For the Love of Words

We use language to express our intentions, describe our feelings and to interact with others. It’s a skill we often take for granted. Yet, as a parent or caregiver, we are in the privileged position of being able to help the development of our child’s vocabulary.

This development begins at birth and continues rapidly throughout the preschool years. From the first cooing sounds of babyhood, to barely comprehensible babble, it can be a delight hearing the new sounds come out of a child’s mouth.

Dr Susan Canizares wrote in the American Journal of Medicine, that children who acquire substantial vocabulary are often able to think more deeply, express themselves better, and learn new things with speed and ease. Her research also showed the reverse to be true: children with smaller vocabularies and less exposure to experiences and print stories were more likely to have problems learning to read.

So, what can parents do to develop a rich vocabulary in their child? The book Learning Fundamentals by Colin Rose and Gorden Dryden says parents, or primary caregivers, are the first language models for children and can help influence a child’s language use and understanding through play, music, reading and family discussion. Dryden and Rose suggest that from the very start, get into the habit of talking to your newborn about what is happening now. Just because your baby cannot speak, doesn’t mean he isn’t listening. Hearing correct speech is the first step towards developing a full vocabulary.

Between 6- and 12-months babies will begin to ‘talk’ in sounds and squeals. When a baby makes a noise, repeat the sound back to him. This encourages him to keep vocalising, and these titbits of sounds will form the basis of his later words. While repeating the noises, hold your child’s hand to your mouth as you speak so he can feel the vibrations. This helps to make the link between his mouth formations and words coming out.

Babies at this age love music and rhymes. Bouncing your baby on your knee in time to music helps to develop a sense of rhythm and understanding of bodily movement. Your child will also learn about her ability to control situations around her through verbal and physical signals. For instance, if the music stops and your child keeps bouncing or ‘singing’ you can say, “So, you want to bounce some more?” She will eventually learn it was her own signals that told you what she wanted.

By 12-months, your baby’s understanding of vocabulary starts to flourish. She can’t talk much but she will begin to associate names with objects. Talk to her as often as you can about the names of what she can see and touch. At this age, parents can foster speech and interest with a simple magic treasure box or bag of household items such as bottles, letters, kitchen utensils, blocks and mirrors. These simple toys will help her learn the names of everyday items.

Similarly, begin to ask your child to point out body parts. “Where are your eyes? Where are your ears? ” Because nouns are the first part of speech learnt by children, naming or finding body parts will become a fun game, even if he can’t pronounce the words yet. This is because the brain stores information in groups of ideas. You can build upon a child’s existing knowledge when you see a new subject. For example, if a child knows what a dog is, add other features about the dog to your conversation. “Look at that grey dog! His coat is scruffy and he’s got a bright red collar.”

Between the ages of 18- and 36-months, language growth occurs very quickly. Children will learn and speak several new words a day. Often, they will mimic the words, tones and pitch of their parent’s voice. At 18-months, read interactive books with your child daily. Choose a book with clear simple pictures and wait for your child to touch a picture. Then point to the picture he is interested in and talk to him about it. Stress the object’s name and interesting points.

Another interactive game you can play is to ask your toddler to find an object she knows the name of, but which is out of sight. For instance, “Find the teddy in your toy box.” You can extend the game by asking her to pick out one particular item from a line-up of others. Place an array of fruit on the table and ask her to pick out the orange, for example.

Between the ages of 2- and 3-years, your child will start to string words together. It is extremely important at this age to engage your child in conversation with you. Equally, children need positive encouragement when learning to form sentences. If your child says “I goed to grandma’s”, don’t tell her “goed” is wrong. Instead, just say, “You went to grandma’s yesterday, didn’t you? And I went, too. Tomorrow, we’ll both go again.” You can also try to stretch her imagination by asking questions such as, “What do you think the cat is thinking? ” It’s also important to continuously talk about what you’re doing, and look for fun topics to discuss about things that interest her (animals, toys, etc). You can also introduce simple prepositions such as ‘before/after’, ‘under/over’, ‘behind/in front’, as this helps with logic as well as sentence construction.

Developing a rich vocabulary in your child is perhaps instilling in them the earliest life skill through which self-expression occurs. By school age, a child with a firm grasp of speech, nuance and expression will have a strong sense of self, know what they want, and an avenue through which to attain it. Vocabulary skills are largely achieved by repetitive, positive interaction between parent and child; speaking to them, reading books and, most importantly, telling them what is happening when it is happening

 

ages & stages

Ideas to encourage a rich vocabulary

6- to 12-months

Sing lots of nursery rhymes – the rhythm and rhyme help language development.

Sing to your baby.

Talk constantly about what you are doing with them.

Read books together.

12- to 18-months

Point and name objects.

Add descriptive words to objects (e.g. “The black cat moved quickly.”).

Lots of hands-on play with descriptions.

Read books together.

18- to 36-months

Introduce simple puzzles.

Play hide and seek with objects.

Encourage questioning in your child.

Read books together.

3- to 7-years

Ask open-ended questions to encourage longer sentence constructions.

During art projects, ask your child to describe what they are doing.

Find a natural way to repeat a newly-learnt word in a slightly different context within a few minutes.

Try to build on your child's existing knowledge when talking with them.

Read books together.

7- to 12-years

Continue to build on your child’s existing knowledge when talking with them.

Encourage books with more complex development of characters and use of descriptive vocabulary.

Encourage your child to ask or find out the meaning to words they don’t

understand.

Read different types of books to your child (fiction, non-fiction, biographical, poetry, for example) to broaden the types of language they are exposed to.

 

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