Supporting language development in the early years

Take a moment to imagine what it would be like to look at the words on this page and not be able to comprehend the meaning these words have collectively. Perhaps you do not have to imagine. According to the 2016 Census, 21 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English within the home (Australian Bureau of Statistics), with 49 per cent of Australians identified as being ‘first generation Australians’ with both parents having been born overseas.

How young children develop and understand language is a complex topic, and is one of the key developmental milestones of early childhood. Language allows children to identify and communicate feelings, needs and emotions, with parents, educators and other children. Comprehension, understanding and interpretation of language—both oral and written—provide the foundation for lifelong learning.

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2006 identified that 46 per cent of Australians over 15 years old had below-average English comprehension skills. This included struggling to understand information on a bottle of medicine, as well as difficulty comprehending written materials such as emails and instructions.

This information was reinforced by a further ABS study in 2013, with 44 per cent of adult Australians who cannot read for comprehension.

Engaging children with language from birth is one of the best ways to develop strong literacy skills. People who cannot comfortably read in their own language are unlikely to read to their children. Many of the parents in your services will chat to their children quite naturally, establishing expressive and responsive conversations from the very beginning, equipping their children in the best possible way with the building blocks of language and literacy. But some, for a variety of reasons, will not, and these parents need your support and guidance to be able to appreciate the benefits of language development in very young children and most importantly, to enable parents to become their child’s first teacher.

The good news is that you, and the families you work with, have all the equipment needed to support children’s language development. Use language with children on a regular basis by singing, reading and playing. Routine care offers endless opportunities for supporting language development: nappy changing, washing and especially mealtimes; encouraging children to talk about food—it’s texture, taste, feel and so much more.

Language fulfils another important function: language and culture are inseparable expressions of each other. Encouraging parents whose first language is not English to speak that language consistently with their child gives their child many advantages: they will become bilingual, they will learn about the culture embedded in that language by sharing with family and friends, and their ability for language learning will be stronger, thus helping them learn English more easily at play school or school, according to Dr Priscilla Clarke.

Auntie Fay Stewart-Muir, an Elder and traditional owner of the Boon Wurrung clan in Victoria, and senior linguist at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation of Languages, speaks about the importance of language revival and retrieval for cultural strengthening, connection and the increased sense of pride and belonging that comes from connecting with culture and tradition through language use. She adds a third element to this powerful mix of language and culture, that of country—all indivisible from each other in Aboriginal tradition. Her work in schools during the recent Biyadin (Shearwater) Festival on Phillip Island, teaching primary students songs and stories in Boon Wurrung language, was truly inspirational—for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous students and staff.

Language learning is a complex and multifaceted developmental milestone within early childhood. It is deeply connected with culture, identity and belonging. Understanding how very young children learn skills to communicate and form language is essential to supporting their development and future language learning skills. Despite this, it should not be seen as ‘challenging’ or difficult—it’s a skill everyone, from families, educators, even other children can contribute to.

This blog was developed as a part of Christine Andell’s ECA Learning Hub module, ‘Supporting language development in the early years’, now available for purchase or as a part of an Annual ECA Learning Hub subscription.

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Christine Andell

Christine Andell has worked within children’s literature in Europe and Australia for many years, most notably as an owner of The Little Bookroom, a specialist children’s bookshop in Melbourne, Australia. As part of the Victorian Government’s Young Readers Program, through State Library Victoria, Christine worked closely with children’s librarians, speech therapists, early childhood educators and families to support the language development of babies and young children. Christine is an accredited 3a Abecedarian coach and a Children’s Literature consultant, with a special interest in early childhood literacy. In 2016/17, Christine helped develop and run a 3a Abecedarian pilot program for the Hobsons Bay City Council Library Service, training and supporting children’s librarians to utilise the 3a approach within supported playgroup settings. Christine recently completed a Master’s Degree at RMIT University in Melbourne.

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