Bub’s the word
How to teach your child essential language skills
As a mum, having a good old chat is what keeps us feeling sane. And there are lots of benefits for your youngster from chatting, too. Early language skills act as a great foundation for the development of other skills later on. Research has shown that chatter in the formative years is the most important factor for influencing literary levels at secondary school. And, having a little one who’s happy to chat about this, that and everything is great fun, too – and will help your bond stay strong as she grows and becomes more independent.
Like every other essential life skill, there’s a huge spectrum when it comes to who starts chatting when, and how quickly their language develops. But, whether your baby or toddler is a natural chatterbox or has a little less to say than most, all children can be encouraged to communicate more. And whatever your child’s age, your starting point is making time to chat, says speech and language therapist Kate Freeman.
“Our lives are busy as parents, so it’s important to focus on face-to-face time talking with your child.” Ask yourself, do you really listen to your child when she chats to you, even if she’s just babbling? Do you stop what you’re doing, make eye contact, and take the time to respond? It’s easy to treat your child’s chatter as background noise while you focus on doing something else, and this is fine some of the time. But she needs to know that you value her communication skills, as much as she values yours.
And you can’t start doing this too soon, because your child’s chatterbox skills begin to develop early on in her life. Well before she learns the language of words and sentences, she will start to make sounds. “Your baby will pay attention to the sounds around her and, eventually, start to not only understand them but begin to link them with actions, objects and concepts,” says Kate. “So, for example, she might realise that the ping of the microwave means that dinner is ready, or that the dog barking means that Dad has arrived home.
At the same time, she will start to use her mouth and tongue in a coordinated way, gradually gaining more control. Eventually, she reaches the moment when she realises the sounds that she’s making get a response, and this is how she starts to understand the art of conversation. And it’s then that you’ll start to hear magical sounds like ‘Mama’.”
Questioning less, and commenting more, will mean you encourage conversation.
Time to chat
Simply getting down on the floor and playing with your child encourages her to speak more. Focus on her favourite toys and let her take the lead. “Take the time to notice what she’s looking at, and talk about that,” says Kate. “So if it’s a teddy bear, for example, you could chat with her about what he looks like, or whether you think Ted might be tired or thirsty. Questioning less, and commenting more, will mean you avoid quizzing your child and encourage conversation. So you might say, ‘Let’s put Teddy to bed’ rather than asking, ‘What’s Teddy going to do now?’. A good rule of thumb is to aim for four comments to every question.” And during your little in-play chats, let your language be guided by the level of hers. “Talk to your child in short sentences, one word longer than her sentences are,” says Kate. “If she’s not saying anything yet, use key single words such as ‘cat’ or ‘block’. When she’s used to this, expand it to ‘sleepy cat’ and ‘red block’ and so on. This way, you give her something to aim for without overwhelming her.”
Create lots of opportunities for chat in the rest of your day, too. Structuring your routine to involve your child creates a culture of conversation. “Your toddler could help put away the shopping,” Kate suggests. It might take longer, but it’s a simple way of spending time together, as is eating with her or even just sitting with her when she eats. Building on a feeling of togetherness from an early age will encourage her to communicate.
Also, make it easy for her to focus on learning to listen to specific sounds by reducing the amount of noises your child listens to at any one time. This can be as easy as not having the TV on all the time.
Making it as simple as possible physically for your child to talk can also make a difference when it comes to her speech. If she has frequent ear infections or struggles to pay attention when you talk to her, ask your GP or health professional if her hearing is OK.
She’s learning new words and developing her conversational skills, but how can you keep your child motivated to talk? It’s all about making things exciting and weaving in a little bit of magic. You simply need to take your lead from your youngster and build a conversation around the things she likes. Create a bit of theatre by using voices for her toys, or singing. “You might feel silly at first, but try not to and enjoy it,” says Kate. “In my experience, there’s nothing a two-year-old likes more than a sock puppet pretending to eat her.”
At six months old, what really makes a difference is lots of face-to-face time, so play games, including peekaboo, and sing songs with gestures, such as Row,
Row, Row Your Boat, that have you sitting face-to-face with your little one. Look at board books with animals in them, then make the sounds the creatures make so you’re both looking at each other’s faces.
Between the ages of one and two, the important thing is to regularly play with her at her level, and do lots of activities together. This will bring opportunities to chat, and use lots of new and different
vocabulary, using very simple, short sentences such as: ‘Teddy fell down’. From two upwards, your little one will probably show a lot more interest in books, so if she wants something read again, and again, go with it. Every time you repeat a word, it just helps her master her language skills. And just the simple act of encouraging her to say ‘hello’ to other people you meet during your day encourages interaction.
Not all children will grow up to be chatterboxes, but loving a chat is a great life skill that’s well within your little one’s grasp. “All children will make some progress, especially if you do all you can to help them communicate,” says Kate. “Time spent helping her talk is not just time well spent, it’s invaluable.”