Early years communication: how to create a language-rich space
Creating a language-rich environment may sound complicated. Thankfully, it’s not. It simply means ‘a place to talk’. It's the way you use your space to talk to your child, as well as the toys, books and activities you choose, to create a ‘language-rich environment’. Every response that is given to your child, whether that be a comment, a repetition of what they have said, or a new conversation with lovely words your child may not have heard before, can be defined as language rich.
Elizabeth Jarman, an award-winning learning environments expert, identifies five environmental points to consider when thinking about and planning a language-rich environment:
1. The physical environment
Think about how your space is arranged. Are there opportunities for your child to make connections with their environment, and make decisions about their space?
2. Make the most of your space, inside and out
Children need spaces where they can relax, be energetic and have access to fresh air and daylight.
3. Think about physical factors such as noise, colour and light
Noisy environments make it difficult to concentrate. Calm colours support attention, and natural light is said to be better for children to learn in.
4. Calm environment
Sometimes less really is more! When too many toys are about, it can make the environment feel busy.
5. Spaces should be viewed from the child’s perspective
Think about what it feels like to be in a certain space. Sit down, or lie down and place yourself in your child’s perspective.
Speech and its relation to a language-rich environment
The development of speech and language underpins the whole journey of your child's learning. Each time an interaction takes place, the brain makes connections about speaking, listening, and paying attention. The home is a fabulous place for these valuable interactions to take place, and we can never underestimate the power of talking and its role in your child’s development.
Babies start to communicate as soon as they are born, and these interactions play an essential role in supporting their skills in speech and language. You, as parents, carers or family members, are the most important resource for your child’s development.
According to the children’s communication charity, I CAN, children spend only 15% of their time at school. The rest of the time is spent at home. This is a wonderfully significant amount of time for your child to benefit from all manner of conversations with you.
In 2019, ‘The Bercow Report: 10 years on’ published that 10% of children and young people aged 0-19 had speech, language and communication needs. Only 4.1% of primary school pupils are identified with speech, language and communication needs as their primary need and 1.4% in secondary schools.
With children spending the majority of their time at home, it is crucial that they have lots of time to access high quality conversations in a language-rich environment.
How your role as a parent can influence your child’s speech development
There are so many things you can easily do to support your child’s speech development. Much research has been carried out into the role of family in speech development. In 2021 a study recorded that when parents used instructional language, it actually limited the amount of vocabulary their children learned. For example, if a child was told that a door was a dwarf's door, the child learned it was a dwarf’s door. When a parent hypothesised, saying “Maybe it could be a dwarf's door”, conversations grew and children thought up longer, self-generated thoughts and ideas.
A study based on reading in 2016 found that when children are read to with expression and gusto, it supports their expressive language, which has a direct impact on their vocabulary development. Storytimes are ideal for captivating imaginations and allowing children to indulge themselves in beautiful, rich language.
Making time for your children throughout the day
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are the most important person/people in your child’s environment. Each conversation that is had, whether it is verbal or non-verbal, will support your child in gaining a wealth of rich language. A special time to talk does not need to be planned. Conversations can happen during play, at mealtimes, in the car, in the shop, at bath time, on a walk, or at bedtime. Your child often creates their own language-rich environment. Your baby may often practise words while lying in their cots, toddlers create nonsense words for fun, and children tell stories about their day.
How your own use of language can play its part
We all have words, phrases, and colloquialisms that are wonderfully unique to us as individuals. For instance, you may have a word that you use when you’re about to start an activity, or when you simply sit down. Each time you say these words, your child is listening and taking them in. Before you know it, your child will be uttering them. You have provided the most amazing language-rich environment by simply being you!
How visual aids and toys add to a language-rich environment
Your child’s experience of language can be benefited by visual aids. Visual aids can improve your child's listening and attention by encouraging them to maintain their concentration and focus on something while listening. When visual aids, such as puppets, toys or photos, are used, these should be supported with lots of lovely language.
Toys can be an incredible tool to support a language-rich environment. Not many are needed to have the magic to spur on conversation. Think about what your child is interested in and engage in play that holds their interest. Let your child lead the play, as they can add, amend and connect ideas within this play. You can learn more about play-based learning here.
How play is essential to developing a language-rich space
The wonderful thing about play is that very few resources are needed to help you create your language-rich environment. We’ve said it before, but the most important thing is YOU. Talking to your child while they play is your most important role. Simply narrating what they are doing provides them with lots of rich language.
Top play tips for creating a language-rich space
When ideas are shared through conversation, role play and storytelling, your child is welcomed into a world rich in language.
Reading is key!
Stories, rhymes and poems read frequently embed new words and broaden cultural experiences.
Play giggly games!
Be silly, most children love being silly. Making up songs about what your child is doing, or saying the wrong word when you are talking with them will help their ears tune in.
Play with puppets encourages an imaginary environment with endless scope for rich language to be spoken.
Set up play to meet your child’s interests
This could be a simple den with some of their favourite toys. If they are interested in animals, place some soft toys with something different, such as a doctor kit.
Try planting something
Your child can take ownership of a plant and help make decisions about its upkeep. Decisions can be supported with careful comments such as, “I wonder where it might like to live?”, or “Tell me where you think it will grow”.
Introduce something new
Simply place either one or a few objects that your child hasn’t seen before. These could be from the kitchen, shed, or something technological you have stored away from years ago. Observe, listen and join in.
Creating a language-rich space celebrates positive relationships. They can provide inspirational areas for you and your child to talk. The amazing thing is, you don’t have to do much to create a language-rich space. Your child will be inspired by the smallest of changes, but the most important part of the creation of language-rich space is you being there.
To read more and for ideas about how you can support your child’s speech development during their first five years, download our app today.
 Factsheet: A communicative supportive environment: helping your child communicate. Produced with I CAN and Talking Point. Available online at: Explaining speech, language and communication needs to siblings June 2016 (ican.org.uk)
 Jarman, E. (2013). The Communication Friendly Spaces Approach. Elizabeth Jarman.
 Hartshorne, M. (2019). Facts, Statistics and Children’s Early Language. I CAN. Available online at: Facts, Statistics and Children’s Early Language (ican.org.uk)
 Bercow: Ten Years On – 1st Anniversary Update. Available online at: I_CAN_1st_ann_update.pdf (bercow10yearson.com)
 Lohse, K., Hildebrandt, A., Hildebrandt, F. (2022). Hypotheses in adult-child interactions stimulate children's reasoning and verbalizations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Volume 58, 1st Quarter 2022, Pages 254-263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2021.09.014
 Bojczyk, K.E., Davis, A.E., Rana V. (2016). Mother–child interaction quality in shared book reading: Relation to child vocabulary and readiness to read. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Volume 36, 3rd Quarter 2016, Pages 404-414. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2016.01.006
 Sterling Honig, A. (2007). Oral language development. Early Child Development and Care Volume 177. Nos 6 & 7, Pages 581-613. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03004430701377482
 Brock, A., Rankin, C. (2008). Communication, Language and Literacy from Birth to Five. Sage