Promoting Childrens Language Development
Parents often ask us what they can do at home to promote speech and language development in children so we thought it would be useful to put together this article to share with our nursery families and readers of our blog. It is based on our combined experience of working with young children over many years together with reading a wide range of literature on child development and the development of language in children.
It is important to understand how language develops and the sequence and pattern the development of speech follows. All children develop at different rates and will reach milestones at different times but as with all areas of development there are reasonable expectations of development within each age range.
There are two aspects to the development of language namely being able to understand speech and being able to actually speak. Children can often understand words and simple instructions before they are actually able to speak. We also know that there are close links between language development and the development of thought and learning.
Early Stages of Language Development
From the third trimester of pregnancy babies start to tune into the sounds of language and are at this very early stage picking up on melodies and rhythms of the language they are hearing (every different language has its own rhythms, melodies and inflections)
Babies use sound from birth to show their emotions, they cry if they are in pain or hungry and if there is no response the sounds get louder and they coo if they are contented. At this early stage they learn from the response they get that sound leads to action so if I cry when I am hungry I will get fed. Early interactions with babies, from birth onwards are important in the development of language. It is important that babies hear sounds and speech around them and directed to them. This is a key time for helping build the foundations of language. Babies listen to the sounds of their prime carer and get to recognise their voices and know their intonations. They watch the faces and the movements of the mouths of those around them and start to copy them, for example sticking their tongue out to copy an adult and make sounds in response to adults. If they make a sound and an adult responds this will often prompt them to carry on making sounds. When talking to a young baby make eye contact with them, ensure you are close enough to them so they can see your face and watch your mouth moving. Pause when you are talking to them and let them make noises and respond to them so they get to learn about the flow of conversation. Your positive warm responses to your babies sounds help to build confidence and self- belief which are important for learning and the production of language. From about three months old babies will enjoy making noises and repeating sounds and can often be heard doing so when they are on their own in their cots as the practice what they have been hearing and doing through their day.
When they are around four months old babies start to babble – the repetition of sounds and then move to add vowels initially and then strings of vowel sounds with intonation. Next you will hear vowels with the letters “m” or “d” added to make sounds that seem to be an attempt to copy a word. They will use the same sound for the particular object or need. Initially these words might be hard for anyone other than family to decipher. Young children begin to be able to answer or respond to adults requests with single words, showing an understanding of language.
What you can do to promote language development
We use sound and speech so automatically that we don’t stop to think of the many different ways we use it and the importance of exposing our children to all of these.
Read them books from an early age, making book time a cosy caring time and talking about the pictures on the pages. This will help foster an interest and love of books and babies will begin to look at books on their own and make sound. Sing to your babies from birth. Don’t worry about what your voice sounds like it will sound beautiful to your baby. Sing whenever you can, when feeding, at bath time etc. Singing is important for learning about rhythm, tone and rhyme. It is also important that children hear adults speaking to one another and through this they begin to learn the nuances of conversation. It is also alright for your child to hear you talk to yourself because this is something most of us do and that your child will do when trying to form sounds and words and later sentences, practicing and repeating what they have heard around them.
Recent research into the development of language refers to “€ontingent talk”. Contingent talk is what parents and carers often do without realising what they are doing. They watch their babies, tune into what they are interested in and talk about it. So for example if your baby is interested in a toy bear a parent might say “You have found your bear in the cot? He is a lovely bear. Look your bear is dancing to the music. We love your bear” . Contingent talk often includes the repetition of key words such as in this conversation the word bear is repeated numerous times. There is evidence from research that contingent talk can boost early language development and that the repetition of relevant words in this way helps babies to come to understand and recognise words such as bear.
Development from one to five years
By around a year if babies are familiar with speech patterns they will be able to understand some of the common words that are being used by those around them. From around a year babies also start to produce words, but it can take up to their second birthdays for this to happen. Slowly children’s vocabulary grows and during this time it is important to continue to find time to sing with your child, to look at books together and to repeat words that they are familiar with in context. Start with simple words describing objects that they are familiar with and interested in such as book, cup, bib, names of animals, names of body parts etc.- the contingent talk referred to earlier. Once you hear your child beginning to add new words to their vocabulary ensure you introduce new words and repeat them so that their vocabulary can expand. Initially children’s early words may only be discernible to close family members but having the opportunity to hear the words repeated by adults and use them will result in the pronunciation becoming clearer. It is important at this stage not to tell children off for mispronouncing words but rather to just repeat the word pronounced correctly. There are letters that are more difficult for children to pronounce but with practice and patience from adults they will naturally come to do this.
Around eighteen to twenty month children become interested in domestic or pretend play. They copy the domestic activities they see taking place in the home. You will hear children “talking” in their play as they practice their language. Much of this will be indiscernible to start with but with time you will hear your child repeat the things you say using your intonation.
By the time they are two generally children will start putting two then three words together to make sentences, which might not be grammatically correct. Here again it is important to repeat the short sentences in the correct grammatical way but not to comment. Children will also start asking questions such as “What is that?” or “Who is that?” They might repeat the questions over and over again as the child revels in the newly found skill of asking questions. Patience is definitely required at this stage as you will find yourself asking endless repeated questions. Continue singing to and with your child and by now they will be signing with you, holding a simple tune and initially using some discernible words but with time the number of clear words used in singing will grow.
During their second year children’s vocabulary will grow as will their understanding of more complex sentences and instructions. They will really enjoy role playing and listening to stories, singing and sometimes “performing” for those around them.
Three year olds are beginning to use pitch and can vary the loudness of their voices so they sound more adult like. Their conversations are based in the present as they have little understanding of the past or future. Their vocabulary is growing as is their level of understanding.
Four year olds have more of an understand of the past and future, talking about events in their lives that have taken place. They are developing a sense of humour, telling and understanding simple jokes. And finding these very funny.
Whatever stage your child is at the key things that you can do to help promote language is to talk and respond to your child. Listen to your child and take note of what he or she is interested in and talk to them about it. Sing to and with your child so that children get used to hearing rhyme and different rhythms and learn to love song as a means of expression. Make time every day to read to and later with your child. Be patient as your child works through the early stages of speech development and enjoy each one of the milestones. Revel with your child in their achievements and celebrate their successes giving them praise and encouragement along the way.