It’s a phrase we’re hearing more and more: the “Word Gap.” It is essentially when some children show up to school knowing substantially fewer words than their peers. This brings up the importance of talking a lot with our young children to help foster their vocabulary development so that they are best prepared to learn to read and succeed in school. But this might leave you wondering, what am I supposed to talk about? Or, what kind of talk is most helpful for my child? These are important questions and the answers depend on how old your child is. However, one thing that is consistently helpful is engaging your child in conversations.
At all ages providing children with the opportunities to take turns in conversations, to ask and answer questions, to discuss topics they are interested in, and to engage in conversations on a variety of topics will promote learning.
Here are a few talking tips to engage children of different ages in conversation:
Talking with infants (0-1 years).
It might sound difficult to have a conversation with an infant, but engaging your child through talking is important to his/her development. Infants need to hear words used several times before they are able to learn them, so, repetition is key. Also, infants are more likely to learn words for objects they are looking at or interested in. So, while you are playing with your infant you might: 1) label the object he/she is looking at/playing with; 2) point at the objects while you label them to make them even more relevant to your child, and 3) mention the label several times while encouraging the child to take turns in the conversation. At this early age the child’s “turn” may be a gesture, or a simple action such as picking up an object. These conversations can take many forms, but here is one example:
(Child reaches towards toy car and looks at mother)
Mother: do you want the car (while pointing at car)?
Mother: let me get the car for you (mother gets car and hands it to child)
(Child takes the car from mother and smiles)
Mother: can you make the car go?
(Child pushes car on floor)
Mother: great job, you made the car go fast!
Talking with toddlers (1-3 years).
Toddlers can handle a wider range of talk from caregivers. It is still important to discuss the topics your child is interested in, yet the conversations can be more challenging. Questions, in particular, are a helpful way to engage your child in conversations during this period. If you have a young toddler with limited verbal skills, you can ask the child “where” questions that he/she can answer by pointing. As children gain in their verbal skills, “what” questions are useful to encourage naming, and as children enter the latter part of toddlerhood, asking more challenging “why” and “how” questions can really keep interesting conversations going back and forth. Book reading is an ideal setting for trying out these questions. An example of a helpful book-reading conversation between a father and a two-year-old reading “the very busy spider” is as follows:
(child is looking at picture in book)
Father: what’s that? (father points to picture of horse)
Child: that’s a horsie!
Father: yeah, that’s a horsie.
Child: what’s that? (points to picture of spider)
Father: that’s the spider
Father: what’s that? (points to picture of cow)
Child: that’s a horsie.
Father: no, say “cow”
Father: yeah, cow.
Talking with preschoolers (3-5 years).
Preschoolers can “hold the floor” in conversations longer than toddlers and have the cognitive skills to discuss more abstract topics. Talking with preschoolers about events that happened in the past or might happen in the future are helpful ways to grow their vocabularies and cognitive skills.
What do conversations about the past look like? During book reading, if you see a picture that reminds you of something you and your child did together, use that as an opportunity to stop reading and extend the book-reading discussion to your real life by talking about that past event. Encourage your child to talk about the event with your support in recalling the events.
What do conversations about the future look like? You might be driving in a car with your three year old and have a conversation about where you are going, and who you might see when you get there:
Parent: we are almost at school, who are you going to play with today?
Child: maybe Logan.
Parent: what are you and Logan going to do?
Child: play pirates outside on the playground.
Parent: oh, that sounds fun, are you nice pirates or mean pirates?
Child: We are mean pirates! We are going to get the gold!
Finally, providing preschoolers with explanations about how things work in the world is important. We all know that three year olds can ask a lot of “why” questions. To the extent possible, try and provide real causal answers to those questions (“because…”) to continue to encourage your child’s curiosity and build their knowledge about the world!
In sum, talking with our children (rather than at our children) and keeping the conversations going and growing will ensure that children enter kindergarten with the strong oral language skills they need to succeed in school.
Meredith Rowe is an Associate Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She leads a research program on understanding the role of parent and family factors in children’s early language and cognitive development.