Teachers' Tales

Early years language: encouraging our young writers


by Ruth Pimentel
on April 3, 2017

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What’s the best way to encourage a love of writing in children? The foundations are laid early on. In the years before starting school, children start to practise all sorts of skills that they will need in order to enjoy learning, be inspired by books and get excited about writing. Here we’ll tell you a bit more about the early years language development skills that begin to be established from babyhood onwards.

Building blocks for language development

Writing is a relatively advanced process to master. It stands on the shoulder of many basic skills acquired in the early years, and young writers won’t be successful until they have these under their belt. It’s actually pretty amazing how much learning and preparation is done in the years before children reach school age!

In nursery, we focus on laying down firm foundations for writing in a language-rich environment. Listening, speaking and mark making are all important precursors to writing that are encouraged in our early years settings, while shape recognition is a fundamental skill required for reading.

There’s nothing forced or academic about these early years encounters with language development. Learning at this age is best achieved through play and interaction, so babies and toddlers can experiment with concepts, develop naturally at their own pace and learn to imitate those around them.

Whatever a child’s level of communication, it’s always possible to help them to communicate. From children whose first language is not English to four-year-olds who are already reading, all children at nursery can develop their speaking, listening and understanding through stimulating and interesting early years activities.

Speaking and listening

Language development begins with listening. Very young babies and children can be encouraged to distinguish and make sense of different sounds by playing with toys that they can shake or tap, engaging in one-to-one ‘conversations’ with their carer where the adult can imitate and reflect the noises they make, and listening to stories, rhymes and singing sessions.

As comprehension develops, talking with babies and toddlers can help them to further develop their language skills and begin to communicate with confidence. An adult can help a young toddler to gain confidence in their language use by repeating and expanding on what the child has expressed. For example, “Want milk” is repeated back thus, with the correct language then modelled: “Want milk… You want some milk? OK, I’ll get it for you.”

Looking and reading

Books are an essential part of nursery life, right from infancy onwards. A love of books will inspire children to explore the world, develop their interests and understand more about the motives and feelings of others. Children who love books will naturally begin to explore and make sense of them on their own, first of all by looking at pictures, memorising favourites stories, and eventually, by sounding out simple words as they begin to learn to read.

Making their mark: the beginnings of writing

Mark making is a compelling instinct for toddlers, who literally want to make their mark on the world. While they are indulging in this deeply satisfying process, through painting, scribbling, cutting and even indulging in messy play and cooking, children are also developing the physical skills needed to help them start to write. Hand-eye co-ordination and fine motor skills are honed, and children learn through practice to grip a pen correctly.

Sowing the seeds for a lifelong love of writing

The early years are a busy time for children. Right from babyhood up to the pre-school years, the seeds are being sown to create the next generation of writers. Toad Hall Nurseries make it a priority to develop early years language skills, instil a love of learning and make reading and writing inspirational and exciting. If you’d like to know more about how we do it, you can read more about our Early Language Programme.


Ruth has been working with children in their early years since training as a teacher in 1989 and led the Government’s national strategy to deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) in her role as Early Years National Director. As Chief Executive of Toad Hall, Ruth focuses on developing children’s early language and communication, their enjoyment of the outdoors, and their ability to make friends and play well with other children.


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