[UPDATED: Originally Published Feb. 2012]
Reading and language development plays a huge role in a child’s eventual success. Most children learn how to listen, speak, read, and write from birth through grade three. They typically begin to use literacy as a learning tool in the middle to the end of third grade. Children who are reading and writing “on grade level” by the end of third grade are expected to go on to be successful students.
But over my years of working in the field of early childhood education, I have seen many young children who are not engaged in enough meaningful conversations with the adults in their lives. They’re entering school with smaller vocabularies than in the past. As a result, they may not read as readily or as easily and could even struggle with some aspects of school and even later in life.
Poor Readers Struggle at School and, Eventually, at Work
Why is timely reading and language development so important? It impacts far more than grades or just the immediate school year. Children who are not fluent readers by fourth grade are more likely to struggle with reading in adulthood. In fact, a study by The Annie E. Casey Foundation found students who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma when compared to proficient readers.
How can Parents Ensure a Child is Ready to Become a Skilled Reader?
Parents can do more to improve their children’s language development — and it starts at birth. Language development is most profound during a child’s first three years of life. It’s a crucial time to expose children to words and books as often as possible.
The vocabulary learned in these early years provides the foundation needed for language development. From the earliest cooing with caregivers, babies learn that language is reciprocal. When they coo, their caregivers respond. From this very basic experience, babies begin to understand that sounds have meaning and people will respond to them. Sounds become rewarding and supports the caregiver/baby bonding and their future relationships.
Some Children Face More Challenges than Others
Note, however, some parents might encounter greater challenges in fostering their child’s language development than others. Families’ socioeconomic status can influence language development. This correlation was first suggested by renowned researchers Betty Hart, Ph.D. and Todd R. Risley, Ph.D. in their 1995 book, “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” Subsequent research has supported those findings.
But I believe this socioeconomic achievement gap can be reduced, if not eliminated, by expanding a child’s language skills. I’ve shared this insight with many parents throughout my career. In my former position as the Director of Early Childhood Education for Bridgeport Public Schools, I often had the privilege of meeting with parents as well as early care and education teachers.
Sometimes mothers and fathers stood up in these meetings and asked me what they could do to improve their children’s vocabulary. I always responded with, “The good news is that many techniques are simple. And best of all, they are free!”
Today, I share these techniques with my preservice early childhood education students here at Post University, and other teachers across our state. And, I’d like to share a few with you. Here are six activities parents can do to improve their child’s language development and vocabulary skills.
Talk to your child all day, every day: Children hear countless sounds in their environment every day — the outdoors, music, television, electronic equipment, etc. Our job is to engage children in meaningful conversation in which they speak and we respond, and vice versa. With young children, you can talk about the clothes they are wearing, the foods they are eating, or what they are doing. Keeping the discussion related to them makes the conversation more meaningful and holds their interest longer.
Interactive conversation, asking questions, reviewing what you have done and even narrating what you are doing helps ensure your child gets a steady stream of meaningful language. Whether you point out different fruits in the grocery store, talk about what you are doing as you do it or simply ask questions and even supply the answers if you need to, you’re modeling speech and communication and making it easier for your child to learn.
Name everything: Avoid using slang or pronouns. So instead of saying “please bring it here” — where “it” is vague — say, “Please bring the book here.” Name all the objects in your child’s environment in meaningful ways. Speak in full sentences as often as possible.
As your child masters words and names for the things around them, you can add information and expand on the items. The “book” can become the “blue book” and later “the big blue book,” expanding your child’s vocabulary and ability to describe items.
Even if your child is not speaking, they may understand more than you expect. Properly naming objects instead of using vague pronouns can help them identify the items in their own environment, even if they cannot successfully pronounce or label them on their own.
Answer your child simply, yet completely: Young children love to ask “why?” Children are naturally curious and they are trying to make sense of their environment. So, when you get one of those questions (or a lot of those questions), answer them as simply, yet as completely, as possible.
In addition, when children are doing something, ask them a question. For instance, if your child is building a tower with blocks, ask her why the tower fell or why she selected one block over another. If she is making a puzzle, use words to help her put the puzzle together. “What color is this piece? Do you see another piece with that color? Will they fit together?” If your child is playing catch with you outdoors, talk about the trees, flowers, and insects. Name everything!
Read, read, read: Reading to your child every day is a MUST. But don’t just read the words. Look at the pictures and discuss what’s shown. Again, name everything. If children can’t experience a real item, seeing a picture of it and talking about it is second best. Reading helps children develop the rhythm and structure of language as they learn new words.
Reading can become a special time of day for the two of you – and that time does not have to be just before bed. Simply sitting down with a book or two and reading together will motivate your child to read and build healthy habits that will last a lifetime. You don’t have to read at home, your local library is more than a source of books – most have reading time specifically designed with small children in mind.
Expose your child to as much as possible: Bring your child everywhere. Go grocery shopping together and talk about the fruits and vegetables you see, their colors, and their tastes. Take your child to the beach and discuss the shells, sand, and water. Visit the farm so they can see that milk comes from a cow and not the store. Bring them outdoors to play with neighbors and friends.
The more chances your child has to socialize and communicate with others, from adults to other small children, the more opportunities they have to practice those important language skills that will serve them so well in school and later in life. You do not have to go far; stores in your own neighborhood, community events and other outings may be errands to you, but offer a lot of potential opportunities for learning for your preschooler or toddler.
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Tell stories: Storytelling is a great family activity. While showing family photographs, talk about who is in the photograph, what they are doing, and where they were. Understanding and being proud of one’s heritage is irreplaceable. Tell your child a story before bedtime, and have him or her tell you a story, too.
Stories can help your child prepare before an activity, as well. If you are heading to the dentist, then reading a book about a favorite character who visits the dentist and talking about teeth and brushing can help your child prepare. Not only will this approach provide more opportunities for learning, social stories can help reduce anxiety about doctors, dentists, and outings, too.
I once heard that language (listening and speaking) is the gateway to literacy (reading and writing) — which is true. However, I’d take this a step further and add that literacy is the gateway to ALL future learning. Children cannot learn if they have poor literacy.
So talk, talk, talk! Help your child learn as many words as possible. Help them hear and practice speaking while learning the rhythm and structure of language. Most will become confident talkers and successful learners over time. Parents are a child’s first and lifelong teacher. One of our most important roles as a parent (or a teacher) is preparing our children to be successful. Together, we can do it!
PLEASE NOTE: If you enjoyed this blog, you may want to read others on this topic by the same author. She has published blogs on A child’s language journey from birth through age five and A child’s language development through the preschool years.