The Key to Language Rich Early Childhood Education Environments

Children learn speech and language when adults talk to them. Children learn speech and language when adults talk to them.

Children learn speech and language by listening, watching, babbling, exploring, copying, responding, interacting and playing with others. They learn language at a phenomenal rate in their early years. From the age of 2 children  are learning 10 new words a day on average, so by the age of 6 they have almost 15 thousand words in their vocabularies and then they speed up!

There is no one right way for a child to learn or a designated time for them to begin to speak – children reach speech and language developmental milestones in different ways.

It is an almost universal truth, that when children start speaking they expect to be understood! We all do! Children can often be frustrated when adults don’t grasp their meaning immediately – even when ‘up’ can mean ‘down’, ‘I want to go outside’ and ‘put me in the car’ sometimes all at the same time.

For early childhood educators, the ability to speak and understand a child’s tongue is a skill often undervalued by non educators. This skill is especially important for educators who are caring for children with different home languages from their own.

Educators who share a child’s language attempts with parents/guardians can often ease a young child’s frustration as the adults in their life create a shared context. Understanding and supporting speech and language development is central to what early childhood educators do as part of creating a language rich learning environment.


So what does a language rich environment look like?

Engage children in conversation about things that interest them - like dolphins! Engage children in conversation about things that interest them – like dolphins!

For a start the walls of a childcare service don’t need lots of posters of words and numbers to be language rich. Exposure to print and letters/letter sounds can happen without filling walls with words. That doesn’t mean no words at all – labels and words in context with learning activities are fantastic – but posters with lists of ‘sight words’ in preschool just make busy walls – pack them away.

In Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn–and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less the authors identify 5 markers that demonstrate a strong language environment

  1. Responsiveness: Does the caregiver or teacher respond when the child addresses [them]
  2. Positive emotion: Do [they] respond with a smile and a positive disposition
  3. Does the teacher have the attention of the children. [Are they] talking about things the children are interested in?
  4. Expansions: Is the teacher asking questions and building on the children’s talk?
  5. Reading: Is the room filled with written material and books? Does the teacher read to the children?

Note that only one of the above markers involves the printed word. Research suggests that it is both the quantity and quality of words that are spoken to children from 12-36 months that have an impact on their language development.


Key Factors for Language Development in Early Childhood Education

  • Children learn when adults talk to them.

Talk about play, talk as you set up learning activities and talk through daily routines as you go about your day. Listen to the children’s interests and engage with them. It’s about conversations, not just counting or listing things (colors, animals) or reciting the alphabet. Talk through activities as you do them and ask questions.

Body Language is important for language and speech development. Get down to the child's ear level!
Body Language is important for language and speech development. Get down to the child’s ear level!


  • Language is about more than just words

Make your interactions positive, look at the child as they are speaking to you and if possible get down on their level for conversations. Children who feel they are being heard grow in confidence. Remember that learning to talk is about more than words. Body language, smiling and back and forth interactions are all important for language and speech development.

  • Give children space to talk

Children need you to wait while they try out new language (or process what you have said/asked them). Be conscious of your facial expression as you are listening, show that you are interested. You may also need to speak more slowly in some instances, often we speak so quickly that the words can blur for an early learner.

  • Provide many opportunities for imaginative play

Play is such a language rich experience. The elements of storytelling, dialogue, experimenting, problem solving and interacting with other children all make play vital for language development.

Books don’t always need words for children to read.

  • Read (and tell stories) aloud to/with children

Read books aloud, read Educa portfolios aloud, read brochures, read magazines, read the side of cereal packets…just read. Read simple books, read more complex books (in areas where children demonstrate interest). Read books without words. Make up your own stories. The cadences of reading and storytelling are where children learn about grammar, rhythm and rhyme – long before they learn to say those words. Also have books for children to ‘read’ independently. You can even write simple books with children for reading together.

So, to return to the question, what is a language rich early childhood learning environment like?

It sounds like conversation and play and singing and reading and interacting and true listening.
It looks like a space where learners and educators are interacting in all these activities in a positive, nurturing way.
It feels like a place where children grow in confidence as their early adventures with speech are encouraged, respected and supported.

It’s always helpful to encourage a consistent approach between the early learning service and home.

So here’s a pdf to share with parents.  9 Tips To Encourage Language Development.  Download it, and if you are an Educa customer, share in on your Message Board, and add it to the RESOURCES section in the SERVICE tab.


Further Resources

What is the Difference Between Speech and Language

Speech and Language Development Index

How to Help Your Child Talk

What does normal sound like?  Speech development in 0-5s

20 Tips for Creating a Language Rich Environment for Your Toddler

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