Building a Good Environment for Your Child’s Language Development
By Marie Robert, Senior Speech and Language Therapist (SLT) at TLC Speech and Language Clinic
Did you know that newborns recognise the difference between the language their parents speak and other languages within days of birth? As an SLT I love facts like that! Children are primed to learn language from the start, so here are some tips on what you can do to help foster a good environment for language development in your home.
It comes down to 3 things: talking to them, playing with them and reading with them.
Talking to children is the first and best way to build their understanding and speech skills. Notice I said understanding first. Most of what a child does over the first year is build understanding. For birth to six months, it doesn't matter much what you talk about; toys, what baby is doing, the weather, or even your mother in law are all good topics. Baby will learn everyday words that are important for their life and they will learn lots from your tone too. From six to 12 months you can be more specific. Detail the steps of things you do with them such as saying "we are cleaning up" or "I'm putting your books on the shelf." It might seem obvious, but usually we just do we don't say. You can also begin to give them instructions like "arm in" during changing or "fetch a diaper" once they are crawling or walking. Don't forget to wait for them to try to do it before offering help.
After 1 year of age, it gets fun! Keep them involved in your daily routines but use more complex words and varied topics. Keep your sentences relevant and correct. You don't need to use overly simple language; children will soak up normal talk easily and research shows a connection between numbers of different words heard and better overall language skills. When your child talks, repeat what they say so they know you've understood and reward words and sentences with loads of attention and praise e.g. "wow good talking!". Children love praise, and the more specific the better. It makes them think, "wow mum was so happy when I said that, I should do it again!".
In my clinic, one of the first things I ask parents is how often they play with their children. That's right, play 'with'. As parents we often just let them play (which is excellent) but for language stimulation, an adult is an essential tool in the play.
For zero to six months, singing songs and doing repetitive play is great. Baby bangs the drum, you say 'bang!' and then they do it again, even better if you make an excited face when they bang. Don't try to force kids to be interested in a toy just because you think it looks cool. Children will learn best when they direct the material they want to play with, then you fill in the words.
Six to twelve month olds will love building things and taking them apart. This provides loads of chances to use concept words such as 'in' or 'down', or social words like my turn' while playing. Introducing pretend play is really important for learning language skills. Adults are sometimes a bit shy to get involved but the kids will love it and will be learning LOADS if you join in and play. Sitting face to face is important as they can see your expressions, so if they are on the floor, you should be too. Get your own cooking things, teddy to feed or toy car and just narrate what you and your child do. Make sure to leave a little bit of quiet time for your child to add speech of their own!
Shared reading can begin at birth. Reading provides a very valuable model of language as books don't make mistakes. It provides a great platform for you to model words, sentences and connected language in stories, plus children LOVE shared book time.
For the little ones under a year, this time will be about learning what a book is and loads of fun pictures and single words. Read the words but also talk about them. "Cat" while pointing to a cat is good, but "Wow, a black cat! Meow!" is so much more interesting to listen to, and has more content for them to soak up. If they want to read the book backwards or upside down, go ahead, there are no rules!
Once they have more understanding, you can move on to simple books with stories (although they will still love the easier ones too!). Don't get too focused on the story if they are not ready to understand it. Read it, but talk about the things your child is most interested in at that time. If the squirrels in the forest picture are more interesting than little red riding hood, then chat about the squirrels. Keep it extra fun (and language filled) for the slightly older ones (from three and up) by trying to predict what happens next or talking about how the characters feel.
Your children will relish any individual time with you whether it's cooking together, playing or sharing a book. When we are happy, our memory hormones work better, so happy kids equal kids who remember what you say and do, and it won't be long before they are able to do it themselves!
About the Author:
Marie is a senior speech and language therapist and mum to two chatty little girls. Before joining TLC Speech and Language Clinic she worked in KK Hospital for almost 8 years where she gained experience working with children with a wide range of diagnoses. Her special interest is in language development and disorders in children and in her spare time she can be found hanging out with her husband and daughters or singing in choirs!
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