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How tamariki learn to communicate and how to encourage them.

In the third year of life, children’s language ability grows. It’s likely they will be able to follow instructions and their vocabulary will be expanding. They can put three or four words together to make sentences and enjoy rhyming games. They are learning about the past, present and future, so can talk about things that are not only in the here and now. They are also able to use language in pretend play activities.

Learning grammar

Language ability is not just a matter of how many words a child knows and uses, but the way in which words are used. This is grammar. There are many different things to learn when learning a language and the English language is not particularly consistent.

For example, a child may learn that the plurals of boy and lamb are boys and lambs. So they’ll make the intelligent assumption that the plural of man is mans and sheep is sheeps. English verbs are also often inconsistent. If the past tense of walk is walked then why isn’t the past tense of run, runned?

Whānau supporters can help whānau to understand that learning to speak correctly is a natural process. There’s no need to correct children’s mistakes. The best way to teach is to be a good language role model. Explain that a helpful way to respond to a child’s sentence ‘I runned home’, is through modelling ‘Yes you did, you ran home’. This approach has two advantages: the child knows they got their message across, and they don’t feel put down. This means they will be more likely to keep trying to communicate.

Being understood

By the age of three, a child will use most of the sounds used in speech. People who are unfamiliar with them will probably be able to understand most of what they’re saying, although there are some sounds and combinations of letters, such as ‘z’,’ sh’, ‘f’, ‘v’, ‘r’ and ‘bl’ and ‘th’ which may take them more time to master.

Language doesn’t grow in a vacuum. How well a child learns language and how much they know is dependent on their communication with others, particularly adults, and especially adults with whom they have close and meaningful relationships. So they’re not going to learn as much from a TV set or ipad. It might keep them quiet for a while, sometimes a long while! The danger is that it will keep them quiet for too long and their language development and opportunities for communication with real people will be restricted.

Language grows in situations where adults care about a child and encourage them to talk. They provide good role models, responding to a child without a lot of ‘correcting’ of them. They also let toddlers initiate the conversation and give them sufficient time to reply and explain their ideas.

Extending communication

Adults can extend the child’s speech — for example a child may say ‘Teddy go bed’ and an adult can respond ‘Teddy goes to bed in the pram’. Adults who focus on the child’s activities ‘in that moment’ are able to talk about what’s happening in a meaningful context.

Communication is extended by using plenty of repetition of words and actions. Books, puppets, music, stories and fun games are excellent ways to promote a young child’s communication skills.

Going to Kōhanga Reo

Some tamariki will start going to Te Kōhanga Reo at this age, if this is their parent’s choice of ECE for them. They will join an environment where te reo Māori is the main language spoken.

Other tamariki may have been attending Te Kōhanga Reo since they were pēpi. Newcomers, who may come from households where English is the main or only language spoken, will find some challenges in this new environment. However, what we know is that once children are immersed in a second language they can quickly pick it up.

There are several stages in learning a second language in this circumstance. At first the child may persist in using their first language. Then may come a silent period when they realise that isn’t working. Then they’ll start using the new language in a very basic way until they gain more competence and confidence and become capable of using both languages. The more a young child is exposed to two (or more) languages, the more chance they have of becoming truly fluent in those languages.

For parents who don’t speak Te Reo Māori, enrolling their child in Te Kōhanga Reo might provide a great opportunity for them to learn Māori alongside their child, transforming their home from a monolingual to a bilingual household. They can enquire through Te Kōhanga Reo about the range of support available to them in the community. There are many free courses available as well as online support.

Other resources

Talking Point: The first stop for information on children’s communication 2–3 years | I CAN(external link)

Vocabulary and language development: 2–3 years | Raising children network Australia(external link)

Talking and understanding more | Tākai(external link)