The early years are a period of rapid language development. By the time they enter kindergarten, most children will have a vocabulary of 1000-2000 words. There have been many research studies to determine the factors that affect language acquisition. The number of words children hear and the richness of the vocabulary both seem to play a part. However in the book How Babies Talk authors Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff share research that these factors only account for part of the difference between children with more language skills and children with fewer. They go on to show that the number, length, and richness of a child’s conversations have a huge impact on their language development.
That makes sense when you think about what you know about how children learn- or don’t learn. Few educators would argue that setting a child down in front of a television with its many and varied words would be better for a child than having fewer words spoken at the dinner table. Children learn to talk by listening to another then using that language, to the best of their ability, to further the conversation.
That brings me to my fear about language development. I worry that as a group today’s infants and toddlers are going to have less language proficiency than the children of just a few years ago. Why? More and more parents are using personal electronic devices to entertain their children instead of talking to them. Think about the family of four out to dinner at a nice restaurant, each person focused on their own tablet or phone. The only time they talk to anyone else is when the waitress comes to take their order. I’ve seen it countless times, and I suspect you have too. If that is what they do out in public, what do you think happens in the privacy of their own home? Meals aren’t the only time conversations have become scarce in many families. Gone are the interactions during car rides, or when waiting in line. Talking with your baby while you feed her has been replaced with chatting on the phone, or surfing the internet. Little thought is given to how these choices will affect the development of the child.
So what can we, as early childhood educators do?
1. Have more conversations with the children in your care. You have many verbal interactions with the children everyday. You welcome them to the classroom, give directions, and praise their efforts. Could you turn more of these interactions into conversations? Conversations need to have a back and forth exchange. Depending on the age of the child they may respond with words, coos, or facial expressions, but there needs to be some sort of exchange. When you do have conversations take the time to extend it beyond one turn for you to talk and one turn for the child. Model not only rich vocabulary and complex sentence structures, but also listening and responding to what another persons says. Look for moments throughout your day to have extended conversations with one or two children. This may be while you’re changing a diaper, eating lunch, on the playground, or during centers. These intentional conversations will not only will this improve the child’s language acquisition, it will also have a positive effect on their social and emotional development as well.
2. Encourage conversations between children. Is your day filled with opportunities for the children to interact with each other? Even babies benefit from time to interact with their peers. Set up center activities that allow children to interact with one another. Encourage children to talk when they are together during meal and snack times. Teachers should invite children to have conversations with each other, modeling how it is done, supporting children who need additional help, and praising a child’s efforts to positively interact with their peers.
3. Inform parents of the importance of conversations with their child. You are the expert when it comes to child development. Many parents just don’t realize how detrimental choosing “screen time” over “talk time” can be. Don’t be shy about sharing what you know. Make sure you share the information in a positive way. Model having conversations with their child during pick-up and drop-off. Put information and tips about language development in your newsletter. During conferences ask about the conversations the parents have with their child and make sure they realize how important these interactions are for their child. If needed give them a couple of suggestions for how they can start and extend conversations.
Here are a couple of web pages you can share with parents about language development.
From NAEYC for Families: 12 Ways to Support Language Learning
From Zero to Three: What You Can Do to Support Your Child’s Language and Literacy Skills
Language development is too important to be left to chance. The growth a child makes in their language development while in your care can have an impact throughout their childhood and beyond. We, as early childhood educators, need to be intentional about providing many opportunities for conversations each and every day.