From birth to pre-k, children’s brains develop faster than at any other point in their development. They yearn to soak up all the information in the world around them. Reading, the foundational skill for learning, begins with vocabulary development. And vocabulary development begins long before children know how to speak. Too few children, however, develop critical language and vocabulary skills at a young age. In fact, research suggests that by the age of 3, children from low-income families experience 30 million fewer words on average than children from wealthier families. From that point on, they are left trying to play catch-up to an ever-widening gap.
So what can adults – families, caregivers, teachers – do during the earliest years of children’s lives to bridge the gap? The simple answer, talk with children from the moment they are born, in fact, even before birth! Engaging with children as conversational partners helps promote vocabulary development and comprehension, and creates a firm foundation for future success. With every interaction, you are building children’s brains for reading and learning. Not to mention building the solid and secure relationships children need to thrive.
How do you have conversations with young children? TALK!
The TALK strategy helps to make conversations with children easy and powerful. Each letter in the word TALK stands for something we do in conversation:
Enter the world of children by tuning in and paying close attention to what they are looking at or doing. Comment on what you observe, giving them an opportunity to respond, even if they can’t yet communicate with words. Respond quickly to their attempts to engage with you to show that you are interested in them.
Asking questions invites children into conversation with you and models turn taking. Ask questions based on what you observed when you tuned into what they were doing. For infants and young toddlers, you can ask closed questions such as “Who is at the door?” or “What color is the ball?” As children get older, engage them with open ended questions that develop their vocabulary by requiring more thoughtful answers. Try questions like, “Why do you like playing with your dog?” or “What do you think will happen next?”
Model the language you want children to use in the future. Pretend you are a sports announcer and give your child the play-by-play by narrating everything you or your child is doing. Expand on what the child says. Use well-formed sentences with interesting words, gestures, and facial expressions.
Keep it Going.
Keep the conversation going by continuing to tune in, ask questions, and lift language. Keep the focus on what the child is interested in. Each conversation creates more opportunities to use language and expand vocabulary.
By encouraging your child to find his voice and express himself, you set the stage for your child’s success from an early age. Here are some additional tips for developing effective communication:
- Gain your child’s attention by using child-directed speech. Child-directed speech is a special form of communication that uses a sing-song, high-pitched voice and exaggerated tones. The variances in the pitch of your voice captures your child’s attention far longer than simply speaking in your normal tone of voice.
- Expose your child to as many words as possible. Every time you talk, you give your child priceless exposure to new words. Describe where you’re going, what you’re doing and what you see. By exposing your child to more words, you help him develop a strong and diverse vocabulary.
- Respond to your child. Even before children can speak, they communicate in different ways. They smile, kick, cry and babble to express their feelings. By responding to your child’s communication, you acknowledge his voice, even if he has no formal language skills yet.
- Talk with your child rather than at them. Your child can be a conversational partner from a very early age. Encourage him to speak, experience, understand and use new words every day.
- Get on the child’s level – that way you are talking with them, not at them.
- Embrace your first language. If you speak more than one language at home, talk with your child in the language you are most comfortable with. Children are very able to learn more than one language from birth. This does not delay their development or confuse them at all. In fact, bilingualism is an asset with many cognitive and other benefits. Give your child the gift of the first language.
- Use facial expressions. Adding facial expressions helps teach children the meaning of new words. Smile when you say the word “happiness” or use a shocked look to convey a surprising point in a story.
All adults – parents, caregivers, teachers – can use meaningful conversation as a way to help establish the foundation for educational success in the future. The Cox Campus provides early childhood educators and families practices and resources to bring the power of language to all children, to forever change their futures.