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On MY Way

Communication Development

Language and communication skills increase gradually but significantly during the middle years. This is because children’s comprehension skills are improving, as is their ability to interact effectively in social conversations.

Expression and comprehension

In the early middle years, most children are able to start conversations, listen to others and respond appropriately. They can express ideas and opinions, and use language to ask clarifying questions and persuade others. Importantly, they are learning how to adjust a conversation based on their perception of someone else’s point of view.

By the later middle years, children have improved conversational skills and can participate in a range of social situations. They can start conversations with adults and children they don’t know. They are more able to keep conversations going by giving reasons and explaining choices, and to persuade others by presenting well-formed, convincing arguments for or against an issue. They are also becoming aware of the nuances or shades of meaning that can exist in some conversations, and can analyze information while listening and comparing what they hear to their own knowledge and opinions. They are also better able to use their listening and comprehension skills to decide what is true and what isn’t true.217

As they get older, most children’s vocabulary increases by 3,000 to 5,000 words a year. Their ability to construct complex sentences starts around age nine or 10.

Children that are exposed to American Sign Language (ASL) from birth in the home learn it in the same way that hearing children acquire a spoken mother tongue.218 ASL grammar, however, is not fully mastered until about five to six years of age or later. Early exposure to ASL is key, as studies have shown that children who are not exposed to sign language until late childhood and early adolescence (around nine to 13 years), experience challenges in comprehension.219

The way children express themselves changes dramatically during the middle years. Hearing children learn to vary volume and intonation patterns to add emphasis and use specific words to signal the beginning and ending of a thought or story. By the end of the middle years, most can speak fluently, using appropriate pitch, volume and pauses for emphasis.

As they get older, children also come to understand how language can change depending on the nature of the relationship between the people talking, and how tone and body language support words that are spoken. They also begin learning how to read social cues, understand social practices related to being polite, and use their language skills to negotiate in situations where there is conflict.220

Middle years children with hearing, visual or processing differences develop language and communication skills in ways that are tailored to their specific needs, strengths and abilities.

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), building social communication skills often requires more explicit instruction, support and deliberate learning opportunities. Children on the autism spectrum should be supported to communicate in ways that go beyond linguistic communication, including art, movement and play.

By the beginning of middle childhood, most children have a basic grasp of sentence structure. As they get older, they gain a greater understanding of the complexity and nuance of language. They learn to use comparative words, words expressing certainty such as could and should, and they begin using the passive voice. Between ages 8-10, children generally develop an appreciation for figures of speech, wordplay and jokes that depend on double meanings. By the time they reach 10 years of age, most children can derive the meaning of words they are unfamiliar with by analyzing their component parts.

The middle years is a time when the world of reading and writing becomes clearer to children. They learn how the same word can mean two things and how different words can mean the same thing. They learn how to understand feeling and descriptive words. Their ability to write fluently and express themselves through writing also improves, from better spelling and grammar to writing a short text that expresses what they are thinking.

During this time, the best support for children is to encourage and challenge them. Children’s language skills improve faster if their parents/caregivers engage them in conversation often, use an extensive vocabulary, read to them, and encourage them to express their feelings and ideas. When children share their ideas with their peers, their language skills improve even further.221

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), communication and social situations present daily challenges. Individuals with ASD experience different degrees of challenges with language and verbal communication. For children on the less severe end of the spectrum, speech skills may not be significantly delayed, and they may be very well spoken in some situations. Children on the more severe end of the autism spectrum, however, may have limited or no development of speech or they may have abnormalities in speech (such as pitch, stress, rate or rhythm).

While children with ASD often understand the words people use, they tend to miss social cues and nonverbal aspects of a conversation—things like facial expressions, voice tones, speed of speech, and gestures that communicate emotion and meaning. Also, some children with ASD may have trouble imagining another person’s point of view.

Ear Infections and Language

Ear infections are not uncommon in middle years children, and they can have a serious effect on language and speech development. If ear infections are persistent or not treated properly, children are at greater risk of hearing loss. This can have a negative impact on language acquisition, reading, literacy and school achievement.

Expressing feelings and self-regulation

While middle years children are making great strides in acquiring language and learning to communicate, they have not yet fully learned how to express their feelings or talk about things they find upsetting. As such, play and other types of symbolic representation continue to be essential forms of communication in the middle years. For multilingual children, expressing complex thoughts or emotions in a second or subsequent language poses an additional challenge.

Learning how to express feelings has a tremendous impact on a child’s ability to self-regulate. As children become more able to express their feelings and assert themselves, they are less likely to act out their feelings through physical aggression. By encouraging verbal expression, parents and caregivers and others can help children better understand their world and better explain their world to others. This in turn will help children learn to resolve conflicts and regulate impulsive behaviour.

Once children master a second language, they may enjoy an advantage over their peers. Children who are bilingual tend to have longer attention spans and more cognitive flexibility.222

Language and Indigenous children

Language connects children to their culture. As a result, supporting Indigenous language learning is a core goal for many Indigenous communities and families. Indigenous language revitalization is a response to colonial policies which repressed and punished Indigenous language learning in an effort to strip Indigenous children of their cultural, family and community ties.

Some Indigenous language speakers do not speak fluent English or French. This is the experience of some Inuit children and families, who speak Inuktitut and have encountered language barriers when migrating from the north to live in southern communities where English or French are the dominant languages spoken.

Acquiring language and cultural knowledge can give Indigenous children a strong sense of who they are, which can help them to develop resiliency for when they interact outside their communities and attend formal schooling.223 The acquiring of language skills and cultural understanding not only builds self-esteem, it can help Indigenous children in their middle years learn to move across different Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural contexts.

Historically, many Indigenous cultures were predominantly oral-based, and they have retained this strong tradition of oral storytelling. Indigenous languages also embody core cultural beliefs, Indigenous knowledge and worldviews, and serve as a powerful way to transmit culture. Communitywide activities involving storytelling and dramatic enactments of stories can help children acquire language, as can dramatic play based on Indigenous culture. Where Indigenous knowledge has been integrated into the classroom, student achievement has been shown to improve.224

Language is not the only method of communication for Indigenous children. Knowledge and cultural expression are also transmitted through mentorship, songs, drumming, dance, and ceremonial activities.225 For Inuit children, body language and gestures are also important and are used to convey meaning.

Language and newcomer children

Newcomer children face specific challenges when it comes to English or French acquisition. Very often, the language they are using in school is a new language, and they are trying to learn this at the same time as they are adapting to a new culture. These children may also be called upon to be a translator for family members. It is important for educators to remember that it may take additional time or be more challenging for newcomer children to master academic concepts while learning these in a new language.

Middle years children experience challenges in expressing complex thoughts and feelings verbally. These challenges are intensified when children attempt to do so in a second or subsequent language. In these cases, it may help to provide opportunities for newcomer children to express complex or challenging thoughts and emotions in their mother tongue, or explore expression through art, play or other types of symbolic representation.

Children's Artwork