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Understanding language

Why it’s important

Young children must understand spoken language to develop their communication skills. They often understand language better than how they speak it.

As children’s communication skills increase, their vocabulary comprehension develops quickly. They can understand a wide range of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.  They can also follow longer and more grammatically complex instructions, for example:

‘Before you finish off your newspaper article about the science exhibition, you need to make sure your name is on the list for the school trip’.

How children develop their understanding of language

At around 7 years, children develop their inferential skills, or their ability to ‘read between the lines’ and infer information that’s implied but not explicitly stated. They use these inferential skills to make predictions, work out how people feel, and answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.

Strategies and tips to help develop language understanding

For early years children

You should:

  • keep what you say simple
  • reduce background noise and distractions
  • try to talk about things the child can see
  • not talk too much about things events from the past or the future)
  • use natural gestures and facial expression when you are talk
  • use pictures to support the child’s understanding, for example, if you go to the park, show them a picture before you go
  • repeat sentences using different and simple words if the child does not understand.

Download our questioning pyramid which can help guide the child when answering your questions.

For school age children

You should:

  • reduce background noise and visual or tactile distractions for example, fans, playground noise and mobile phones
  • use natural gesture, pictures, videos, and demonstrations to help understanding, retention and recall of information
  • ensure you have the child’s attention before giving instructions, for example, say the child’s name first and wait for them to look
  • slow down your delivery and use pauses
  • ensure the child has enough time to process instructions/questions.

It’s also important to repeat or rephrase messages and avoid using ambiguous and non-literal language.

Give instructions in the correct time-ordered sequence

For example:

‘Put your books away before you go out to play’ rather than ‘before you go out to play put your books away.’

Try to support confusing commands such as these with visual reinforcements. Demonstrate putting your pen away before putting a book on the pile.

Reinforce abstract instruction with specific instructions

Help a child with comprehension difficulties to access the meaning. For example, when saying ‘it’s PE time’, reinforce this by saying, ‘this means get your PE kit and put them on so we can go outside for PE.’

What to expect at each age milestone

Choose the age range below to find out how children develop their language understanding. You’ll also find suggested activities that will help your child/a child you’re teaching/caring for to develop their skills.


What to expect

Babies use contextual clues to understand familiar gestures, words and sounds.  They observe and respond to facial expressions and learn to stop and look when they hear their name. Babies learn to recognise the voices of familiar adults.

Babies can show they recognise people or objects by getting excited and kicking or moving their arms rapidly.

Activities to help develop their skills

You should:

  • speak clearly – babies respond well to a higher pitched, sing-song voice
  • smile and look your at your child when talking to them
  • use actions and facial expression to support your words, for example, waving when you say ‘bye bye’
  • look at the baby and say their name. Make eye contact and wait for them to
  • react with facial expression or body movements
  • sing nursery rhymes to help your child understand the words by using actions as well.



What to expect

Children develop their ability to follow other people’s gestures and point.

They can often respond to things being said in a familiar context and with a special person, for example, ‘where’s Mummy?’, ‘where’s your ear?’

Children develop an understanding of single words in context, for example, ‘cup’, ‘milk’, ‘daddy.’

Activities to help develop their skills

Use and repeat single words in real life situations

Babies can gradually link the word to its meaning.

Talk to children about what you’re doing

For example, making lunch, preparing bath time, putting coat and shoes on to go out so they’ll link words with actions.

Interpret and give meaning

To things your baby shows an interest in, for example, when your baby points to an object tell them what it is.

Watch the video below to explore some fun ways to help your child understand single words:


What to expect

Children choose familiar objects by name and will find them when asked or identify objects from a group.

They understand simple phrases, for example, coat on’, ‘bath time’ but also rely on gestures, pointing and everyday routines to support their understanding. They start to follow instructions containing 2 key pieces of information, for example, ‘give me the cup and the ball’, ‘where’s big teddy?’

A child at this stage starts to understand language at a 2 word level.

Activities to help develop their skills

Play games which develop the child’s understanding of single words.  The first words you teach a child should include familiar things, for example, everyday objects and events. To learn the true meaning of a word, a child must hear that word in different environments and at different times.

You can also talk about and create activities around food. This includes:

  • talking about and name foods at mealtimes
  • naming different foods in the shop when go shopping
  • making pretend foods out of Plasticine
  • making a toy food shop using Plasticine models/old boxes and tins/play food sets. Give the child instructions, for example, ‘pass me the apples please’
  • hosting a pretend tea party with pretend food. Name the foods, or get the child to pass you a specific item.


You can also:

  • name all the toys you have out to play with during the day
  • ask the child to fetch specific toys
  • make a scrapbook of pictures of toys (from old magazines/catalogues) and name them as you stick them in/look at them
  • hide toys around the room and play ‘hide and seek’, for example, ask the child to ‘go and find the train.’



What to expect

Children will be more consistent at following instructions containing 2 key pieces of information, known as the ‘two-word level’.  They can identify action words by pointing to the right picture, for example, ‘who’s jumping?’

Activities to help develop their skills

Play games that encourage understanding at a two-word level.

Watch the video below for ideas to help your child understand language with two-words in fun ways.

Shopping game

Set up a pretend shop using the toys and other objects. Take it in turns to be the shopkeeper. The other person tells the shopkeeper about two items on their shopping list (pictures).  The shopkeeper has to find the objects and put them in the bag or basket.

Use pictures and repetition to help at the beginning but gradually move towards giving the instruction once with no visual clues.

Ball game (for 3 or 4 people)

Everyone stands in a circle and nominates someone as the ‘caller’.  The caller tells whoever has the ball to either kick it or throw it to someone in the circle, for example, ‘throw the ball to daddy.’

The silly tea party game

Ask the child to help set up the tea party by telling them what to give to who, for example, ‘give teddy a cup’, ‘give Sarah a plate.’ You can do the same when giving out food, for example, ‘give a crisp to dolly.’

Action game

Place a few objects or toys on the other side of the room, so that you have 2 different ‘locations’. Give instructions for the child to follow including a range of different action words, for example:

  • ‘hop to the box’
  • ‘jump to the bag’
  • ‘crawl to the box.’


What to expect

Children begin to understand ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘where’ in simple questions. They develop an understanding of simple concepts such as big/little.

Children also understand more complex sentences and follow instructions containing 3 key pieces of information, for example, ‘put the big apple on the blue plate’ (where there are different sizes of fruit and 2 different coloured plates).  A child at this stage will understand language at a ‘three-word level.’

Activities to help develop their skills

Play the shopping game described above to help your child to remember three items.

Download our following instructions with 3 key words .

Action game

Place a few toys or objects in front of the child with a box and bag across the room. Give instructions including:

“pick up the cup, hop to the box and put it in”

“pick up the car, walk to the bag and put it in”

“pick up the teddy, jump to the box and put it in”

Tickling game

Ask your child to tickle, touch or kiss different parts of teddy’s/dolly’s/your body, for example, ‘tickle teddy’s tummy, ‘kiss dolly’s nose.’

Watch the video below for fun ways to help your child understand three information carrying words:


What to expect

Children begin to understand instructions containing 4 key pieces of information, for example, ‘drive the big green tractor to the farm’ (where there are different sized and coloured vehicles with a range of locations).

Children will start to understand prepositions ‘under’, ‘on’, ‘top’, and can answer simple ‘who’, ‘what’, and ‘where’ questions.  They’ll start to understand concepts such as ‘same’ and ‘different’.

Children at this age rely less on clues from the context or environment to support their understanding.

Activities to help develop their skills

Prepositions game

Use lego or bricks to build a tower either on or under an object such as a table or chair. Ask the child to place the brick on the tower that’s either on or under the table.  You’ll need to help them initially so that they understand what each word means.

Once they understand ‘on’ and ‘under’, make the instructions harder.  For example, you could play hide and seek with favourite toys.  Tell the child to hide various toys ‘on’ or ‘under’ different objects around the room.

Encourage the child to follow ‘on’ and under in everyday language by asking them to do unusual or silly things, for example, ‘put your drink under the table.’

Ball and balloon game

You’ll need small and big balls and balloons, plus two or more favourite toys.  Place the toys across the room or a short distance from the child.  Keep the balls and balloons next to your child.

Ask the child to either roll, kick or throw the big or little ball or balloon to teddy, dolly or Thomas.  You could play this game outside.


What to expect

Children can understand:

  • longer 2 part spoken instructions, for example, ‘touch your nose, then your ear
  • ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions
  • how to put words into groups or categories and give examples from each category
  • a range of words to describe time, shape, texture, size and know the context to use them
  • how to name objects, characters and animals from a description.

They’ll also use words more specifically to make meaning clear and ask if they’re unsure.

Activities to help develop their skills

Form boards/lift out puzzles

Using a form board with a range of different objects, get the child to replace the pieces according to instruction. Start with ‘put in the tree’ and advance to ‘put in the ball and the telephone.’ Then try ‘put in something that flies’;

You can progress to ‘put the ball in before you put the telephone in.’


You can teach concepts such as ‘big’ and ‘little’ by collecting a pairs of objects, for example, one big car and a little car, big and little spoon. Ask the child to give you ‘the big spoon’ or ask them to ‘point to the little car.’

Use one pair at a time , for example big and little or long and short.

Guess the object

Download our guess the object activity sheet .

Players take turns to take a picture without showing it to the other players. They describe the object in the picture. The others have to guess what the object is from the description, for example, ‘it’s woolly and has four legs.’

Shopping game

Use pretend items and ask the child to buy 2 or 3 items depending on their level of understanding.  You can then ask the child to ‘buy’ some fruit or meat to demonstrate their understanding of categories.

Everyday sequences

Use a digital camera to record children doing simple actions, for example, eating a biscuit, drinking, building tower of blocks.  Take a series of pictures to show the beginning, middle, and end of the action.  Then get the children to arrange the pictures in the correct order.

You can also do this by drawing simple pictures and progress to develop the child’s prediction skills.  Show the start of a series of pictures and get the child to draw what they think will happen next.  Similarly, show the end of the sequence and ask them to draw what would happen first.



What to expect

Children will:

know the key points they need to focus on to answer a question or follow an instruction

  • begin to ignore less important information
  • be aware of when a message is not clear and ask for an explanation
  • understand complex two to three-part instructions. For example, ‘finish the question you’re on then put your book on the pile and get your PE bag.’

Activities to help develop their skills

Find me

Collect a variety of objects and spread them out on a table. Can the child find the one that you use to drink with, eat, wear ? Vary the objects and amount of information that you give to the child according to their level of understanding.  This could be based on subject vocabulary relating to science or humanities – use pictures if you can’t collect objects.

Comparatives and superlatives

Develop awareness of comparatives (big/small) and superlatives (big/bigger/biggest).  Start by categorising object or pictures into big/small.  Look at each group separately, saying that ‘they’re all big but look, this one’s bigger that that one, and this one’s the biggest.’

Repeat the task using different resources and ask the child to find one bigger, the biggest, smaller, the smallest, longer, the longest, taller, the tallest, for example.  You can ask them to apply the skill in everyday situations, by getting a group of children to line up according to height.


You can introduce negation and prepositions in a similar way, for example, point to the girl that does not wear a hat, or point to the bird that is not in the tree.  Some pictures may require the child to predict what may happen next, for example, which boy will win the race?

Hide and seek

Place objects around the room and ask the children to bring you things by description, for example, ‘bring me something that’s big and red’ or ‘bring me something you would find in the bathroom.’


Give the child a sequence of two to three actions to do. For example ‘touch your nose and then clap your hands’ or ‘stamp your feet, touch the floor then put your hands in the air.’

To help the child initially you could do the actions as you say them so they have a visual clue. As they improve stop your demonstration of the actions. You could also add an action the child should not do, for example, ‘stand up, turn around, but don’t sit back down again’.

Sequencing skills

Ask children to match sequence patterns. They can do this by:

  • copying the colour pattern of a string of beads, expanding in complexity and length
  • copying the colour pattern of a string of beads shown on a picture, increasing in complexity and length
  • repeating the above process but saying the colour sequence instead of showing the child the beads. Start by giving them 3 colours at a time, then build up to 4
  • using pre-drawn patterns for the child to colour match
  • using simple story pictures to create story sequence.

Barrier games

Download barrier games activity sheet .

Collect two identical sets of objects, one for you and one for the child. Put a barrier between you so you can not see each other’s objects.  Give each other instructions about where to position the objects in relation to each other, for example, ‘put the book under the pen.’ Remove the barrier and see if the objects are in the same place



What to expect

Children at this age have more sophisticated comprehension skills. They also:

  • understand inferred meaning as well as information that’s clearly presented
  • listen to information, work out they key elements and make relevant, related comments
  • identify clearly when do not understand and be specific about what additional information they need
  • use clues in text or stories to make predictions.

Activities to help develop their skills

Read books

When reading with the child ask them questions about the story. Start with who, what happened and when questions,  for example, ‘who’s going on holiday? ‘What did Jack do?’

Progress to why and prediction questions, for example, ‘why do you think Katy hid the map? What do you think will happen next?’


Use pictures showing the sequence of a story or activity for example, making a sandwich or wrapping a present. Ask the child to arrange the pictures in the correct order. Talk about what happened first, next and last. Introduce the concepts of before and after, for example, ‘what must you do before you put the filling in the sandwich?’

Progress the activity to develop the child’s prediction skills. Show the start of a series of pictures and ask the child to draw what they think will happen next.  Similarly, show the end of the sequence and ask them to draw what might have happened first.


Continue to teach specific concepts as they arise in the curriculum such as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ by collecting a range of objects. Ask the child to sort the objects into groups, for example, hard things and soft things. When teaching these concepts use one pair at a time for example, hard and soft or heavy and light.

Time concepts

They can be particularly difficult for children with language difficulties. Start by helping them to identify activities that happen in the morning, afternoon, evening and night. Then talk about the time of regular activities for example, school start, and break time.

For teachers, use visual timetables in class to show the order of lessons. Help the child learn the order of the days of the week and identify activities they regularly do on each day.


Give the child a sequence of 2 to 3 actions and ask them to carry out that sequence. For example ‘touch your nose and then clap your hands’ or ‘stamp your feet, touch the floor then put your hands in the air.’ Progress the actions by including before and after, for example, ‘after you turn around, shut your eyes.’

Start by using commands that name the actions in the order you want them done. Once the child accomplishes these, use commands that require the child to understand before or after concepts to respond correctly. For example,  ‘before you touch your nose, say your name’ or ‘click your fingers after you stand up.’

Barrier games

Download barrier games activity sheet .

Use two identical photocopied pictures or a blank piece of paper each. Put a barrier between you so you can not see each other’s piece of paper. Give each other instructions about what to colour in or draw.

For example ‘colour the man with a hat blue’ or ‘colour the big square red.’


What to expect

Children notice and may comment on what is said but also how it’s said. They begin to appreciate sarcasm when it’s obvious.

Children can also understand different question types including:

  • open questions, for example, ‘can you tell me all about your visit to the museum?’
  • closed questions ‘did you enjoy your trip to the museum?’
  • rhetorical questions ‘wasn’t that a lovely trip to the museum?’

They will understand and enjoy simple jokes and recognise simple idioms, but can not really explain why they’re funny or what they mean.

Activities to help develop their skills

When a child is reads a text or reading book, use the ‘inference bookmark’ to prompt yourself to ask questions about what happened, ‘when’, ‘who’, ‘where’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ (including how the characters are feeling).


Download our idioms activity sheet .

Use a set of picture cards. Put them face up on the table and see how many of them the child has heard before.  To help the child reflect, use the idiom in context. For example, the teacher asks the class whether they find the work difficult and one child says ‘it’s a piece of cake!’ What does the child mean?

Play a pairs game matching the idioms to their meanings.


Look at a joke website or book and tell each other jokes.  See if the child laughs at the correct meaning.  If it does not ruin the joke, explain why it’s funny.  For example, ‘what’s black and white and red/read all over.’ What could ‘red’ mean  (colour) and past tense of ‘read’.


What to expect

Young people can:

  • follow complex directions, for example, ‘get the rectangular box that’s on the bottom shelf of the stationery cupboard’
  • understand common, simple sayings in context, for example, ‘I couldn’t keep a straight face’
  • start to understand someone else’s point of view during discussion
  • understand factual information but still finds it harder to understand inferred information, for example, what’s said (‘it’s getting noisy in here’), what’s implied ‘you need to be quiet.’
  • understand sarcasm when exaggerated, for example, ‘you’re such a talented singer.’

Activities to help develop their skills


Collect a book of jokes the student finds funny.  Look for jokes which have multiple meanings or that require inference.


For activity instructions, see the 9 to 11 years age range activities above.

You could also make a pairs game with implied meanings, for example, ‘it’s a bit cold in here’ with the inferred meaning ‘please shut the window.’

Using key words

If a student finds understanding questions or texts challenging, teach them to look for key words and underline these. Make a mind map from the information, and then ask the student to explain the subject to you in their own words.

Drawing visuals or diagrams of complex information can help the student understand the key themes.

Find word maps on the internet for similar topics from earlier in the curriculum to support understanding of basic concepts.


What to expect

By now young people can process large amounts of new and complex spoken information. They can:

  • use language to solve more complex problems
  • understand longer and more complex instructions, which don’t follow the word order of the sentence, for example, ‘before you go upstairs can you fill out this form and put it in an envelope?’
  • build an argument to persuade and respond to views different to their own
  • infer and deduce information
  • understand figurative language
  • fully understand sarcasm and use it well, for example, ‘I’m so happy to see you!’
  • know when and why they do not understand and ask for help in a specific way, for example, ‘can you explain that to me again? I got the beginning but I don’t understand the last steps’
  • still likely to be challenged by some instruction words, for example, ‘modify’, ‘generate’, ‘consider’, ‘evaluate’.

Activities to help develop their skills

Using key words

For activity instructions, see the 11 to 14 years age range activities above.

If a student has problems understanding spoken language, encourage them to actively reflect on what they have understood. The student can either:

  • underline texts in colour codes (green = understood, orange = not sure/partially understand, red = not understood at all)
  • say what they understood following an instruction, for example, ‘I know I need to hand in my assignment next Wednesday, which form do we have to hand in with the assignment?’