The Power of Language

Communication is crucial to fostering relationships, so be sure to reinforce school skills at home.
Nov 06, 2012



The Power of Language

Nov 06, 2012

In a few short years, your preschooler masters many of the complexities of communication: making eye contact, reading facial expressions, taking turns, and using oral language. Your child's communicative 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 understand and participate in the social world around him. Through language, your child is able to make friends, enjoy playing and being with peers, learn from others, discuss ideas, and gain ever more knowledge about the world in which he lives. 

Creating a Language-Rich Environment
Valuing Your Child's Words
Taking Time to Stop and Listen
Recognizing Your Child's Feelings
Learning the Conventions of Language
Acting Out

Creating a Language-Rich Environment
Your child's early school experiences are particularly powerful in shaping her language skills, because it's the first time communication takes place within a group. So while it's true that the more language your child hears, the more language she will learn, it takes more than hearing conversations for her to become a competent communicator. Real communication takes place within the context of doing things with others. 

Your child's classroom contains materials that motivate him to express his ideas and feelings in many ways, without having to use language directly. Raw materials — cardboard boxes, blocks, or dress-up clothes, for example — inspire children to work together, make plans, negotiate, and solve problems. To do so they have to communicate with one another.

Look at your child's home environment and think about the ways you can support and build on the communication skills she is learning at school. Create an atmosphere in which your child can express herself effectively and creatively by making sure she knows her ideas and ways of communicating are accepted, valued, and respected.

Valuing Your Child's Words
Although children learn to communicate naturally, little ones often need extra assurance that what they have to say will be acknowledged and valued. Every child also needs someone he can really talk to — to share things that he can't tell anyone else, knowing they won't laugh or be critical.

Build your child's sense of language security by accepting her own way of communicating. Children do not learn language well by being corrected or criticized. For example, Brooke and her mother are walking through the park. "Look, look!" says Brooke, as a rabbit scurries away from them, "I seen a bunny!" "No," says Brooke's mother. "Say, you saw a bunny." "Yes," says Brooke, "I seen a bunny." Brooke's mother corrects her again. "Brooke, listen to me, you did not seen a bunny. You saw a bunny. Now, say you saw a bunny." Brooke sighs and, almost in a whisper, says, "bunny."

As a result of having her speech corrected, Brooke does not learn the difference betweensaw and seen, but she does learn that her way of talking is not accepted. Children learn correct grammar by hearing it being used. A better response to Brooke would be to focus on her exciting news, saying, "Oh, you saw a bunny! Do you think we frightened it away?"

Repeating what your child has said, even when you change some of her words, is reinforcing. Most children want to talk more when their parents expand on what they say. If Brooke's mother says, "Where did the bunny go?" she and Brooke could have a great conversation about rabbits — where they live and how bunnies might feel when surprised by people walking toward them.

Taking Time to Stop and Listen
Claire runs to her mother after school with a painting that seems like a scribble of colors, saying, "Look! I made a pretty picture." Claire's mother takes a break from stacking dishes in the dishwasher to talk with Claire about her painting. She says, "I love how this yellow goes all through the painting and how the pink dances with joy." Claire, feeling valued and respected when her mother describes the painting to her, replies, "Yes, I made a painting about being very happy."

It would be easy for Claire's mother to quickly remark, "What a lovely painting." But by taking the extra moment to have a deeper conversation, she lets Claire know that she and her work are valued. When you take the time just to describe what your child is doing, without judgment, it is like opening up a box of surprises. When your child hears you talk about what she is doing, she, in turn, will start to talk — not just about her actions, but about her feelings as well. Try these conversation starters: 

  • When your child scribbles, say, "Wow! Your whole arm is moving when you draw."
  • If your child is spilling and filling cups in the sandbox, say, "I see that you're having so much fun spilling the sand."
  • When your child puts his shoes on, say, "I'm so proud. You put your shoes on."

Recognizing Your Child's Feelings
You can learn a lot by observing your child's facial expressions and tone of voice when he speaks to you. "Last night, the thunder woke me up," 5-year-old Brian tells his mother. Recognizing the fear in Brian's face and voice, his mother says, "You must have been frightened. What did you think when you heard the thunder?" Brian, relieved that his fears are recognized, begins to share his concerns about storms.

Another scenario: 4-year-old Vanessa lashes out at her brother, calling him a "stupidhead." She grabs the truck he's playing with. Before she can hit him with it, her mother gently takes her arm and says, "You can't hit Alberto." Vanessa screams, "I hate you! I hate you! You're the stupidhead." Her mother calmly replies, "I understand you are angry, but I cannot let you hurt Alberto."

By recognizing Vanessa's anger, her mother gives Vanessa a label for her feelings, sets limits on her behavior, and responds to her emotions. She acknowledges Vanessa's feelings, without humiliating her. In turn, Vanessa learns that even though her behavior is not acceptable, she is still accepted by her mother. You might try responses such as the following:

  • When your child stumbles and screams even though she has barely scratched her knee, acknowledge her fear by saying, "Scratches do hurt. Come with me and pick out the bandage you want."
  • If your preschooler pouts and cries, "I never get to do what I want," recognize his feelings by saying, "You feel hurt because you can't do what you want now. You'll be able to go back to the game after we eat dinner."
  • To a child who says, "I hate my teacher!" you can say, "It seems like you are angry at your teacher. What happened today that makes you so angry?"

Learning the Conventions of Language
Children who easily make and keep friends know how to make eye contact with others when they are speaking and listening, and they understand the importance of taking turns in a conversation, as well as how to solve verbal conflicts. These children also know how to enter or leave a group without disrupting the play, and are at ease with adults. 

Children who are ignored by others and who have trouble communicating may not have mastered these necessary social skills. Try these strategies to help your child develop the skills involved in communicating. Role-playing with puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals is a fun, nonthreatening way to practice.

  • Making eye contact: Talk face-to-face with your child, and remind him of why he should do the same: "Look at her so she knows you are talking to her." Coach a shy child to look at others when he is communicating. Invite your child to talk to himself in the mirror.
  • Taking turns in a conversation: It's difficult for young children to judge when it's their turn to talk, but they must learn how to use and understand the signals the speaker gives. If you wait too long to respond to the speaker's pause, someone else will jump in. If you don't wait long enough, you'll cut off the person speaking. Children also need to recognize nonverbal signals, facial expressions, and changes in voice tone that signal the time for them to talk. Help your child by sharing a story with her while driving in the car or simply cuddling together on the couch. Ask your child to show a friend how to play a new game. When you are with other people, remind your child about taking turns. Soon, all you may need to do is touch your child softly on the arm to remind her that it's someone else's turn to talk, or that now it is her turn to talk. 
  • Resolving conflicts: At around 2, children learn to say no, which gives them a sense of control. Once they learn the power of no, they say it a lot, and conflicts occur over toys, what to play, how to play, and who can play. By 4 or 5 years old, your child learns that if he compromises ("I'll be the teacher first, then you can be the teacher"), he can keep the play moving along and still have his own way. Children who can negotiate verbally with others can do so because they know how to consider another person's words, wants, and needs.

Acting Out
"Who is going to help me make Little Red Riding Hood's house?" asks Molly as she runs to the pile of large cardboard boxes on the playground. The children talk and argue, but eventually, with some plan in mind, begin building together. Throughout the morning and the next several days, the structures change, taking on different forms and themes. Some belong to Red Riding Hood and the three little pigs, others to astronauts, and still others to fire trucks. Although the themes change, the children's need to negotiate and problem-solve does not.

You can help your child learn compromise and negotiation at home by supplying plenty of open-ended materials — blocks, boxes, clay, and art materials — for use during playdates. Be available to gently redirect play if a conflict arises. Start by offering a suggestion: "You can be the baby first, then Sally can be the baby." Or, "First it's your turn to ride the train, then it's Jack's turn."

There is probably nothing more important to your child's success in school than learning to use language to communicate with others. Learning to listen and talk with others is the foundation on which later academic success is built. Armed with good communication skills, children will be prepared for learning to read, using symbols, and gaining many other academic skills. When you value your child's language learning, you are not only expanding his vocabulary and ability to communicate, you are also expanding his possibilities for a successful life. 

Social Skills
Speaking & Language Skills
Listening and Speaking
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Early Social Skills
Communication and Language Development