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March 2002

Talking Tips -- Developing Early Social Language Skills

Amy C. Freedman, M.A., CCC-SLP

During the his first five years, a child experiences tremendous growth in all areas of development including speech and language skills. As these skills develop they impact not only subsequent language development but also the child’s ability to socialize and interact with his peers. By providing opportunities for children to practice their language skills in many different situations, we are also laying the foundation for developing early social skills.

Receptive language refers to a child’s understanding of what is said to him, including vocabulary, questions and commands. Expressive language refers to how a child communicates using speech, vocabulary and sentence structure.

Pragmatic skills are a very important component of expressive language. These refer to a child’s ability to use language for a variety of functions, including greeting, commenting, protesting and exclaiming. Pragmatic skills also include the ability to attend to the speaker and to get an adult or other child’s attention before speaking. Also, this subcategory of language skills includes the ability to take conversational turns.

Typically, by the time a child is 3 years old, he begins to produce short sentences and takes short conversational turns with classmates. A child who is experiencing delayed language development will often be frustrated when socializing with peers.

Communication interactions between children are more challenging to negotiate than those between an adult and a child. Typically, when an adult interacts with a child, the adult takes the responsibility for making sure the message is communicated and for repairing it if there is a breakdown. A child is more likely to walk away from a classmate who is having difficulty communicating.

Consequently, as teachers and parents, our challenge is to develop successful communication opportunities during our day. Following are some practical tips for facilitating communication and early social language skills in preschoolers.

Help children interact within comfortable routines

A preschool classroom has organized, structured routines. These routines help the young child know what is expected of him and are full of rich opportunities to interact with peers. Initially we may encourage the children to simply interact nonverbally with each other within these routines. This in itself encourages communication! Activities may include: passing juice pitchers to peers at snack time, clipping a friend’s smock together for an art project or handing two children a jar of bubbles with one wand.

Include collaborative projects whenever possible

Simply pairing children can facilitate communication. Marble painting is a favorite project of young children. A piece of paper is put inside a box which is held by two children. Paint and a marble or ball are placed in the box. As the children shake the box, the marble moves through the paint, creating a masterpiece! Other collaborative projects include painting a mural or party tablecloth on large sheets of paper or preparing a snack. For example, one child could roll cookie dough into a ball while another adds chocolate chips or raisins and hands it to the teacher to bake.

Model and teach useful scripts

Scripts are words and phrases that a young child may be taught to help him communicate. These include frequently used phrases such as, "Help me," "My turn," "Your turn next" and "I’m done." A child can be taught to use these scripts to negotiate in a variety of communicative settings. These are particularly valuable for a child who has language difficulties.

The scripts are generally short phrases that are easy to use. Model them in a variety of contexts so the child can see you using and practicing them.

Use rhymes and early games

Rhymes and early games help a child know what is expected of him and help him interact socially with peers within this framework. "Ring Around the Rosy," "London Bridge" and "Duck, Duck, Goose!" are examples of early games. In this context the child continues to practice using language to take turns ("My turn") and request ("More please!").

Nursery rhymes also provide a fun way for children to interact within a familiar framework. These can be presented at circle time. The children can look at the rhymes presented on a flannel board and then act them out with stuffed animals. Finally, the children become familiar enough to act out the rhymes themselves.

These rhymes can be incorporated into various parts of the day. For example, Humpty-Dumpty can be acted out with hard-boiled eggs for snack time. The class could also pretend that a ball is Humpty-Dumpty, while playing in the motor room. As Humpty has a fall, a teacher could throw the ball across the room and encourage the children to bring Humpty back so they can "fix" him.

Pictures please

Pictures can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. A picture schedule can help a child understand what activities are coming up and what is expected of him. Using pictures on a choice board can help a child request an activity or food. Postcards can be used to tell about a recent or future trip to the zoo. Using instant pictures such as those from a Polaroid camera can provide support and context to both the child and listener.

Reinforce all communication attempts

One of the best ways to help a child continue to attempt to communicate is to respond to the message he is communicating, not how he is saying it. At the same time, we can give him the adult model of his sentence and still respond to the content he communicated.

Example: Child: "We goed to the store."
Adult: "Yes, we went to the store."

Example: Child: "I see a wabbit!"
Adult: "I see the rabbit, too!"

Teach requesting

When facilitating requesting in the classroom and at home, an old adage comes to mind: "Less is more". For example, by putting a little juice in a cup and waiting, a teacher gives a child more opportunities to request what he wants and to practice using his vocabulary words. Similarly by blowing only a bubble or two and waiting, the teacher provides more speech and language opportunities. This is particularly important with the child who has a limited vocabulary has just begun to request items or is practicing new vocabulary words.

Be forgetful!

Set up situations where you forget a key piece of an activity. For example, you may have bubbles but no wand; juice but no cup. Pause and wait for a child to notice. If he doesn’t notice, point and model a response ("No wand!").

Be playful!

Set up situations where you do the unexpected in a playful manner. Pause to give the child an opportunity to comment on it. For example, after reading the story The Three Bears, get dressed to go outside. First try on huge sunglasses ("Too big!"), then try on a young child’s sunglasses ("Too small!") and then your own ("Just right!").

The children are guaranteed to be delighted!



Hadley, P. and Schule, M. (Nov., 1998) Facilitating Peer Interaction: Socially Relevant Objectives for Preschool Language Intervention. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology Vol. 7, No. 4, 25-36.

Ostrosky, M. and Kaiser, A. (1991) Preschool classroom environments that promote communication. Teaching Exceptional Children, 23 (4), 6-10.


Amy Freedman is a Speech/Language Therapist and Consultant for Ivymount School’s Center for Outreach in Education (CORE). For more information about CORE workshops or consultations, please call (301) 469-0228.

©CORE at the Ivymount School Amy Freedman. All rights reserved.

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