It’s not just the number of words children hear that matters – the quality of language children hear matters too

This article by Audrey-Ann Deneault, University of Calgary; Lorraine Reggin, University of Calgary; Penny Pexman, University of Calgary; Sheri Madigan, University of Calgary, and Susan Graham, University of Calgary originally appeared on Converation and are posted here with permission.

When children develop the ability to understand language, as well as speak and communicate, it helps them interact with others and learn about their world. Research shows that children’s early language skills have a long bearing on later life outcomes.

Children with better language skills have an easier time regulating their emotions and interacting with their peers, likely in part because they can more easily communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas.

Children with better language skills are also more likely to be ready and successful in school, and to have better reading and writing skills. When they are older, they are more likely to succeed and thrive at work.

Given the obvious importance of language skills for lifelong outcomes, preparing children early for language success is essential. Parents, grandparents, guardians, and early learning and child care programs can play a vital role in supporting children’s language skills. We present three ways to help develop children’s emergent language skills.

1. Use language around children as often as possible

Talking to, around and especially with children supports their language learning. This is the case for children from all economic and cultural backgrounds.

The quantity and quality of what caregivers say is important for children’s language learning.

Our research shows that children who hear more words and phrases have more words in their vocabulary and better language skills. So, as much as possible, talk with your children. Even when they can’t speak, children continue to absorb and learn from the language they hear around them.

Imagine you are a commentator, talking out loud about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and what is happening in the child’s environment. For example, when you’re sitting in a playpen with your baby or preschooler, you might say:

“Look at the green tree. It’s a maple. How many trees do we see? This tree is different from the tree near the bench…..”

It’s not just the number of words children hear that matters – the quality of language children hear matters too.

This means it’s important to use a variety of words and sentence structures when talking to children. For example, instead of just pointing at a dog and tagging it, you can describe the color of the dog’s fur, talk about what the dog is doing, and ask questions about the dog.

For instance:

“Look at the dog. The dog is so big and fluffy and has such long legs. The dog runs towards the ball. This ball bounces. I hope the dog can catch it.

Caregivers can also ask questions beginning with words like “who, what, when, where and why” to encourage children to provide a more complex answer. This gives them the opportunity to use new words and new sentence structures in their own speech.

Open statements are also excellent for encouraging language growth. You can use statements such as: Tell me more, is it true, and then what happened…? Try to wait at least five to ten seconds to give your child time to respond.

2. Read books with children every day

Shared book reading offers another great opportunity to learn a language. Reading books exposes children to new words that are less commonly used in everyday speech as well as a variety of sentence structures. Books are a great way to expose children to high quality language and create a unique bonding experience.

Reading together also helps children focus and pay attention for longer periods of time, which helps them learn and prepares them for success in school.

Caregivers can try to make reading with children part of their daily routine. The way you read can help improve a child’s ability to learn new words. Describe pictures, define new words, ask questions and incorporate music. Stories provide an opportunity to make connections to your child’s experiences. Even when children are still young, invite them to turn the pages of the book and ask them what they think might happen next.

3. Engage in “serve and return” interactions

Language skills can be developed through daily interactions between caregivers and children. Sensitive caregivers notice vocalizations, cries, facial expressions, and other cues signaling that children need help, reassurance, or reassurance.

Responsive interactions are often referred to as “serve and return” interactions because they resemble a game of tennis. The child “serves” a cue by pointing at something, asking a question, or saying something, and the caregiver must “return” the service by repeating, responding, or commenting.

While parents can be sensitive when talking with their child, they can also be sensitive when comforting a child who is sad or hurt. Our research shows that when caregivers are sensitive to their child’s needs and engage in serve and return interactions, children develop better language skills.

Even young infants benefit from serve-return interactions. For example, ask your baby a question and give him time to answer! When they do, saying a sound like “da”, repeat it again, then expand to saying “dada” and connect it to a point of reference (like “dad”) to encourage greater use and understanding of language. This way we can support children’s inherent drive to connect and communicate with us.

Children start learning language at an early age and continue to develop their language skills throughout childhood. Caregivers can help develop and improve this important life skill by speaking, singing, reading and tuning in!

Audrey-Ann Deneault, postdoctoral researcher, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary; Lorraine Reggin, PhD Student, Cognitive Psychology, University of Calgary; Penny Pexman, Professor of Psychology, University of Calgary; Sheri Madigan, Professor, Canada Research Chair in the Determinants of Child Development, Owerko Center at Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, University of Calgary, and Susan Graham, Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Calgary

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.