In a recent review of the research literature on children, Louis M. Rossetti, Ph.D, of the University of Wisconsin concluded “children entering kindergarten with age appropriate communication skills generally do well in the early education years. In contrast, children entering school with delayed or disordered communications struggle.” This suggests that early interaction between children and their parents is essential and must begin as early as birth.
Parents have to know how to get their children ready to start school long before they take their first ride on a school bus. Parents need to learn about different kinds of interactions and activities to be used with children in natural play environments from birth to age five. As parents interact with their children, they can also learn various strategies that can be used at home to help their children develop communication skills. This all begins by parents understanding that children under the age of five experience the majority of their learning opportunities during regular daily routines and playtime.
During the developmental years from birth to five, many milestones of language are achieved. Although each child will acquire language at a different rate, such development takes place naturally because of a rich language environment, plus there are various techniques which help stimulate the child’s language skills.
The period of birth to three months is a time when an infant learns to smile, respond to the human voice with vocalizations, and responds to pleasure with gurgles. These milestones can be reached by your infant with help from you, the parent, or a caregiver through simple interactive activities. For example, you can encourage your baby to vocalize by responding with the same sounds. This can be done if you lay your baby down on a bed or flat surface and lean over the baby so you can make good eye contact. If you say something in an encouraging tone, the baby will respond with sounds. When you listen for sounds from your baby or whenever you hear one say it back. You will see smiles and you will naturally smile in return. Even though an infant cannot use words, this is an ideal way for parents to begin communicating with their baby.
As you communicate more and more with your infant you will begin to hear your child make word-like sounds, vocalize playfully when left alone, and say “da-da” and “ma-ma” as sounds during the period of six to twelve months. To help your infant reach these milestones, you can sit your baby on your lap while rocking in a chair. As you listen, repeat a sound back as if it were a real word or words. For example, if you hear your baby say “ba-ba,” you can say something back like, “Yes, bottle.” “Do you want your bottle?” Listen carefully and be very imaginative.
Between the ages of 1 and 1 ½ years old, you should begin to see a rapid growth spurt in your child’s vocabulary development. During the period around eighteen months, your child should have a vocabulary of approximately 10-20 words, make one-word requests, and follow simple directions. Your child can begin to learn these basic concepts by engaging in simple games with others. Games are a natural way for parents and other caregivers to interact with their child in a positive way during the early and later stages of language development. For example, stand up with your child opposite you. Tell your toddler that you are going to point and name some body parts. Help your child to point to them and to repeat names of the body parts after you say them. Start out with the major body parts such as head, hands, feet, and work towards the less obvious ones such as elbow, chin, ankles, heels, etc.
Soon you will hear your child speak more frequently during daily routines. When your child begins to have a 50-300 word vocabulary, imitates phrases, and follows more complicated directions, he will be 18 months to 2 years old. Daily routines offer your toddler enjoyable opportunities to learn and use language. As you engage in routines such as meal-time, dress time, or playtime, take the time to imitate and expand on your child’s speech attempts.
For example, introducing categories helps toddlers understand how thing go together and belong in general groups. Parents can cut out picture of things that their toddler is familiar with, that belong in categories, and place them in a book. These pictures can include such things as toys, animals, vehicles, food, and people. If you want to be more creative, try and cut out pictures of personal objects that your toddler has. If you have a box from a familiar toy or any object, cut out the illustration and put it in his category book. You can also cut out pictures of your child’s favorite foods from the boxes or labels and add them to his book.
As your child approaches the period of 2 to 3 years of age, new milestones will emerge. You may begin to hear your toddler name objects in a picture, ask what, where, and when questions, and use three to four word sentences.
Many play activities can stimulate language development and growth during this period. For example, going outside for a walk allows you to talk and ask questions about what you see. You and your toddler can talk about flowers, birds, trees or the sky. Make sure you ask questions when talking about what you see (i.e., What color is it? Where is it? What does it do?).
Your toddler is now approaching the preschool years (3 to 4 years of age) and his language skills are moving forward. As he progresses he may say his first and last name, recite nursery rhymes and songs, and talk in simple sentences. If you read to your child regularly from children’s song or nursery rhyme books your child will naturally learn the simple rhymes and songs and sing them by heart.
For example, sing a familiar rhyme or finger play song. As you sing it, move your hands in motion and leave off the two or three words in each line (i.e., The wheels on the bus go round and ____; the horn of the bus goes beep, ____, ____.) As you continue singing the song leave off words and eventually your child will be singing the whole song.
Your child’s speech and language development will become more advanced during the period of 4 to 5 years of age. You will see that he can talk about daily experiences, has some beginning reading skills and has advancing comprehension skills. Talking and listening to your children is the most positive way to reinforce their language skills. Parents can talk to their child anytime during regular daily routines. Just talk, talk, and talk. Make sure you talk and listen on a level that is similar to your child’s level. Don’t hesitate to repeat and expand on your child’s utterances. And, most of all keep on talking and take advantage of enjoyable opportunities for your child to use and learn language daily.
When the evaluation of a child’s language skills shows that he is lagging behind the norm, a parent’s role is very important in aiding in the remediation process within the home environment.
Unfortunately, while recognizing the importance of involving parents in their child’s education, many speech therapists in the schools find that getting parents to communicate with them on a regular basis is difficult. Environmental factors that inhibit communication with parents may include single parents struggling to meet life’s demands and many children in wealthy homes being neglected because they have two working parents.
“Professionals need to teach parents how to use specific techniques at home and how to maximize the home environment, including positive time spent with their children, effective discipline, and purposeful play activities,”writes Sally Goldberg of Nova Southeastern University in her article “Parent Involvement Begins at Birth.”
The combination of parents and professionals working as a team will help children develop the language skills which are so important for a successful school experience.