Parents and child care providers together play a key role in developing the language skills of young children. Children between the ages of 2 and 6 are learning six to 10 words a day. By age 3, children can have a vocabulary of nearly 1,000 words. With a few effective communication techniques, adults caring for young children can help lay a foundation for a child to develop solid language skills.
Start Communicating Early
Sounds as well as nonverbal communication like gestures and facial expressions are key in engaging infants' interest and building their understanding of the give and take of conversation. Talking to babies lays the groundwork for communication by letting them know they will be responded to. As early as 2 months, babies respond to caregivers' words with smiles and coos. By 3 months, when babies are more able to focus, caregivers can start assigning word labels to objects, such as brightly coloured toys. Showing a baby a ball, for example, and saying the word ball begins the lifelong association of words and objects.
Focus on Daily Activities
Use daily activities to engage young children in conversation. Getting dressed, changing diapers or making breakfast, for example, present times to have one-on-one conversations. Use these opportunities to introduce new words that will become a regular part of a child's routine. For example, coat, boots, soap, shampoo and bus are all words even young children experience everyday and will quickly incorporate into their vocabulary. Talk about how things look, feel, taste, and smell. A child's favourite red boots might feel smooth or warm or have furry edges. Descriptors are quickly understood by children if they are associated with a familiar object or activity.
Talk at the Child's Level
Avoid looming over a young child when you are having a conversation. Kneel or sit down at the child's level. Make eye contact and stay face to face so the child can see your facial expressions. Getting on the same physical level as the child helps them to feel significant and respected.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Ask young children open-ended questions to encourage them to respond with more than one-word answers. For example, you might ask a toddler, "Why are the red boots your favourite?" or "Why is the boy in this story sad?" If you use language and topics the child is familiar with, your questions will encourage longer conversations and more expressive answers.
Be Patient and Show Interest
Encourage young children to initiate conversation by responding to their curiosity with enthusiasm. For example, if a child asks a question, listen intently and respond so the child knows you value their words and ideas. Avoid the urge to fill in words or interrupt a child who takes a long time to get a sentence out. Cutting a child off might embarrass the child and discourage further attempts. When your young child initiates a conversation, be respectful, stop what you are doing and listen. Make eye contact and give the child your full attention. If the child sees you are focused on him, he will be more willing to listen to what you have to say and more invested in responding.
Avoid over-the-top facial expressions and voice qualities, such as high pitches or baby talk, when conversing with young children. Be natural in your exchange so the child sees what to model as normal conversational habits. Expressive and colourful language and dramatic voices are best saved for reading aloud.
- Child Care Aware: Let's Talk! Encouraging Children's Language Skills
- California Child Care Health Program: Conversations in Child Care
- PBS: Let's Talk About It: Building Language and Literacy Skills
- National Network for Childcare: Talking With Toddlers and Two-Year Olds
- Canadian Living: Talking to Newborn Babies
- Child Development Institute: Guidelines for Parent/Child Communication