8 Ways to Promote Language in Young Children

From being a preschool teacher and school counselor intern, I relearned my world through the eyes of a developing child. Walking young families through the process of developmental milestones and listening to their real concerns shaped my optimism about parenting. It is not an easy task, and parents do try the best they can.

I am an advocate of shaping the whole child, which includes the social, emotional, cognitive, and physical parts of a little person. I encourage the parents I work with, especially those in lower income situations, to promote language acquisition of their children as much as possible. There are countless studies indicating how important it is to develop a child's language the first few years of life. It is that crucial to the academic and internal success for a child's lifetime. 

For instance, children the age of two are expected to have a vocabulary of 260 words. Children from lower ses families have learned thirty percent fewer words. The cause is complex, and can range from less time together, differences in communication, and parenting styles. This post isn't about blame or pointing fingers. Basic needs are the most important for a family, and if that means a parent is unable to spend as much time speaking with their children or paying for a quality babysitter, then those are the sacrifices made to have the bills paid or food on the table. It is not easy to be a parent in this economy. The gap starts at infancy, and increases over the years. A few unknown words can grow into hundreds in the future. A lowered vocabulary has many implications for a developing child:

  • Higher frustration or increased emotional problems: When children are not able to express their needs, those needs may or may not get met. Children can become frustrated when they are unable to express what they need or how they feel. This can also frustrate parents causing a cycle of negative emotions.
  • Less learning: When some children are unable to understand the context of a sentence or a dialogue, they may start to "tune out" because the language is too complex for them. I've seen a few children answer questions simply, with "yes" or "no", or not even try so they didn't have to fail or seem less intelligent from their peers.
  • Less/Poor social interaction: Younger children with less developed language skills may become aggressive when conflict arises. These moments can be learning opportunities, but shaping positive behaviors does take time and practice. Some children may withdraw from others when their language skills are not as developed as their peers. 
  • Less learning as a young child can accumulate to less success as a student. And a child's identity can or cannot be linked with being a(n) (un)successful student. Less success as a student can lead to a dislike of learning. A frustration with or dislike of learning can lead to behavior concerns which can permeate into future relationships. 

So what can parents do to help encourage language development? Here is something my professor told us in class, "When a child is going to school, the entire family is going to school."

The world is new again, and a child's brain is ready to absorb information. All we need to do as caring adults is to provide the experiences to make learning occur.

  • Talk about feelings or states of being: It's something many adults have a difficult time doing. If we want our children to express themselves clearly, having a well-developed vocabulary comes from speaking honestly about one's emotions. Verbalizing feelings of appreciation for others and the world can also promote a more positive view of life.
    • I felt frustrated in traffic today, and I felt tired when... 
    • I feel silly, hungry, tired, annoyed, happy, excited, proud, sad, angry...
    • I want to eat/drink/sleep...
    • I appreciate when...
    • I care for/love you.
    • Thank you.
  • Experience: I worked with a first/second grade combo class as an aid, and they were having centers. Three of the students looked at the flash card of a bicycle with blank stares because they never saw one before. As adults, we may sometimes think that things are given, and knowledge is quickly obtained and understood. These children were never exposed to a bicycle and could not label the object. When shaping a child's world, the experiences we give him or her allows for contextand language development.
    • Going to the zoo and talking about the similarities and differences of the animals.
    • Walking through the market to talk about what will be in tonight's dinner.
    • Driving to school and talking about the traffic signals and why we have safety rules.
  • Incorporate as many senses as possible: The brain learns through association, so with more senses being linked with memory and learning, the more likely the information will be retained. 

The Intentional Momma - Sight Word Printables

  • Narrating to your child: Speaking with your child about what you're doing, or how your child is playing gives context to language, and develops natural grammar patterns he or she may not have to learn through rote memorization as a student. It's okay to use complex sentences. 
    • When cooking: I'm using the knife to slice my carrots so I can place them in the stir fry. Now I'm mixing in the broccoli. 
    • When playing: The dinosaur is so big and brown! What is he going to do next? (Child moves dinosaur) Oh, he's going to the trees to eat some leaves. Yummy. (You don't have to do this all the time. Might drive your kiddo nuts if you did!)
  • Love vocabulary! Don't be afraid to use fancy words with your children. 
    • I spoke with a three-year-old about butterflies and she commented on how iridescent their wings are. I asked her if she could explain the word to me and she said, "It's shiny like a rainbow."
  • SING. If you don't like it, learn to love it! Slower-paced nursery rhymes and songs can help promote phonics and confidence in children. If you've ever seen kindergarten children sing songs, you can see how proud they are to know the songs. <3 
  • Read to your child every day. It is a must. Vary your readings: newspapers, magazines, blogs, recipes, ingredients on food labels, signs at the store, letters that you wrote/received. The goal is create a rich language environment and positive relationship with reading. Books can also offer insight into different cultures and people.
  • Model conversations to your child: In our world of texting and FaceBook, it can be more difficult to make time for face to face conversations. Our children's worlds are first shaped by the family environment, and using words to resolve conflicts or express interpersonal connection starts in the home. 
    • Labeling your child's emotions is very powerful. When the language isn't there yet, our children are depending on us to give them the words they can use in the future.
    • "You feel sad because the store didn't have your toy."
    • "You're angry because you have to eat your vegetables, and you don't like them."
  • Wait for your child to ask for more
    • Give less food on his/her plate. When she wants more encourage language by modeling, "Use your words. What do you want?"
    • Some frustration is likely to occur. The goal is to promote autonomy and a successful use of language. If parents give in to cries too soon, it may prolong the process of asking for needs with words. 

Additional Resources:

I know there are more methods to promote language development in young children. Please comment with some techniques that have worked for you :) Thank you!