Intentionally designed learning opportunities are lessons created with specific outcomes in mind. Because expressive language skills are not isolated skills, their development can be among several desired outcomes for a lesson.
For example, a lesson where four-year-olds hear a story about friends working together to make a vegetable soup could have several desired outcomes. These could include learning the names of the vegetables, demonstrating understanding by asking and answering questions about the story (showing both receptive [listening] and expressive [speaking] language skills), and reenacting the story events using hand puppets.
In addition to planning lessons, teachers can incorporate expressive language development into all interactions with children by engaging them in conversations. Teachers should be intentional about providing children with opportunities to express themselves throughout the day.
Here are some strategies and activities teachers can use to help children develop expressive language:
Add information and ask a question: Teachers can add information and then ask a question in response to something a child has said. For example, if the child says, “Got block!” the teacher might respond with “Yes, you got the block from the bin! What color is the block?” The child might respond, “Blue!”
Narrate and ask questions about their own actions: Teachers can narrate as they perform actions and ask children questions to encourage them to use expressive language. Teachers can talk and ask questions about what they themselves are doing, seeing, and hearing. They can also talk and ask questions about where they are going, what they are going to do, and what they have just done.
For example, a teacher might say, “I am going to build a tower. I see some big blocks I can use. I will put two blocks on top of two yellow ones. Which color blocks did I put on the yellow ones?” The child might respond, “Red blocks!” “That’s right!” the teacher might say. “I put two red ones. What is happening to my tower?” “Getting bigger!” the child might respond. “Yes, my tower is getting bigger and bigger, isn’t it!”
Teachers can also use narration to discuss and model appropriate expressive language behaviors. For example, a teacher might say, “Rose wants to tell me something. Watch my face while she is talking. I will look at her and pay careful attention to what she is saying. I will wait until she is finished talking before I respond” (Texas Education Agency, p. 50).
Narrate and ask questions about the child’s actions: Teachers can also narrate and ask questions about what children are doing. For example, if a child is playing with a toy pony, the teacher might say, “You brushed the pony’s mane and tail. What is the pony doing now?” The child might respond, “Running!” and the teacher might say, “Yes, the pony is galloping fast, isn’t it?”
Give children choices: Teachers can ask children to make a choice. This will help the child to use words rather than using only gestures to communicate. For example, a teacher might say, “Would you rather play a game or read a book?”
Play: Teachers should play enjoyable games with children. They can introduce and use new words and phrases during the game and encourage children to use them, too.
Name items: Teachers can encourage children to name items with them when they play with toys, read books, or do other activities. For example, while reading aloud to toddlers, a teacher might point at a picture of a cat and say, “Here’s a cat. Can you say cat?”
Read stories and ask questions: When teachers read stories, it allows children to hear language used appropriately. As teachers read, they can ask children questions about what is happening and why. This will encourage children to use the words and phrases in the story in their responses.
Have children retell and reenact: Teachers can give children puppets or props to use while acting out a story they just heard or a familiar story such as a fairytale. Teachers can ask questions and use prompts to help children if they forget details during the retelling or reenactment.
Teachers can also extend a story by having children do activities in centers. For example, children can draw and talk about a story or plant seeds in a science center (Texas Education Agency, p. 74).
Write letters: Teachers can have older children compose letters to friends, family members, or characters in a story. For example, teachers might write as children tell them what they want the letter to say. They might have older children write their name at the end.
Sing: Teachers can have children sing songs with them.
Talk about a picture: The teacher can talk with a child about a picture. Then the teacher can write next to the picture what the teacher and child said. With older children, a teacher could have a set of pictures or photographs, and the teacher and child could make up a story about them.
Teachers can also encourage children to talk about pictures they are drawing. Rather than say, “You drew a mouse!” they can ask questions such as “What is happening in your picture?” or “What is your mouse doing?”
You will find many more suggestions for supporting expressive language in the guidelines.
Infant sign language
Infant sign language consists of gestures adapted from American Sign Language. Teaching a few simple signs for commonly used terms, such as cup, milk, nap, no, yes, and water, can help very young children communicate. It can ease the frustrations of young children who can identify what they feel, want, or need but lack expressive language skills.
Generally, infants can be shown these signs as early as six to seven months. Children might begin using them at eight to nine months or later. As long as adults do not use the signs instead of speaking, but rather say the word along with the sign, sign language does not delay expressive language development (Hoeckler, 2013).
You might consider professional development opportunities for teachers interested in using infant sign language at your early childhood site.
Teachers can assess children’s expressive language skills by watching for instances when children appear to have trouble communicating their feelings, wants, or needs. Teachers can frequently check that children are responding appropriately. They might ask older children questions that require verbal responses or ask children to retell part of a story in their own words.
There are several possible reasons children may have difficulties with expressive language. You and your team should have a system in place for talking to parents about concerns related to children’s expressive language skills and for connecting parents with professionals who can assess possible developmental delays or disabilities. If you need more information about developing a process to share observation and assessment information with families and specialists, see Lesson A4—Special learning needs in the Assessment module.