boo, chasing, tickling, rough and tumble play, etc.

  • Establish a simple play routine and then pause and wait for them to respond.
  • When your child responds reward them with more of the activity

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Pause a familiar activity or routine 

Sing a familiar interactive nursery rhyme or song such as Row Row Row the boat, Horsey horsey, Round and round the garden, This little piggy, The Grand Old Duke of York, etc. Then pause, and wait.

  • Look for opportunities at the park or in the garden: For example: When pushing them on a swing, catch the swing to stop it, and wait, or when on the roundabout, see-saw or slide.

Develop a play routine at bath time or during water or sand play; fill a jug and lift it up up up and then pour. Repeat the routine but pause before you pour and wait for our child to communicate. Try pausing at the end of the play routine to see if you child can request more or again

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Use Sabotage: give all but one item

Think about routines that your child is familiar with such as snack time, toy play, leaving the house, bath time etc. Think about what you could change to create an opportunity for communication.

Give all but one item. Hold the item out of reach but in sight, and wait

For example:

  • Give the bubble wand, but not the bubbles.
  • Give the tools and cutters but not the playdoh 
  • Give a cup but not the drink 
  • Give road mat but not the cars
  • The train track but not the trains
  • Some paper but no pens
  • Their coat but no shoes
  • Give then the tablet but don't turn it on
  • Put the TV on but not one of their programmes
  • A battery operated toy that's turned off

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Top tips

Introducing these new strategies may initially cause some frustration because your child is no longer getting their needs and wants met immediately and will now have to work for these. It’s important to choose the right time to introduce the strategies (e.g. not when they are playing with their favourite toy/when they are tired/ hungry or frustrated).

Strategies can be introduced gradually; for example, at one point in the day initially and then build these into more activities throughout the day until it becomes part of your daily routine.

When carrying out the recommended activities, remember to:

  • Observe: watch your child and look at their non-verbal communication what are they trying to tell you?  
  • Wait: Don’t jump straight in to help or meet their needs. Allow your child time to communicate what they want with you.  Try counting to 10 in your head while looking expectantly at them.
  • Listen: Listen to what your child is trying to communicate and interpret this as meaningful. Add language by modelling appropriate key words such as ‘more’, ‘help’, ‘open’, ‘go’, etc.
  • Reward: your child with more of the activity/what it is that they want. With lots of repetition, overtime your child will become more successful in communicating their wants and needs and may start to use key words that you have modelled.

Model: To support development; encourage family members to model requests so the child can see what is required of them.