Alternative approaches to support early language skills

by | Jul 14, 2021

In our previous instalment, we discussed some of the common factors that prevent children from understanding or using early language and what foundation skills need to be mastered before language can develop. However, for some children, they may have already demonstrated appropriate play skills, they may LOVE interacting with other people and they may have excellent attention and listening skills, but they are still finding it difficult to learn and use new words.   

 These children often benefit from an alternative and more supportive approach to facilitate their early language development. As Speech and Language Therapists we often use specific strategies to enhance a child’s communication environment, these strategies can include:


Signing is an incredibly beneficial approach to teaching early language skills but often parents can be hesitant to use this with their children due to the presumption that this will be the only way their child will communicate. It’s important to understand that there are lots of different forms of signing and all have different uses. 

 BSL (British Sign Language) is the adopted language of the deaf community in the United Kingdom. This is a complex form of signing that allows people to communicate in great depth with other users of BSL. For reference, this is the form of signing used by interpreters on the television. 

 Makaton is a more simplistic form of signing that has been created to facilitate communication for children and young people who are having difficulty acquiring these skills. It has a range of applications and can be used dynamically to suit most children’s needs. Often, Speech and Language Therapists encourage parents/carers/teachers to use signs as a ‘springboard’ into language.  Children have difficulty using a word when they do not understand the meaning of that word. By using Makaton, it creates an additional link between the object/action and the word. An example for the word ‘car’ is shown below. 

As shown above, when children understand the relationship between the sign and the object/action and then the sign and the word, this supports their ability to associate the word with the object/action. Only when a child understands a word, can they begin to use it to label the object/action. 

 Other Visuals  

Following similar principles to those described above, we can use other visuals such as pictures and ‘objects of reference’ to bridge the gap between an object/action and the associated word. When saying the word, hold the picture/object to reinforce its meaning. For example, if your child needs the toilet, show them the ‘toilet’ card before taking them. This must be done consistently! Children will then learn to associate the toilet with this image. Once this has been achieved and the child understands this relationship, we can take this further by supporting children to request by using their image/ ‘object of reference’.

 As with signing, we must always reinforce the image/ ‘object of reference’ by saying the word as we use the communication tool, only then will the child begin to understand the relationship between the word and what it represents. 

 *In our next post we will discuss some of the key milestones in a child’s language development until the five year mark and potential red flags of atypical development*


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About the Author

Joanne Harries

Joanne Harries

Clinic Manager

Joanne is a friendly, positive, and outgoing Highly Specialist Paediatric Occupational Therapist & Sensory Integration Practitioner, with a real passion and drive for supporting children, young people and their families with everyday activities and challenges. Joanne Works in a professional manner at all times and it is her aim to make a difference to the lives of the individuals and families she supports.

Joanne has previously supported and help to set up Occupational Therapy services to; a children’s therapy company, secure setting for adults with complex needs, and specialist schools for Autism. Joanne’s experience of various diagnoses and working within teams of professionals also extends to complex behavioural difficulties.

Joanne has extensive experience of assessment and report writing, with a particular interest in assisting individuals, families, and Solicitors with SEN Tribunals. Joanne is available to provide assessment, consultancy and training to families, schools, Solicitors and parent support groups, remotely, in the South Wales clinic, across the UK and Internationally.

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