The early years of a child’s life are key to the development of their speech, language and cognitive skills, and it is important to give them all the stimulation, positive role modelling, play and daily interaction that we can.
You do not need special training to provide your child with a positive start in life. Building a language-rich environment is about using every opportunity to use language, interact, have a shared focus, and to talk and take turns.
The 10 keys to creating a good language learning environment:
1. just play
By playing and allowing your child time and space to explore and interact in their own way, they will develop and learn in a fun, safe, and nurturing environment. Play is absolutely vital to a child’s healthy development. A child’s exposure to play provides physical, intellectual, emotional and social development. Every time a baby or child engages in an activity the nerve cells in the brain are stimulated and connections are made. This process influences the development of fine and gross motor skills, language, speech, socialisation, listening and attention, emotional well-being, creativity, and problem solving.
2. turn off the TV and take the dummy out!
If you want to slow your child’s language development, let them spend lots of time in front of the TV with a dummy in their mouth. TV and video games are passive entertainment and do not encourage any interaction. Evidence shows that too much TV watching from an early age can impact on a child’s listening and attention skills. Developing good listening and attention skills is one of the building blocks of good language development, and is essential for learning at school.
There is also evidence to show that if your child regularly uses a dummy, their speech development can become delayed. So if you want your children to learn language and develop speech and social skills – turn off the TV and play with them.
3. have a shared focus
Attending to something together is a great way to help your child learn. It helps children focus on what you are talking about, puts the conversation into a context, and helps develop listening and attention skills. Having a shared focus also helps children focus and stay on one topic of conversation, rather than constantly changing the subject.
4. use every opportunity as a language learning opportunity
We are all very busy, and many parents do not have a great deal of time to spend with their children. However, there are loads of opportunities everyday to teach language. For instance, get your child to help you when you are baking a cake, and think of all the new vocabulary you can teach – pouring, mixing, stirring, weighing, etc. Sing songs at bath-time, point to things when you are driving in the car, point out different items when you are shopping. Everything you do can be a language learning opportunity.
5. books, books, books!
If you have 15 minutes to spare, look at a book. Books are fantastic for learning language. Evidence also shows that the more exposure children get to books before school, the better their level of literacy attainment (which in turn helps them with all the other subjects). When you look at books with your children, point to the pictures and describe them. This is how children learn new words – by having a shared focus, by listening and by making links between spoken words and pictures.
6. feed language in, don’t try and drag it out!
It is important that your child does not feel pressure to perform during play, and constantly asking your child to name things is not the way to teach new words. You can enhance your child’s language by taking a step back during play and letting them take the lead. Although you are still involved in the play, you are not dictating what is happening. This gives the child control of their environment and builds their confidence. You can then start feeding language into the play as it is happening, by commenting on what they are doing, or expanding on what they are saying. For instance, if your child says “car”, you can respond with “yes, big car” or “fast car” or “yellow car”. This way, the child gets confirmation and hears new language.
7. model good social skills
Your children learn from watching you and listening to you, so be a good language model. Use gestures as you speak, and try and encourage eye contact by getting down to your child’s eye-level when you speak to them. Encourage your child to be in the same room and to face you when they are talking to you. When your child communicates, respond and wait for the child’s response, but try and stay on the same topic. Try not to communicate when you are busy, but stop and take the time to listen and respond. Praise your child’s attempts at speech and communication, and repeat back words to show you have understood.
8. think about your language
Think about your language when you talk to your child. When talking to your child, try to talk about things that are in context or that the child can see, so they can use these things as a reference. Talk slowly and put emphasis on the key words, and use lots of intonation to help emphasise meaning. Give your child more time to respond than you would with older children or an adult.
Music is a great way to involve your child and can be used in many ways to enhance speech and language. Games involving music often involve a shared focus, and help with listening skills. Songs contain lots of intonation and rhythm, which are skills we need for good speech production. Many songs also include rhyme which is an important skill for the development of literacy acquisition. Make up songs at routine times, such as bath or bedtime.
10. let’s pretend
Games involving different pretend characters will allow you to introduce lots of new related language, and stretch your child’s imagination and creative play skills. Letting your child lead the game also gives them a sense of control and can build self confidence.
A simple example of role play would be a father and son driving the fire engine. All you need is two chairs and pretend that you are the firemen driving the fire-truck to put out a fire. No special toys or clothes are needed, just imagination. The father lets his son take the lead, and just feeds in language. Think of all the words that dad can introduce – fast, climb, hot, hose, ladder, burning, drive, smoke, jump, smell, etc. How easy is that? This is just one short simple little role play where a boy is playing, learning, listening and using language; building social skills; building self confidence; and bonding with his dad. Dad only needed 15 minutes out of his day to do it and it doesn’t require any expensive toys.
Helping your child learn language is not hard – you can do it in short bursts when you have little pieces of time, throughout the day. By using every situation as a language learning situation, you will give your child skills they will use for the rest of their lives.
Johan Langfield is a Speech and Language Therapist with icommunicate Therapy. To learn more, see icommunicate’s comprehensive website with resources and information about speech and language development, speech and communication difficulties, hearing impairment and autism. www.icommunicatetherapy.com