Silence Speaks: Enhancing Language In Learning Environments


We are told to create language-rich environments to support children’s development. We recognise lots of ways of doing this from providing activities that get everyone talking, laced with the potential to need good describing words as things fall, fizzy and flutter, to using labels around our settings and having plenty of books about.  But does language-rich necessarily mean lots of language, lots of talking, lots of chat? 

The Quality Over Quantity Approach For Language

In this article I’m going to focus specifically on why you might want to consider a less is more approach to language richness at certain times. We are thinking quality over quantity here!

If there is a constant babble of talking we need to consider how much is taken in, if staff are chatting over the heads of children certainly there will be a lot of language around, but is this a language-rich environment or is it an experience of being excluded from language?

What about if staff chatter away to children as they’re exploring and experiencing? This can feel very friendly and companionable, but have you ever been in a car about to manoeuvre around a particularly tricky junction and wished your friend in the passenger seat would just shut up? Sometimes keeping quiet enables more concentration and a deeper engagement with the experience. 

In my work at The Sensory Projects I regularly support children with profound and multiple learning disabilities or autistic children with high support needs and for these children language can sometimes be a barrier to accessing the world. Through thinking about the experience of children who face sensory barriers we can gain insights relevant to all children. The children I work with may have capacity across sensory systems, e.g. they can see, hear, feel, smell, taste and so on, but they will not necessarily be able to process the information from all these different sensory channels at once. If you cannot take in everything at a sensory level you have to make choices about processing, and guess what the most common choice is when faced with this sort of sensory traffic jam? That’s right you guessed it: children prioritise hearing over the other sensory systems.

So if you’re looking to inspire children to try and describe the particularly slimy, gruesome, gloopy, globular, thick, gungey, gloop you’ve created together but you’re chattering excitedly all the time they’re touching it, you might actually be preventing them from feeling the tactile sensations you’re wanting them to describe. Keep quiet. 

Shhh! 

Just a bit more,… 

Hold your tongue! 

Then, once you’re sure they’ve really felt it, get out all your good words and offer them as descriptive choices. 

Sensory Stories: Maximising Impact With Minimal Words

As I’ve described this scenario, you may have thought of children in your setting who struggle to touch messy play activities. Sensory overwhelm is not an experience reserved for neurodivergent children, everyone can find the sensory world a bit much sometimes. Think about the different sensory systems as various jobs that children are doing. If you take one task away, it frees up their capacity to focus on the others. Consider the child who struggles to touch slime. What if it was quiet while they tried? What if the slime had no added scent and wasn’t a particularly bright colour? Perhaps a dull, silent slime would be more accessible to them. Once they’ve explored it, you could then encourage them to describe their experience, offering them rich language.

My first love of the sensory world is sensory stories, these are wonderful, concise narratives in which each sentence gets paired with a rich and relevant sensory experience. It was love at first sight for me nearly two decades ago, and since then I’ve written books about them and published oodles of them (explore my website for free and paid-for sensory story resources). A sensory story generally only has 8-10 sentences. Does this mean they are less language-rich than your average children’s picture book which probably has more than a hundred sentences? Not necessarily! 

Think about processing capacity, imagine the total space in a child’s brain to be represented by the blue square illustration below. As you talk, part of the work the brain does is processing language. The language processing is represented by the yellow dot. Language processing isn’t where the interesting stuff happens, that is just the brain hearing the word and reporting its meaning. It’s in all the blue space that the good stuff happens, that’s where we reflect on the deeper meaning of the word, we link it to experiences in our own life, think of alternative words remember things the blue space is where the deep learning happens. 





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