Ask an early years teacher - speech and language in their eyes

This week we interview Eleanor, a nursery manager with over 20 years of experience working in nurseries and pre-schools.  I was lucky enough to spend half an hour with her, hearing all about her experiences working with pre-school children, and learning some fresh ideas to support communication development along the way.  Who wouldn’t love a bedtime stories session?!

What is your job?

I am a nursery manager, working with children aged 2-4 years old.  I’ve been managing this nursery for the last year and a half.  Working with this age group is wonderful because they are so enthusiastic, and they learn so fast.  Every day I watch the children learning something new.

What does speech, language and communication mean to you as an early years teacher?

It is a really major part of the work we do, we are encouraging the children to communicate throughout their time with us.  For some children that’s not yet verbally, so we use gesture lots, and we use Makaton (, or find out more about Makaton and sign language in our article). As children are learning to use spoken language we spend a lot of time helping them to extend their vocabulary, and working to improve their grammatical structures.  We hope to give them the skills so that they can use language to express their needs rather than some of the other methods that two year olds frequently use!

How do Speech and Language therapists help children in early years settings?

There are two main ways we work together.  Sometimes we will refer children to Speech and Language Therapy, and the therapist will either see the child individually, or more usually in a group, at a clinic or health centre.  We often get helpful feedback and suggestions of how we can continue the work in the nursery which we love.  Occasionally the therapist will come and work in the nursery if it’s not possible for the parent to take the child to sessions elsewhere.

I have also been part of projects where Speech and Language Therapists have worked in nurseries, producing materials jointly and encouraging our staff to watch their teaching sessions so that our team can replicate the techniques.

What is the best piece of advice a Speech and Language Therapist has ever given you?

One of the most recent pieces of advice that has challenged my thinking was to only speak to a child if they are looking at you.  I think it’s true, children can zone out if there is a steady voice droning on! I do think it is working for the children I’ve tried it with so far.  For it to be very effective, I think the parents would have to be using the same strategy.

Another piece of advice that a Speech and Language Therapist gave me previously was to talk about what the child is doing or playing with.  I think that works for many children!

What advice as an early years teacher do you pass on to parents who are worried about their child’s communication skills?

If a parent came to me worried about their child’s communication, I would give them some honest information about whether or not their worries were well-founded, based on what we know about other children of a similar age.  We would offer to do an assessment within the nursery, and to refer the child on if they needed it.  I would also encourage the parent to speak with their child, sing songs with their child, and have fun with language.

What advice do you pass on to your staff to help children communicate at nursery/pre-school?

To ensure there is a lot of language, a language rich environment, we encourage everybody to extend their sentences so that if a child is giving you one word you’re putting that into a short simple sentence, modelling it.  We encourage the staff to ask open ended questions so that the child can’t just say “yes” or “no” and so they’re using their language to develop the child’s thinking skills at the same time.  We advise the staff to get down to the level of the child so that you’ve got eye contact when you’re talking, and to gauge the simplicity or complexity of their sentences to the ability of the child.

Give me one quick thing parents can do tonight to help their child communicate?

Read them a bed time story.  You don’t just have to read the words!  Talking about the book, looking at the pictures, is really valuable.  At this age the children are only just starting to recognise a few letters or words so thinking about the story is the most valuable thing.  Have storytime in a nice cosy place so it’s a really positive experience for the child.

We did a bedtime stories session in nursery this year.  The children came back at 5pm in their pyjamas with their teddies and a pillow, and listened to stories told by our staff.  One of the Mums told a story too.  The children acted out one of the stories, then afterwards we gave them milk and a biscuit, and they went home to bed.  The reaction from the parents was astonishing, they all loved it!  One parent said that before this, they had no idea why people read bedtime stories, “I’m going to have to do this at home”.  Another parent said “I feel really sleepy now”!

What communication skills do you expect from a 2 year old just starting nursery?

It’s a really wide range – all of our children have some communication skills when they start nursery, even if they are just leading us by the hand when they want something, pointing, or using single words.  Whereas some children can speak in full sentences already.  It is a really wide range, and that’s normal.

What communication skills do you want your 4 years olds to have when they leave nursery?

We’d want them to be able to express their feelings, to ask for things, to be able to ask questions about what they are learning and about the world they are in.  To be able to give their opinions, but to be able to listen as well and to respond to their friends.  I think speech and language skills are the most valuable gift we could give the children in our nursery.  Particularly for disadvantaged children, it’s the best way for them to catch up with their peers.

What’s your favourite toy, and why?

The train track, we use the train track in a couple of ways.  Sometimes we have it set up ready for the children to use, then we’re focusing on the movement of the trains, and using words like ‘over’ and ‘under’.  Usually children would help to construct the railway as well, developing spatial skills and the language of shape.  It certainly seems to be a favourite toy for lots of the children too.

Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist

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