Speak to Me, Baby

Dear Mr. Dad: I can’t help but notice that some of the kids at my daughter’s daycare are way more verbal than she is. We read to her all the time and we’re a chatty family so what gives? Are these parents doing something we’re not?

A: First things first: not all children develop language skills at the same pace. And there’s no proven connection between the age at which kids start to speak and intelligence. That said, the differences you’ve noticed at your daughter’s daycare could be a matter of genetics or, as you suggested, the parents could be doing something extra that you and your spouse haven’t tried yet.

There’s no question that reading to your child and exposing her to lots of language is crucial to language development, but according to Dr. Jill Gilkerson, language research director at LENA Foundation, “Talk is powerful, but what’s even more powerful is engaging a child in meaningful interactions—the ‘give and take’ that is so important to the social, emotional and cognitive development of infants and toddlers.”

Not quite sure how to put that into effect? Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • When an child coos or blows a raspberry, pretend that she’s just said something positively brilliant. An enthusiastic “Really? What else happened? Tell me more?” will undoubtedly incite another sound or raspberry. These early “conversations” set the tone for future interactions and strengthen the muscles needed for speech.
  • When a toddler points to something and grunts, tell him the word he’s looking for, put it in a sentence (if you’re doing sign language, show him the sign), and talk with him about it. But before you hand over the object, encourage him to tell you what he wants. Be patient. Young children need time to formulate words and thoughts. Reward any response with praise—and the object in question.
  • Snuggle up to read a book, but don’t confine yourself to the words on the page. Point out interesting things in the pictures and ask your child to do the same. A simple “Do you see a black cat?” or “What sound does a lizard make?” helps draw your child verbally into the story. Turning reading into an interactive activity is one of the stepping stones to reading and language acquisition.
  • Ask open ended questions. At the grocery store, ask your child whether you should get the cherry yogurt or the peach, or whether she’d like peas or beans. And even a two-year-old is able to tell you something about her day. If all you get is a grunt or a shrug, (yes, even by the preschool set) try something more targeted like “What was your favorite thing to do at the playground today?”
  • Remember, this isn’t an interrogation, it’s a give and take. The more you share, the more your child will learn and want to share back.
  • Don’t talk down to them. It’s better to use big words and explain them than to use easy words.
  • Correct your child’s pronunciation when you need to, but not negatively. Instead of, “You said it wrong.” which might make your child reluctant to try again, try “Good try! I like how you said ‘eggplant’!” or “ “Did you mean…?” and then say the word correctly.

Every child learns to speak at his or her own pace, but helping your child develop and hone those language skills now, might start great conversation habits that will last well into the teenage years (good luck with that one).