Supporting children’s language development through Tales, Toys and Tunes

Dr Jamie Lingwood
and Dr Cat Davies from the Leeds Child Development Unit write about the importance of discussing the research on children’s language development with caregivers and practitioners.

Children who enter school with a larger vocabulary have better chances in school, better chances of entering higher education, and better economic success in adulthood (Blanden, 2006). However, at school entry children from lower income backgrounds are on average 19 months behind their more affluent peers in their vocabulary skills (Sutton Trust, 2012).

More positively, a child’s communication environment is more important for language development at school entry than their social background alone (Roulstone, et al., 2011). Therefore, although children from poorer backgrounds can be many months behind their more affluent peers in their language level on school entry, the amount of language they experience at home plays more of a role than the social demographic they are born into.

Research shows that on average children hear around 6,000 words a day (Gilkerson et al., 2017). But this varies hugely across families. As the figure below shows, in one family, caregivers spoke more than 12,000 words to the infant, while in another the infant heard only 670 words of child-directed speech over the day.One of the ways we can increase both the quantity and variety of words that children hear is by talking with the child during particular activities.


For example, when we share books with children, they hear as many as 140 words from each board book, and 230 words from each picture book (Logan, et al., 2019). This amounts to an extra 47,000 – 77,000 words per year when we read just one book a day. And for children from homes where reading is a very common activity – around 5 books a day – children will hear 1.4 million more words during shared reading than children who are never read to.

Recent research also shows that during shared book reading, adults often use a wider variety of different words, which exposes children to a more diverse vocabulary (Noble et al., 2018). Books also tend to contain a wider variety of complex sentence structures, many of which are absent in everyday speech to children. Finally, book reading is also likely to foster high levels of joint attention because it encourages caregivers and children to focus on the book together, which has been linked to positive language outcomes in younger preschoolers (Farrant & Zubrick, 2013).

Getting the message out

Part of our work as academics is to convey these research findings to caregivers and practitioners. One of the ways we do this is through impact events.

In November 2019, we organised an event called ‘Talking Together through Tales, Toys, and Tunes’. Hosted by our friends at The Rainbow Factory, it aimed to empower caregivers and nursery staff to support children’s language development through conversation and other activities like shared book reading.

The event began with an interactive storytelling performance, focusing on language and communication. Stories were brought to life by performers acting out the story, and encouraging children to participate.

Cat and I then spent some time chatting to caregivers and practitioners about the important role they play in developing children’s language through talking. One thing that emerged from these brief discussions was that reading was not often mentioned as an activity that they enjoyed doing with children. Participants tended to focus on child-led play-based activities such as role play and messy play. This suggests that for many, reading happens less frequently than other activities home. However, for most parents, language played a central part of the rich imaginary worlds that their children created with them at home or at nursery. We plan to follow up these conversations with our partners.

After lunch, children and adults then participated in three different workshops: stories (Tales), crafts (Toys), and music (Tunes). The workshops were designed to encourage children and adults to have a conversation about what they can see, hear, and feel.

In the Tales workshop, children and adults took part in a Gruffalo hunt to find the different descriptive words from the story.

In the Toys workshop, children and adults created some crafts from the stories

And in the third workshop children and adults engaged in a musical sensory experience involving instruments, nursery rhymes and singing together.

To ensure families continued to talk together after the event, they were given a pack of materials to take away, including some top tips about sharing books with children.


Measuring Impact

For us it was important to measure the impact of the event on the 72 children and 48 adults who attended our event.  We gave adults postcards to write to their future selves saying what they wanted to remember or what they would do differently as a result of their experiences at the event. We will then post cards back to participants three months after the event to remind them of their commitments and ideas, encouraging them to act and deepening the impact of the public engagement activity. Some of the suggestions for remembering what they would like to do different as a result of attending the event included:

‘encouraging more back and forth interaction with my child’

‘creating more of a story telling area for children’

‘using more open-ended questions and more games when talking with children’

‘encourage interactive stories within our nursery setting’

‘going to the library more often’

It was great to hear about the ways in which parents and practitioners were planning to enrich their children’s communication environment. It was also great to hear the ways in which parents and practitioners were planning to incorporate stories into the home and nursery.

A big Thank You to all the children and adults for attending the event. We hope that they have been inspired to talk in some new and interesting ways.


Blanden, J. (2006). “Bucking the trend”: What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? Department for Work and Pensions: London. Retrieved from:

Farrant, B. M., & Zubrick, S. R. (2013). Parent-child book reading across early childhood and child vocabulary in the early school years: Findings from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children. First Language, 33, 280-293. doi:10.1177/0142723713487617

Gilkerson, J., Richards, J. A., Warren, S. F., Montgomery, J. K., Greenwood, C. R., Kimbrough, O., Hansen, J. H. L., Paul, T. D. (2017). Mapping the early language environment using all-day recordings and automated analysis. Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 26, 248-265. doi: 10.1044/2016_AJSLP-15-0169.

Logan, J. A. R., Justice, L. M., Yumuş, M., & Chaparro-Moreno, L. J. (2019). When children are not read to at home: The million word gap. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 40, 383-386. doi: 10.1097/DBP.0000000000000657.

Noble, C. H., Cameron-Faulkner, T., & Lieven, E. (2018). Keeping it simple: The grammatical properties of shared book reading. Journal of Child Language, 45, 753-766. doi:10.1017/S0305000917000447

Reed, M. (2016). The Research Impact Handbook. Fast Track Impact.

Roulstone, S., Law, J., Rush, R., Clegg, J., & Peters, T. (2011) Investigating the role of language in children’s early educational outcomes. Department for Education: London. Retrieved from: RR134.pdf

The Sutton Trust (2012). Social mobility and education gaps in the four major Anglophone countries. Report of the The Sutton Trust/Carnegie Social Mobility Summit held at the Royal Society.

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