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Almost everything we do involves speech, language and communication. Being able to express our needs, likes & dislikes, as well as interacting with others and building relationships is crucial to our everyday life. The development of our speech & language skills is crucial in supporting learning and play.

Many children start school with delayed speech, language & communication skills. Their speech may be unclear, vocabulary smaller and they may use shorter sentences. Many of these children catch up with the right support, and when language difficulties are resolved by 5 ½ years, children are more likely to develop good reading and spelling skills (The Communication Trust: Dec 2013 – www.thecommunicationtrust.org.uk).

It is estimated that in every classroom there are 2-3 children with some form of long- term and persistent speech, language & communication difficulty. All these children present differently, often exhibiting a variable profile of abilities. Children with speech, language and communication needs (SLCN) are more likely to develop difficulties with one or more of the following areas:

  • Listening and paying attention;
  • Understanding and following instructions;
  • Using well structured, grammatical sentences;
  • Understanding and using vocabulary and concept words;
  • Developing age appropriate social communication skills;
  • Developing ability to reason, inference, problem solve and draw conclusions;
  • Using correct speech sounds;
  • Sounding out words for reading, spelling and writing;
  • Developing reading comprehension skills;
  • Oral and written narrative and story -telling;
  • Accessing the curriculum;
  • Behavioural difficulties.

Many children with SLCN can succeed in a mainstream classroom, particularly when schools embrace joint working with outside agencies including Speech & Language Therapists (SLTs). It is important that the foundations for language development i.e. attention and listening are in place prior to targeting a specific difficulty e.g. speech sounds. Click here for language development pyramid.

Please select from the following headings to access information on typical stages of development and general advice & strategies for use in a nursery or classroom setting:

Use this link if additional information is needed regarding typical language development for children in primary schools-


Difficulties with attention & listening

Please find an overview of the typical development of attention and listening skills, implications for the classroom and general support strategies.

Should be showing: Can they...
12 - 24 Months Single Channelled Attention

Attend to activity of their choosing.
Tends to be self-directed.
Struggles to attend to other stimuli.
Attend to an activity of their own choice for up to 5 minutes?

Attention is still single channelled.
Becoming more flexible in changing their attention from one activity to another - needs adult help to do this.
Attend to an activity of their own choice for 7 - 9 minutes?
Shift attention to a different activity with support?
3 - 4 Years Beginning to be able to focus own attention although still single channelled.
Needs to give full attention(looking & listening) to directions to follow them.
Tolerate transfer from one activity to another (not TV!) without an adult helping them.
Attention is maintained for atleast 5 - 10 minutes?
Move to a different activity without support?

Able to concentrate for up to 15 minutes on chosen activity.
Able to transfer between activities and return to the original task.
Sustain concentration for up to 10 minutes on a chosen activity?
Tolerate moving from one activity to another?
Can they be distracted or interrupted and then resume task in hand?
5 - 7 Years Listen, look & do a task at the same time.
Listen to instructions and modify a task without disruption.
For certain tasks they can concentrate for up to an hour?
Carry on working and listen to teacher instruction at the same time, even if it means modifying task in hand?
7 - 11 Years Take in information from listening, looking and doing for a lengthy period of time. Integrate two stimuli i.e. listening and looking at visual information, in order to complete a whole task?

Impacts of attention & listening difficulties in the classroom -

The child may:


  • Have difficulty with attending to things going on in their environment and to concentrate;
  • Have difficulty with focusing on an activity for an appropriate length of time;
  • Demonstrate limited joint attention e.g. when sharing a book or game;
  • Have difficulty following classroom routines and spoken instructions.

How to help a child with attention & listening difficulties - 

The following strategies might be useful/ As you work with an individual child, you may add some of your own:


  • Say the child's name so they know you are talking to them.
  • Gain eye contact with the child before giving them an instruction.
  • Reduce distractions. It may be helpful to work in a quieter space.
  • Only introduce one short activity at a time and encourage them to finish it.
  • Use short sentences
  • Repeat key words if necessary

Receptive Language (Understanding)

Please find an overview of the typical development of receptive language skills, implications for the classroom and general support strategies.

Impact of receptive language difficulties in the classroom:

Should be understanding: Can they...
18 - 24 Months Familiar single words e.g. names, body parts, food,toys. Understand everyday words such as "cup, teddy, brush, biscuit?"
Follow simple requests such as "Give me...ball, kiss" and Get your...shoes, juice"
2 - 3 Years Short instructions containing 2 (sometimes 3) key words.
Understand simple concepts such as "hot/cold, yum/yuk, stop/go."
Understand instructions containing 2 key words e.g. "make rabbit sit" and "where's daddy's nose."
3 - 4 Years Simple questions using "Who? What? Where?"
Instructions containing three key words.
Instructions containing concepts associated with size, position & adjectives..
Understand questions such as "who's that?" "Where's the ball?" and "what are you doing?"
Get the "little green ball" from a selection of balls or "put monkey under the table."
4 - 5 Years Instructions containing 4 key words.
Can follow more complex grammar e.g. past & future tense.
Starting to be bale to make inference from pictures and events
Simple jokes and riddles.
Understands "put the green frog under the swing."
Understand the difference between has happened and will happen (tense).
Understand "why?" questions.
5 - 7 Years Follow classroom instructions independently without relying on visual clues, following peers or guessing what to do because of the context/situation.
Complex instructions with little repetition.
Further development of inferencing skills.
Understand and follow a sequence of instructions of 3 or more items e.g. "wash your hands, get out the bowl and find the flour in the cupboard."
Solve problems e.g. answering questions such as "what will happen next?" and "how do you know the plant needs watering?"
7 - 11 Years The main points of a class or peer discussion and infer information which isn't explicit. They should be able to demonstrate their understanding and be able to justify their choices and opinions. Follow complex classroom instructions and respond to questions involving problem solving, inference, reasoning & prediction e.g. "what will happen if...?"

The child may-

Have difficulty following class routines;

  • Have difficulty following spoken instructions including those with harder vocabulary and abstract concepts;
  • Over rely on looking at others to copy what they do;
  • Opt out of tasks or withdraw from activities that they don’t understand;
  • Give the wrong answers to questions they have been asked;
  • Take things literally.

How to help a child with receptive language difficulties:

  • Reduce background noise and distractions
  • Ensure they are cued in before instructions are given
  • It is helpful to simplify instructions to ensure the child can understand e.g. use simplified versions of words e.g. “make” instead of “produce.”
  • Break down lengthy instructions into shorter chunks of information
  • Give pointers for what they should listen to e.g. “it is important to remember two things from what I tell you” or “remember X from what I tell you”
  • Summarise discussion topic before going into detail
  • Check their understanding by asking the child to tell you what they have to do
  • Allow extra time for thinking and processing spoken information
  • Use visual aids to support spoken instructions e.g. photos, pictures, objects, video

Expressive Language

Please find an overview of the typical development of expressive language skills, implications for the classroom and general support strategies.

Should be: Can they...
18 - 24 Months Using up to 50 single words, which may include some of their made up words (jargon).
Starting to put 2 words together
Words may not be clear.
Use a range of naming words (nouns) & action words (verbs) e.g. jump, mummy, ball, brush.
Occasionaly use two words together e.g. "brush hair", "daddy gone", "bye bye mummy".
2 - 3 Years Using around 300 words.
May be using up to 4 words in a sentence
Words may not be clear, particularly when linking words together
Use a range of different types of words in a sentence e.g. "mummy drive car", "my bike big", "me not want drink"
3 - 4 Years Putting 4-7 words together in a sentence.
Using more complex sentences and beginning to use grammatical markers.
Use at least three words in an utterance to talk about the "here & now" e.g. "I want biscuit" "what mummy doing?"
Using early grammar such as simple prepositions (in, on, under) and early concepts e.g. "big, little".
4 - 5 Years Using longer, more complex sentences with more adult grammar.
Asking lots of questions including "why?..."
Beginning to use "and" and "because" to link sentences and for reasoning.
Use 5 - 6 word sentences with some grammar such as pronouns (e.g. he/she/they), harder prepositions (e.g. behind, in front, next to) and simple past tense (e.g. walked, jumped) etc.
5 - 7 Years Talking in more adult- like sentences
Able to describe and comment on recent past or future events.
Use language for different purposes e.g. to ask questions, negotiate or persuade
Using sentences containing complex grammar e.g. embedded clauses, subordinate clauses
Developing irregular tenses e.g. wrote, drew.
Show some use of complex sentences using "and", "because".
Re- tell a short story.
7 - 11 Years Using adult like sentences with only occasional grammatical immaturities.
Tell a story in a logical way i.e. using beginning, middle & end.
Construct a range of complex sentences using varied vocabulary inc. some more difficult words.
Tell a story using key features inc. where, when, who, what happened, how.

Please find an overview of the typical development of expressive language skills, implications for the classroom and general support strategies.

Impact of expressive language difficulties in the classroom-

The child may:

  • Use short and/ or immature sentences;
  • Over use pointing, showing & gesture instead of spoken words;
  • Take more time to express themselves;
  • Be unable to form sentences/ questions appropriately and find it hard to retell events;
  • Put words in the wrong order;
  • Be unable to retrieve exact words;

Find it hard to contribute to class discussions, give explanations or describe what they are doing.

How to help a child with expressive language difficulties:

  • Listen and show interest by maintaining natural eye contact
  • Be patient and let them know you will wait
  • Build on what they have already said, follow their lead
  • Ask open ended questions to prompt longer responses e.g. “what did you…? How did you…?” rather than “did you…?” as this will only give you a “yes/no” response
  • Don’t directly correct mistakes in grammar or word order, instead model back the correct way of saying it e.g. if the child says “on chair cat” say “that’s right, the cat is on the chair.”
  • Expand on what the child has said by adding one or two words e.g. the child says “look, a bus,” you say “a red bus.”

Speech Sounds

Please find an overview of the typical development of speech sound production, implications for the classroom and general support strategies.

Should be: Can they...
18 - 24 Months Using the sounds "p, b, m, w" in speech.
They may miss off the end sounds of words e.g. "du" for juice "do" for "dog".
At 24 months, familiar adults should understand at least 50% of what the child says.
Use a variety of early sounds
2 - 3 Years Using more speech sounds inc "t, d, k, g, h."
Beginning to use "f" and "s" but not consistently e.g. may use at the end of words but not at the beginning or use these sounds only in certain words.
Using a variety of speech sounds inc "m, b, p, w, h, n, t, d, k, g."
Be understood at least 75% of the time by a familiar adult.
3 - 4 Years Using additional sounds "s, f, l, z, y."
Using blends more frequently.
By 4 years children will be using both initial and final sounds consistently.
Be understood by familiar adults 90% of the time.
4 - 5 Years Using sounds "v, sh, ch, j."
Using blends more frequently.
By 4 years children will be using both initial and final sounds consistently.
Be understood by familiar adults all of the time
Be understood by less familiar people in context
5 - 7 Years Developing sounds "th ,r."
Using sound combinations including "r" e.g. bread
Be understood all of the time by family, friends, teachers etc.
7 - 11 Years Using mature speech sound system. Be understood all of the time by family, friends, teachers etc.

Impact of speech sound difficulties in the classroom-

The child may:

  • Have difficulty using the correct speech sounds;
  • Find it difficult to make themselves understood;
  • Omit grammatical markers e.g. plurals “cows/ cups” and past tense e.g. “walked;”
  • Have difficulties developing phonological awareness skills;
  • Have difficulty with developing literacy skills.

How to help a child with unclear speech:

  • Repeat what the child says correctly so they hear good models of speech e.g. if the child says “tar” you say “it’s a car.”
  • Don’t make the child repeat the words – drawing attention to mispronunciations and making children repeat words is not always helpful.
  • Don’t pretend to understand - try asking questions such as “show me…” and encourage child to take you to things, use mime and gesture. 
  • Repeat back what you have understood.
  • Develop phonological awareness skills e.g. listening to environmental sounds, rhyme & syllable awareness.

Play & Social Skills

‘Social skills’ is a term used to refer to how a child functions in situations with other people.  This may be with adults, children or a combination of both e.g. in a classroom setting.  When we talk about social skills this includes the child’s ability to:

  • Interact with others.
  • Regulate behaviour.
  • Follow group rules e.g. listening to others & taking turns.

For young children these skills develop through play and early interaction with key adults.

Social communication is also referred to as pragmatic skills.  It encompasses the following:


  • Non- verbal communication e.g. use of appropriate facial expression & body language.
  • Listening skills e.g. showing interest and referring to what their communication partner has said.
  • Awareness of the listener’s needs e.g. showing empathy.
  • Taking turns.
  • Conversation – e.g. initiating, maintaining and completing a conversation properly.
  • Using their voice appropriately e.g. intonation, volume & speed of talking.

(Wendy Rinaldi – 2012, Social Use of Language Programme)


Please find an overview of the typical development of social communication skills, implications for the classroom and general support strategies.

Should be: Can they...
18 - 24 Months Exploring their environment
Enjoying turn taking games e.g. peek a boo.
Joining in face to face singing and action rhyme games.
Playing alongside other children, not yet sharing.
Showing some anticipation e.g. knows what to expect next in a familiar game, routine or rhyme.
Watching what other do.
Use a word or action to meet their immediate needs or gain the attention of an adult.
Respond to an adult e.g. requesting "more" with the use of body language or vocalisation.
Show interest in what other people are doing.
2 - 3 Years Using more verbal and non-verbal interaction to request, and gain the attention of an adult.
Beginning to share with a key adult and with their peers with support.
Copying another person's actions.
Use speech and non-verbal communication for a range of functions e.g. to request, respond, comment.
Copy simple play and actions in rhymes & songs.
3 - 4 Years Enjoying imaginative and pretend play e.g. pretending to have conversations on the phone, cooking, dressing up.
Using miniature toys e.g. acting out simple scenarios with dolls etc.
Adapting their speech and manner according to their "role" e.g. pretending to talk like a teacher/parents in role play.
Play cooperatively in small groups for longer periods of time e.g. in the home corner.
4 - 5 Years Starting to make rules for games.
Cooperating with other children.
Taking turns in groups.
Able to maintain longer conversations.
Learning to join in conversations at appropriate times but may assume that the listener knows the context.
Showing development of humour and jokes.
understanding how others feel.
Play appropriately with a range of toys
Play more complex games with their peers.
Talk about a range of topics during conversation, not just topics of their own choosing.
Talk about feelings and recognise how others feel.
5 - 7 Years Socialising with a range of adults and peers.
Developing social conventions for use in discussion conversation.
Use language to maintain and extend conversations and social interaction.
Use appropriate eye contact & turn taking.
Initiate interaction and stay on topic.
7 - 11 Years Confident in socialising with peers and adults.
Can form and maintain friendships.
use language to maintain and extend conversations and social interaction.
Use appropriate eye contact & turn taking.
Initiate interaction and stay on topic.

Implications of social communication difficulties-

The child may:

  • Have difficulty understanding whole group instructions that apply to them.
  • Have difficulty with developing co-operative play e.g. waiting, turn taking.
  • Not be able to appreciate others’ opinions and points of view.
  • Following unwritten rules of conversation e.g. waiting their turn, active listening and sticking to the topic in hand.
  • Have difficulty understanding non- verbal communication.
  • Find it difficult to understand humour, irony and jokes.

How to support children with social communication difficulties:

  • Provide opportunities to play with peers.
  • Introduce class rules e.g. sitting still, good looking, good listening.
  • Play turn taking games– if the child finds turn taking very difficult, encourage them to initially take turns with a familiar adult, introducing peers later on.
  • Model greetings and social rules appropriate to the situation.
  • Encourage the child to discuss the topic in hand – only accept language appropriate to the context or conversation.

Difficulties with using fluent speech

Stammering (also called stuttering or dysfluency) is difficulty with speaking fluently.  A child may have a lot of hesitations in their speech, repeat sounds e.g. b, b, b, b, ball, or words or sentences.  They may also make sounds longer or struggle to get words out altogether.  A stammer may also be accompanied by eye blinking, head nods and other body movements which may also be present even when the child is recovering from their stammer.

Difficulties with speaking fluently between 2 - 4 years affects about one child in 20, and can come and go while a child is learning to talk. While the underlying causes are not fully understood, we know that parents do NOT cause stammering. Evidence shows that most children outgrow this phase over a few weeks or months (British Stammering Association: October 2013 – www.stammering.org ). But for some it can take 3-5 years before their speech is completely fluent. Two thirds of children will fully recover from this early stammering.

For bilingual children, dysfluent speech may continue past the age of 4 depending on the level of their language ability. 

Please follow this link for more information http://www.stammering.org/bilingual.html

For any child who has a stammer/ non- fluent speech it is advised to refer to Speech & Language Therapy. How Do I Refer?.

You can help the child by:

  • Reducing direct questions e.g. “what’s that? How many wheels has it got? What colour is it?” Instead provide a simple comment on what the child is doing and what is happening around them etc.
  • Slowing down your rate of speech, but don't tell them to slow down or take a deep breath.
  • Don’t finish off the child’s sentences.  Let them finish what they have to say.
  • Use short, simple sentences and give them plenty of time to respond.
  • Keep natural eye contact;
  • Make sure everyone gets a turn to speak;
  • Thinking about the child as an individual – e.g. if there are predictable times of dysfluency, can the activity be changed to reduce the pressure on the child, such as encouraging a non- verbal response.

It is very important to seek further advice from a Speech & Language Therapist.

Additional advice can also be found on the following websites:




Patient Opinion