One afternoon, as I was feeding my 15-month-old her lunch, I suddenly became aware of the silence. I knew I was supposed to talk to her, but I found myself at a loss as to what to say. I remember saying something about blueberries having a lot of antioxidants, as I spooned her blueberry yogurt into her mouth. I felt ridiculous, out of my depth, and wondered what good could really come from trying to talk to a baby. And then, like magic, she perked up and talked back to me. She and I began to communicate in a new way that day, as I recognized my young child as an eager and able learner.
That day, I recognized how vital early communication is. When you converse with your young children, you are helping build important communication skills, as well as foundational understandings that can develop stronger readers and writers. Our littlest learners are ready and able to develop their communication skills long before they fully develop their ability to speak and/or communicate.
Here are seven ways to help your littlest learners develop their early communication skills.
Allow for Give and Take (Rules of Conversation)
When you speak to your littlest learners, speak as though you are talking to an adult. Remember that young children often understand far more than they are able to demonstrate or communicate. Allow for natural pauses in the conversation, and provide them ample time to formulate their responses. Providing wait time sets the tone for respectful conversation and allows your children time to develop ideas and process information.
Whether you are speaking to the nonsensical babble of an infant or your five-year-old talk about video games, listen to what they are saying. Show genuine interest. When your young children feel as though you care about what they are saying, you are opening the door for future communication. When you care about the small things, your children will be more likely to come to you with the big things.
It's a good idea to begin to model active listening for young children. Nod your head, make eye contact, and clarify for understanding when applicable. Good listening skills are vital as children begin to develop comprehension and fluency in reading.
Expand the Conversation
If your child says, "I want to play with trucks," follow it up with, "Okay. Let's play with the shiny blue truck." As you repeat -- and expand upon -- their own words, you are building their vocabulary. Use descriptive language as you play with your children, talking about what you are seeing and doing.
Asking questions is another great way to expand your children's growing communication skills. Even if they are too young to respond verbally, your questions can increase their critical thinking and mental processing. Young children will also gain an understanding that questions are an important part of communication.
Model Correct Speech
Each of my children has said words and phrases in an adorably wrong way. While tempting to parrot back things like "puh-sketti" or "Me go store," it is important to always provide a model of correct speech. When your child inevitably uses incorrect grammar or mispronounces a word, find a way to repeat it back in the correct way. "Okay. You'd like spaghetti for lunch?" or "That's right. You are going to the store."
Singing to young children helps them develop the understanding that feelings and ideas can be expressed through music. Many infants sing before they speak. Singing to -- and with -- your children opens up a different avenue of communication and provides an additional way for them to express themselves.
Children are also able to learn a variety of concepts and ideas through singing. Colors, shapes, letters, body parts, and more are learned quickly and easily through song. Just as adults are able to recall song lyrics, children memorize more easily through song.
Create an environment in your home that supports early communication skills. Limit your young learners' exposure to "screen" activities, and provide a variety of hands-on toys and manipulatives for your kids to play with and explore. Pretend-play items can help your children develop the language necessary to talk about the world around them.
Reading to your littlest learners not only sets them on the path towards a life-long love of literacy and learning, but it also develops important early communication skills. As you read to your children, they are hearing what fluent speech sounds like, as well as proper intonation and expression.