Whether it’s “mama,” “dada,” or “uh-oh!” everyone gets excited about baby’s first word! But what about the words that come afterward? Building a child’s vocabulary is never quite as exciting as those first words, but it is no less important. Children start by building their receptive language, the language they hear and understand. Their expressive language refers to the language they can produce. Both are important not only for the ability to communicate but for academic success, as well. Having a great vocabulary is the first step in literacy and can give them many essential tools.
Perhaps most importantly for school success, a more developed expressive and particularly receptive language ability will increase children’s ability to comprehend the texts they read. According to speech pathologist Martha Meyers, “The formula for reading comprehension is receptive language times decoding skills. The greater the base of receptive language they have, the better their comprehension skills. And reading comprehension is needed for all aspects of academic education.”
Below are steps you can take to increase your child’s expressive and receptive language:
1. Ask questions and give your child time to respond. Giving children ample time to respond to your questions allows them time to independently choose the proper vocabulary.
2. Treat the youngest child as a potential conversationalist. By giving children a turn to ‘talk,’ even an infant begins to understand the conventions of conversation. Your child can begin to understand that people take turns during a conversation and that questions generate an answer before your child becomes an active participant.
3. Make errands a time to learn. As you do your daily errands, it is easy to take the opportunity to develop oral language. Discuss purchases to your child as you place items in the basket. Statements and questions such as, “We’ll have this chicken breast for dinner tonight” or, “Did you notice how fresh the broccoli looks today?” introduce new vocabulary to your child.
4. Sing as you go about your day. Children can learn a lot of language from music. Sing your way to the tub during bath time or make a song part of the bedtime routine. As an added bonus, you will often be exposing your children to rhyming, a precursor to reading.
5. Read aloud. New research suggests that reading to children can be more effective than talking to them for building vocabulary. Sometimes, parents will naturally explain the new words they encounter. Other times, children will decipher the meaning from context. Both routes lead children to increased vocabulary.
6. Ask open-ended questions. Rather than asking your child yes or no questions, give them the opportunity to expand their answers. Instead of asking, “Do you want a drink of orange juice?” you might try asking, “What would you like to drink?” This encourages your child to come up with the word “water” or “juice” by themselves.
7. Model rather than correct. When your child mispronounces or uses incorrect grammar, repeat the sentence back using the correct form. For example, if your child says, “I goed to the store with daddy,” you would repeat, “Oh! You went to the store?” This gives the child the needed information without making them feel bad about making a mistake.
8. Narrate as you go. Talk aloud about what your child is doing. As your child plays, narrate as if you were at a sporting event. “You put four wheels on your Lego car!” This not only helps build your child’s receptive language but can help build self-esteem as your child hears that you find their activities interesting and meaningful.
9. Add to what your child already says. Expand on what your child already knows by adding words to their sentences. If your child points and declares “kitty,” you could add, “The kitty is soft and furry!”
10. Turn down the background noise. A study from 2016 suggests that background noise may hinder children’s ability to learn new words. If the TV or radio or podcasts is a constant in your household, it may be worth turning it down or off to help your child’s language development.
If you have concerns about your child’s speech, asking the teacher is always a great way to gain a fresh perspective. But whether you’re concerned or just wanting to provide enrichment, encourage your child’s language with a little effort and commitment. These easy steps can yield great results. Many of these ideas will become habit, if used frequently, and will help your child both communicate more effectively and increase school success with little extra effort on your part.
Freelance writer Jill is a teacher, wife, and mother of four kids. Check out her website, Do Try This at Home, dotrythisathome.net.
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