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I'll just Google it: technology and communication development

"If you have got a mobile phone, there's just so many lovely things you can do with a phone! And because children are really social and peers really matter, [a phone] is the device that really matters."

– Tom Bennett, Government Advisor on Technology speaking on GMTV recently.

Technology is increasingly central to how we live, work and interact with each other. It's also changing the ways that we communicate with people and language itself ('To Google' is now officially a verb!). Research is now beginning to emerge about how technology affects children's language and communication development. This blog aims to look at how technology can support communication. 

A recent uSwitch survey of parents estimated that a child going to school may have up to £400 worth of technology in their school bag. The immediate concern was for their safety but it also shows how technology is central to young people's lives and their friendships.

It’s interesting to see how technology is changing the way we interact and the clever ways people are using language. I also think it offers enormous potential for both developing children's communication skills and also enhancing communication for children with SLCN.

As practitioners we want to help young children to develop their skills to fulfil their maximum potential.

For a long time early years practitioners have been concerned about the impact of technology on young children's language and communication skills. For example, the experience of one advisory teacher being with a group of babies who were attempting to use books like an iphone and swipe the surface.

But the impact isn’t always negative... an interesting finding from the National Literacy Trust's 2014 research about literacy at home was that access to both printed stories and stories on a touch screen benefits children’s vocabulary attainment compared with looking at or reading printed stories only.

This highlights the potential of technology to support and develop children's language and communication skills, alongside printed books and face to face interactions.

The Communication Trust has developed factsheets on how we can use technology to support communication skills. Some of their top tips are included below.

Reflecting on practice

  • How do you use technology everyday? How do the children you care for see you using technology? How you use technology gives a model for how children interact with and use it, and will demonstrate the positive uses of technology.
  • Modelling language - there are lots of opportunities to use emoticons and abbreviations in text speak; in fact Professor David Crystal estimated that only 10% of words in text messages are spelled out fully.
  • Supportive adults have a vital role to play in modelling language to show children the vocabulary and language skills that underpin these abbreviations. We can only LOL when we know how to 'laugh out loud' (or 'lots of love' in Mr Cameron's case). Knowing the range of words and when to use them gives children a good foundation for being able to adapt their language and written skills to different media later on.

Sharing information with parents

How parents use technology will influence children's views and uses too. You may find it useful to share The Communication Trust factsheets with parents. Some top tips for making the most of the communication opportunities that technology offers are:

  • Use technology with children to keep in touch with distant relatives or friends. Email, send photos or even Skype to keep in touch and use it as an opportunity to ask your child what they might want to ask and say.
  • Look together at the photos you’ve saved or posted – can your child remember the story behind the photo? This gives everyone a great opportunity for sharing stories, which are so vital for communication development.
  • Listening games - there are lots of apps out there that allow you to match a sound to picture. This can be great for developing young children's listening skills and awareness of sounds.
  • It’s OK to turn technology off! Sometimes the best way to encourage children is to model it as a parent. Communication technology is increasingly central to our lives and the way we communicate, but face to face conversations can be even more rewarding.

I CAN Help also has a factsheet on some apps that can support communication skills. 

The area of technology, communication and language is evolving and rapidly changing. Research is producing some interesting findings on the potential of technology to enhance children's language and communication skills, alongside interactions with supportive practitioners.

As with lots of things, the key is balance - offering a range of opportunities to explore and use technology, while modelling language and providing opportunities for face to face interactions will be vital. It is worth reflecting on the opportunities that technology offers and the potential this has for supporting language skills and also children with SLCN. 

About the author

Amanda Baxter is a speech and language therapist who specialises in working with early years practitioners and families with young children. As a Communication Advisor for I CAN, she delivers training to early years professionals and supports them to develop their practice. She also works on I CAN’s Enquiry Service providing information, advice and support for practitioners and parents.  Amanda has worked in children's centres and as a Local Authority Early Language Consultant. 

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