Parents and carers can use a range of strategies to encourage children's language development. We thought of the following:
Talking to the child – even before a child can speak it is important for the adults and children around him to talk to him, for instance, by explaining what you are doing together ('It's time for Adam's lunch, isn't it?'), or what is happening ('It's lovely and sunny out here', 'Mummy will be here soon'). Remember to leave pauses so the child has chance to respond.
Using facial expression to convey meaning – children may not understand the words but they will usually understand the meaning if clear expression is used. For instance, if a child picks up a piece of soil in the garden and is about to eat it you might take it off him saying 'yuck' or 'nasty'. He may not know what 'yuck' or 'nasty' mean. If, at the same time, you also scrunch up your face and stick out your tongue to indicate a horrible taste, the child will understand your meaning quite clearly. Most adults do this quite naturally when speaking to young children.
Reading and story-telling.
Social interaction – Including the child in experiences that give him the opportunity to hear conversations and meet new people.
Language and Other Areas of Development
The child's ability to communicate and use language effectively is of key importance to many other areas of their development.
Language has particularly close links with intellectual development and is the main tool by which we are able to develop our thought processes. For example, we use words to help us store and recall memories and other information.
Think about the word 'sunshine' – what memories and thoughts does this bring up for you?
Everyone's memories and thoughts will be a little bit different. When we asked a group of students this question, their answers included:
my holiday in Cyprus
a t-shirt I have with a sun motif
This is a good example of the way in which words act as tools to help us organise and recall our thoughts and memories.
We also tend to use words mentally to direct and plan our actions, for example: "I'll drop these off at the library first and then call into the supermarket."
It follows that children whose communication skills are impaired in some way, or who have limited vocabularies, may also find it more difficult to develop reasoning skills and acquire new concepts.
Communication skills are essential if children are to express themselves clearly and understand others. It follows that there are close links between language and communication skills and the development of social skills. Poor communicators tend to find social situations difficult, and also find it more difficult to build relationships with other people.
Becoming a Communicator
Effective use of language involves far more than simply learning words – the child also needs to learn a whole range of skills around speech and communication, such as understanding how a conversation works. These are known as pragmatic skills.
Pragmatic skills begin to develop in the early weeks of life, with tiny babies 'turn taking', initiating communicative interchanges, and 'talking' non-verbally to their carers.
Pragmatic skills include:
1. knowing that you have to answer when a question has been asked;
2. being able to participate in a conversation by taking it in turns with the other speaker;
3. the ability to notice and respond to the non-verbal aspects of language;
4. awareness that you have to introduce a topic of conversation in order for the listener to fully understand;
5. knowing which words or what sort of sentence-type to use when initiating a conversation or responding to something someone has said;
6. the ability to maintain a topic;
7. the ability to maintain appropriate eye-contact (not too much staring, and not too much looking away) during a conversation;
8. the ability to distinguish how to talk and behave towards different people and in different situations.
Many everyday activities can be used to encourage children's language development, for example during mealtimes or group work. Parents and carers should look for opportunities to help children develop their language. This would include opportunities to:
learn new vocabulary
Young children make many mistakes in their speech. They often use grammar incorrectly and they may mispronounce words because they have difficulty in making the correct sounds. They substitute the difficult sound for an easier one, for instance 'th' for 's', as in 'yeth' for 'yes'. Such difficulties usually resolve themselves by 5 or 6 years of age.
It is very important to tackle such errors in a positive way if you are to boost the child's confidence. Avoid direct correction of errors. Show the child that you have understood what he is trying to tell you and also teach him how to say the word correctly. For example:
Child: – 'mook.'
It is better to respond with 'Yes! Book, book.' than 'No, not mook, book.'
With older children too, it often helps to echo back mistakes correctly. They get the message but they do not feel criticised. This can be the key to good communication between the two of you.
Child: – 'I have to do vis homework for tomorrow.'
Adult: 'You have to do this for tomorrow? OK.'
Some children are so keen to get the words out, or have so much to say, that they stumble over their words. Parents may worry that the child is beginning to develop a stutter but this is just a temporary stage that many children go through. It is not a true stutter. It is only likely to become a problem if parents or carers make a fuss and try to correct the child's speech. The child then becomes self-conscious and a real stutter may develop, at which stage the help of a speech therapist may be required.
Delayed Language Development
Children may be slow in learning to talk for several reasons, including:
- genetics – it may be that the child's parents were late talkers too.
- he or she may have been concentrating on other aspects of development, such as learning to walk.
- not enough individual attention from adults – children learn to talk from adults rather than children. This can be a problem in large families or where there are twins or young children who are very close in age.
- lack of encouragement.
deafness – A child cannot learn to speak if he or she cannot hear the words spoken by other people. They also needs to able to hear themselves so that they can improve their own attempts at words. Interestingly, during the first year, profoundly deaf babies often babble at the same time as other babies, but they stop after a few months. This may be because they cannot hear themselves and so can't reinforce their babbling.
It is extremely important to recognise deafness in children at an early age, as the earlier the child receives treatment the better the outcome. Parents and carers are ideally placed to notice that something is wrong with a child's hearing. Such problems are also often picked up at the routine developmental checks carried out by health visitors during the first year or so.
To learn more about Child Psychology try a free short home study course from Learning Curve.
Learning Curve also offer full length and short, specialised courses in Child Psychology.lass="c2">About the author: Linda Pollitt is Director of Studies at Learning Curve Home Study, one of the UK's leading distance learning providers. Learning Curve offers home study courses in a range of subjects, including Child Psychology, Horticulture, Garden and Interior Design.