This post is Part 3 in a series about early language development. Click here to read Part 1, and here to read Part 2.
Language is a gift from God that enables us to communicate with others, and as a result, to develop relationships with the people who come into our lives. I think we would all agree that language is important, so what can we do at home to actively promote the development of our children's language during early childhood? Fortunately, the answer is a lot! And the really good news is that doing so isn’t rocket science. In all likelihood, you are already doing a lot of this with your child:
- Intentionally talking to your child throughout your everyday life and activities.
- Encouraging your child to communicate with you, listening attentively when she does communicate, and then repeating back and expanding upon her language.
- Reading aloud is an absolute must.
See, you already do some of this, right? Let’s dive right in to some specific suggestions for children between the ages of birth and four years. Keep in mind at every age and stage that your child understands more language than she is able to produce. So, even long before your child is talking, lots of language development is happening and there is plenty that you can do to encourage that progression. These activities will benefit any child, whether or not that child has demonstrated a language delay. Please note that these suggestions are not intended to replace speech and language therapy. If you child is receiving therapy, her clinician will suggest more specific activities to do at home that are designed to support current goals and objectives.
- Do what mothers already do naturally: Bond with your baby. Hold her . . . in fact, hold her a lot.
- Sing to her.
- Bring your face close to hers and talk to her sweetly.
- Smile at her, and imitate the sweet little noises she makes.
- Click your tongue and watch as she notices it.
- Exaggerate your facial expressions as you talk and sing to her.
- Hold a rattle and gently shake it, watching your baby move her eyes as she hears the sound.
- Listen to music and sing as you rock your baby.
- Enjoy the preciousness of infancy. It is fleeting.
- Allow your baby to look at a variety of interesting objects, including colorful toys with lots of visual detail.
- Hold your baby’s hand and help her to explore different textures, like a blanket, hard and soft toys, and your face. There are plenty of textured baby toys available on the market, or use items from around the house.
- Laugh with her when she laughs.
- Talk to her in an animated, expressive way. Use a variety of facial expressions when you talk to her. Keep your face close to hers (about 12 inches away), making eye contact with her; vary your pitch from high to low, and your loudness from a whisper to a normal speaking voice. Babies quickly become good imitators of the expressions they see and the sounds that they hear.
- Sing to her a lot.
- Read or recite nursery rhymes, and read simple board books to her.
- Actively respond to your baby’s coos, gurgles, and babbles.
- Read colorful, simple books to her every day. Read slowly and expressively.
- Show your child pictures of animals in books and name each one as she looks at it. Then, ask her to show you each animal as you name it. Hold your child’s hand and help her to point to the animals, if needed. Imitate animal noises as you look at the books together.
- Throughout each day, talk to your child about what you are doing and what she is doing, keeping your language concrete and simple. Make eye contact with her when talking face to face.
- Play simple games with your baby, such as Peek-a-Boo, Pat-a-Cake, and So Big.
- Play music and sing to your child.
- Get on the floor and play with your child. Talk to her as she plays, describing her toys, actions, and explorations with an expressive voice.
- Around 9 months of age, your child will begin to understand that she can communicate with a specific purpose in mind; this is called communicative intent (for example, she can make a request for something that she wants). From this time on, you can begin to adjust her environment to make intentional communication more likely. For example, give her a toy that you know she will need to help to operate (like a wind-up toy). Place desired items just a little bit out of her reach. Give her a puzzle with a missing piece. Encourage her to communicate with gestures, sounds, or words (early words probably won’t be understandable, and that’s okay). Before my children could talk, I taught them to use the American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “help” when they wanted to request my help with something.
- Continue to talk to your child a lot, and try to encourage her to talk to you, too.
- Read, read, read to her every day. When you read simple picture books together, use them to communicate with your child and in turn, to stimulate her to communicate with you. For example, ask her to point to the pictures in books as you name them (“show me the . . . “), then encourage her to try naming some of the pictures.
- As you talk to your child throughout each day, name the items that your child sees (i.e., milk, table, a pet’s name, etc.) out loud, and encourage her to say the words back to you. Describe her play activities and toys out loud as she is playing.
- Let her make noise with safe, household items, such as a pie tin and wooden spoon, and “make music” with these items while you sing simple songs or chant nursery rhymes.
- Teach the concepts of in and out by showing her how to put items into containers, and dump them back out again. Next, ask her to do it, helping her (if needed) to put something in, then to dump it back out.
- Continue to read to your child every day.
- Talk to her throughout your daily activities, describing what you and your child are doing, feeling, and hearing. Look at her and make eye contact with her when you are talking together.
- Expand her vocabulary by encouraging her to repeat words after you say them; always try to teach new words based on the items you encounter and the experiences that you have together each day.
- Repeat your child’s spoken words and phrases back to her, then expand on them. For example, when she says “milk”, say to her, “I want some milk, please,” and encourage her to repeat it. When she says “book”, say to her “I want a book,” and encourage her to imitate you.
- Praise her communicative efforts often! Make communication fun and pleasant without any pressure.
Two Years Old
- Continue to read to her every day, choosing simple books with colorful pictures, nursery rhymes, and books with repetitive language. Eric Carle and Audrey Wood are two examples of authors who use repetitive language.
- Model good speech and language when you talk to your child.
- When your child says something, expand on it by asking questions that will stimulate additional thought and language. Always think about expanding her language.
- Regularly and intentionally carry on conversations with your child. Make eye contact with her. Try to listen attentively as your child talks to you, and show her that you are listening by answering, nodding, and smiling. Not only is this good for her language development, but it will also create a habit of good communication between you and your child that will benefit your relationship for life.
- Help her learn to follow simple instructions and commands with one step, such as “pick up the ball” or “put your cup on the table”.
- Listen to music and sing with your child, and try to encourage her to sing along with you. This is the perfect time to sing action songs, like The Wheels On the Bus.
- Introduce new vocabulary words to her, repeating those words often to help her learn and remember them.
3-4 Years Old
- Continue to talk with your child often, making eye contact, actively listening, and expanding her language by asking questions. Teach her the relationships between words, objects, and ideas by talking to her about the new experiences and objects that she encounters. Talk to here a little bit beyond her understanding. Converse with her as you would with any other person.
- Keep reading to your child daily, beginning to choose longer stories, which will model good language for her and also help to increase her attention span.
- Read nursery rhymes and books with repetitive language, which will stimulate phonological awareness (a pre-reading skill), as well as other areas of language. Try to get your child to join in with you as you read the rhymes and repetitions. Ask her to tell you stories as you look at picture books together.
- Encourage your child to talk to you about what she sees when you go for a walk or a ride together.
- Tell your child stories (both real and pretend) and then encourage her to tell you a story about herself or someone else. If you want to go a step further with this, write her story down as she tells you, then let her illustrate it. Most likely, she will want to "read" her story again and again.
- Sing with your child and listen to music together.
- Practice giving her some two step commands to follow (i.e., “give me your brush and pick up the shoe”).
- Help her begin to classify common, familiar objects into categories, such as things I wear. You can do this with pictures cut from magazines or with real objects from around the house.
There are some common themes that you probably noticed within nearly every age group in this list of suggestions. Talk to your child. Name objects. Read to your child. Sing to your child. Expand her language. Make eye contact. The repetition may have seemed redundant, but these concepts are so important at every stage of development that they are worth repeating. Let's talk a little bit more about a couple of them.
Reading aloud. My personal belief is that there is nothing more important that you can do for your child’s language development than to read aloud to her often. The good news is that most homeschool familes that I know already read a lot, so I’m almost certain that this is already a part of your daily routine. Keep it up and expand on it! Reading is so useful for stimulating speech and language that I would eventually like to write a blog post about specific ways to use books to help a variety of speech and language issues. Stay tuned!
Music and singing. At every age and stage, I suggested singing to your child. Why? One reason is simply because children love music, and it engages their attention in a way that little else can. Also, music benefits many areas of development, including language. It helps to improve memory, even for little babies as they learn to anticipate the variations in pitch and inflection that they will hear in a familiar song. Music helps to enhance auditory processing, and it is a tool that is often used to help a child learn just about anything. That’s why there are so many CDs marketed to help children learn everything from math facts to Bible verses. Additionally, the rhyming language in children’s songs helps to build phonological awareness, which is a critical language skill for reading. Some music styles, including classical music, promote active listening, which is important for language development. Singing helps to develop imitation, which is yet another significant language skill. On a personal note, when my middle child was a baby, music helped her to learn imitation in a memorable way. I used to sing to her about everything—whatever we happened to be doing at the moment—to the tune of Freres Jacques. Imagine my surprise when, at 8 months of age, she started humming Freres Jacques on her own, usually while I was rocking her. She then began babbling to the tune of Freres Jacques. As she grew a little older, she made up words to sing to that same tune. True story. It was super cute and it provided another avenue for her to learn imitation prior to her first spoken—or sung—words.
On a final note, I want to briefly discuss the use of sign language in young children. Children are often able to learn to use signs before they are able to talk, and it can be very gratifying for them to learn to sign some commonly used words early on. My children regularly used a handful of signs when they were babies, including more, eat, drink, in, out, and help. People often fear that introducing sign language in the early years will prevent a child from talking, although the reality is that studies have shown the opposite to be true. The ability to communicate by using sign language provides natural rewards that will often stimulate a desire to communicate even more. This can lead to earlier talking. The most efficient way for typically-developing, non-hearing impaired children to communicate is by talking, and they will always use this most efficient method as soon as they develop the ability to do so. So, please do not be afraid to use sign language with your baby. Spoken words will soon replace the signs, but it can be fun and rewarding for young children to learn some signs early on. Do use spoken words along with the signs when talking to your baby so she will learn to link the two together. Click here for some tips on getting started with baby sign language.
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