During the earliest years of life, the brain sets up for learning through the development of language. This foundation has been shown to be the bedrock of school learning and the roadblock to success for many students.
Language is a complex, multidimensional system that supports decoding and comprehension as children learn to read. The formal skills necessary to create mental models of text not only for reading but for following instructions, interpreting stories and content and other higher order skills depend upon language abilities that have been developing since birth.
Talking to children from infancy is key to building language skills. “Baby talk,” aka “parentese,” is a singsong way of talking to children while exaggerating facial expressions. It is spoken around the world—not just in English-speaking countries—and is stimulating to infants as they map the key sounds and patterns of language.
Parents and caregivers teach children what words mean (“doggie”, “cup”, etc.), how to make new words (i.e. happy, happier, unhappy), how to put words together (i.e. “Ryan went to the corner store” rather than “Ryan went to the store corner”) and what combinations work best in different situations (“May I please have a toy” rather than “Give me that!”- also referred to as pragmatic skills).
Talking to children about daily activities, such as about how things are the same and different, enhances communication skills. Reviewing the days’ activities with children builds language and memory skills as well as sequencing skills. Rhyming and word play help children to begin to break words into sounds which will build into reading skills later on.
Reading With Expression
It is important to read to children with expression from an early age. Six-month-old babies can enjoy picture books while they build vocabulary and language comprehension. Pre-school children, age 5, were studied by Mira and Schwanenflugel at the University of Georgia (2013), who found that the degree of expressiveness of the reader has an impact on how much of the story children are to able recall. This affects language processing so necessary for school success.
What You Can Do
Parents and early childhood educators can help young children build language skills with simple and fun activities that fit naturally into the day:
- Use parentese with very young children in the home and classroom
- Talk to children during daily events and activities to build vocabulary and language structure
- Play! Initiate and encourage active engagement with the environment
- Model reading with expression
- Read age-appropriate texts aloud on a regular basis
- Engage children in discussion and provide opportunities for problem solving
- Model turn-taking and discourse, essential pragmatic skills for social and academic success
Avoid or reduce exposure to TV—even educational programming—in favour of person-to-person interaction. Helping young children build strong language skills is fun, and it’s also one of the most important things parents and educators can do to establish the necessary foundation for success in school and in life.
Mira W.A., & Schwanenflugel P.J. (2013). The impact of reading expressiveness on the listening comprehension of storybooks by prekindergarten children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. 44(2), 183-94. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2012/11-0073)