Talk, Listen, and Learn
Three-year-old Henry and his 5-year-old sister, Maxine, sit snuggled with their mom on the couch, ready to listen to Henry's favorite book, Road Builders. Every evening the family sets aside some time for reading a book together, alternating between Henry and Maxine's current favorites.
"I want to tell you something," Maxine pipes up. "Uncle Dan is coming over later!" As her mom picks up Road Builders, she says, "I know how much you love to see your uncle, Maxine! Let's take a look at the book Henry picked out now." As she reads, the children comment on the grader, the dump truck, and the cherry picker. All the while, Henry and Maxine's mom acknowledges their comments, even suggesting that they talk to their neighbor, who drives a cherry picker, about what it's like. She shares in her children's curiosity, but keeps them on course with their reading.
This kind of spontaneous, back-and-forth interaction is emblematic of early childhood communication. Henry's mom facilitates her children's listening and speaking skills, but also takes the time to wonder and marvel a bit along with them. No matter how busy life gets, sometimes with young children you just have to stop what you're doing, even briefly, so you can really focus on what your child is saying, react to it, and reinforce his efforts to express himself.
Your child needs to know that there is room in your world for his observations — that what he says matters. He needs to trust that you will respect the newly shaped views he is just beginning to verbalize. When you do this, his thinking skills grow richer and his confidence in his language skills blossoms.
Planting the Seeds of Communication
In just a few short years, children learn to master the elements of communication: making eye contact, reading facial expressions, using oral language to express themselves, and learning to take turns. The development of language skills begins at birth through loving interactions between parent and child and grows more sophisticated over time through new experiences and exchanges with others.
Your child's communication and social skills go hand in hand. The ability to use language to express needs, ideas, and feelings is a critical step toward being able to participate in and interact with the world around him. Through language, your child will be able to make and play with friends, discuss ideas, show empathy, and gain knowledge. Communication is central to the learning process. Ensuring that your child has plenty of opportunities to interact with others is key. Indeed, verbal communication skills are linked to the language-richness of his home and school life. There are several things you can do to create an atmosphere that encourages self-expression and strengthens language skills:
- Reassure your child that what he says is valued. Make sure he feels safe and knows his ideas are heard, accepted, and respected. Children don't learn well by being corrected or criticized. It's best to simply acknowledge your his observation, repeat it back, and expand on what he said.
- Take time to stop and listen. When you make the time to stop and truly listen to your child, the benefits are priceless. Conversations will deepen and she will know that she is valued.
- Talk a lot. Be sure he has someone to speak with and a variety of things to talk about. Model and teach your child the conventions of language by having lots of conversations with him and others around you. Reinforce his attempts at communication by filling in missing words. For example, if your toddler drops his cup and says, "Cup," you can respond by saying, "Oh, I see you dropped your cup. Let's pick it up and wipe it off."
- Notice the times she naturally likes to chat. This might be first thing in the morning while getting dressed for school, after school, on a play date, or cuddling up for a hug before bed. You're both more likely to have a satisfying exchange at these times.
- Give him verbal labels for emotions. For example, if he is upset with a friend and tries to hit, say, "I can see that you're very angry about Tommy taking your toy. But you aren't allowed to hurt Tommy." This gives your child a label for the feeling, sets limits on his behavior, and shows that you care about his emotions.
- Some Things to Talk About. Encourage communication at home by ensuring that your child has materials to explore and language-rich activities to engage in. Language skills can really blossom when you and your child do things together. Try these conversation sparkers:
- Make art. Your nonjudgmental descriptions of what you see her doing build pride and self-esteem. Say, "Wow! Your whole arm moves when you draw like that!" Ask her to describe what she drew or shaped out of clay. Sometimes, all a child really needs to get talking is your presence and your ear. Children communicate at different developmental levels; one may be able to verbalize that she drew tall grass and flying birds, but another may feel shy saying anything at all. Respect her comfort level and developmental pace.
- Read aloud. Perhaps the most significant contribution you can make to your child's language skills is to read out loud. When you model the act of reading, you spark your child's interest in books. Predictable books that encourage phonemic awareness are helpful for young children. Learning to predict what comes next is an important element for learning to anticipate words as they begin to read. Even wordless books are innately interactive and invite participation. Learning a rhyme together, such as the autumn favorite "Five Little Pumpkins Sitting on a Gate," helps bolster language skills.
- Encourage dramatic play. Play kitchen, for example. To set up, you don't need fancy equipment: With a little imagination, big boxes will work for the stove or refrigerator. Keep puppets on hand for expressing feelings that might otherwise be hard to verbalize: "Horsie is hurt because Puppy didn't want to play with her."
- Write about it. Keep a generous supply of plain paper with drawing and writing supplies, such as crayons, washable markers, and sturdy pencils, in a spot that's convenient and quiet — like a small table and chair tucked into a corner of the kitchen. Offer to write your child's explanation of a picture he's drawn. If he is beginning to scribble, form shaky letters, or write the letters he hears in words he's trying to spell, do not correct him: These are all valuable early writing behaviors.
- Experiment with sand and water. Both provide soothing sensory experiences and hold many possibilities for conversation. Washing baby dolls, experimenting with different-sized containers, or creating miniature worlds with tiny plastic fish and natural materials opens up communication around discovery and storytelling.
Play with language. Share poetry, fingerplays, rhymes, and chants. Play language-based games, such as I Spy, Red Light/Green Light, or Simon Says.
Your child's budding communication skills are a testament to his innate desire to connect with the world, to be recognized, and to love and be loved. The communication tools that your child masters now and the confidence he feels when he expresses himself will enrich his entire life.