Developing communication skills in the early years

Heather Roche, Little Stoke Primary School 

Project rationale 

Good communication skills are crucial in the early years. Being able to talk and listen well are critical in helping children learn, make friends and feel confident. Poor language puts children at risk of poor reading and writing, poor behaviour and poor attainment (The Communication Trust, 2011). Speaking and listening underpins the majority of learning that takes place in the early years and teachers play a crucial role in developing oracy. As Lyn Dawes and Neil Mercer put it: “They learn to use language as a tool for thinking, collectively and alone. However, children will not learn how to make the best use of language as a tool for communicating and thinking without guidance from their teachers” (Dawes & Mercer, 2015). 

Many children enter my school with poor speaking and listening skills and so developing good communication skills has always been a focus. This year 62% of the Reception cohort were well below the expected level for speaking when they started school. Although some children had good vocabulary and were confident to talk they did not always display good listening skills are were not able to communicate effectively as a group. My research question was: to what extent does the implementation of basic oracy protocols over a period of 3 months improve group discussion in Reception?’ 

Impact data 

I did not have a control group for this project but decided to focus on four children, comparing their communication skills before and after the intervention. I collected my baseline data by showing the children a ‘busy picture’ and asking them to discuss it. They found it difficult to get a discussion going and needed some intervention from myself. There wasn’t much interaction between the children, they did not build on any ideas and just said random things they could see. 

The utterances tended to be short and in some cases were not grammatically correct. To begin with, there was little eye contact between the children and they often spoke over each other. The conversation did not flow and there were pauses where children needed inviting in to the discussion. 

In addition to this data, I spoke to children about what they thought good talk was but they were unable to give a response.

Intervention & intended impact

I began the intervention by introducing basic discussion guidelines: looking at the person who is speaking, only one person speaking at a time and using a clear voice. These guidelines were displayed in the classroom as visual prompts. Whenever structured talk took place in the classroom, e.g. talk partners, presenting or sharing an idea, these guidelines were revisited and children were acknowledged and praised for following them. 

Sentence starters also became a focus in the classroom. We encouraged the children to speak in full sentences and modelled this if necessary. We supported them by giving sentence starters, for example, ‘At the weekend…’., ‘In the holidays…..’, ‘I think that….’. As the children became more confident with these basic discussion protocols and the majority were speaking in extended sentences other protocols were introduced, such as responding to each other and asking questions. 

Although these skills were introduced during discrete oracy time they became an expectation and were also practised whenever talk took place in the classroom. By teaching children the basic skills of discussions and good communication I wanted them to have the confidence to share their thoughts, ideas and experiences, as well as be able to listen and respond to others to get a discussion going rather than speaking in isolation.

Impact data 

After the intervention period, I showed the children the same busy picture and recorded their discussion again. From the beginning of the interaction the children showed higher levels of involvement, made better eye contact and took turns to speak. One of the children (child A) tried to contribute but another child began speaking at the same time. Child A stopped and waited until there was another pause. The children spoke for longer and used sentences starters they had been taught. 

The data in the table below also shows that the childrens’ communication skills have improved; they were able to have a discussion together, interacting well, responding to each other and asking questions.

I asked the children again what they thought good talk was. Below are some quotes from the interview: 

  • “You need to look at the person” 
  • “Speak nicely” …. “you don’t shout at them” 
  • “Ask them a question” 

This shows that the children are not only able to put the skills into practice but are also able to begin talking about them in simple terms. 

There was a big difference in the way they children communicated and interacted from the start of the intervention to the end. Their confidence increased as they had skills to draw on and they knew how to have a good discussion. The use of sentence starters and the expectation to speak for longer helped the flow of the discussion. This students’ ability to stop and listen to each other also helped decrease the number of interruptions. 

Watching the children take turns, listen, respond to and question one another was amazing as they started the intervention with limited awareness of one another, speaking randomly rather than listening to their peers. It has been great to see the children transfer these skills into other situations as well showing that they are embedded. 

Research Ethics

At the start of the project I asked the children if they wanted to help me and that they could say no or stop at any time they wanted. Although I told the children that I was going to be writing down what they were saying and that I was going to be sharing this with other people I don’t really feel they had an understanding of this. I used child A-D to keep the children anonymous. 


It is hard to tell if the children’s communication skills developed because of the oracy input or whether their language just matured. However, there was significant progress during this time which leads me to believe the intervention did have an impact.

I did not really encounter any challenges as I planned these sessions into the timetable enabling the skills to be taught discreetly. Although this happened reinforcing the skills and expectations all the time helped the children to embed them and for them to become part of everyday practice. The children responded really well to the sessions and were keen to join in. I would like to further develop the children’s communication and speaking skills by teaching them structures and language needed for different forms of communication, such as debating, justifying or presenting. 


The communication trust, 2011, Universally speaking. (online) Available at (Accessed May 2019) 

L Dawes and N Mercer, 2015, Importance of speaking and listening, (online) Available at (Accessed May 2019)

Featured image: Pixabay

Leave a Reply