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Three Tips to Support Language Learning in Young Children

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According to this article by Education Week, the average cognitive performance of children ages 3 months to 3 years was the lowest it had been since researchers began to measure it in 2010. That research suggests these developmental delays may be sparked by less language engagement during the pandemic.

Talking and engaging babies and toddlers in conversation is one of the most important things parents, caregivers, and teachers can do for development! Renate Zangl, PhD, author of Raising a Talker: Easy Activities from Birth to Age Three, shares why building strong language skills very early on in life helps children in many areas of brain development. She also gives three practical, easy-to-do tips for interaction with young children in order to support early language learning. 

Hello, I’m Renate Zangl, a language researcher and author of the Gryphon House book, Raising a Talker: Easy Activities from Birth to Age Three. My book is for parents and teachers who are looking for play activities to foster language and learning in infants and toddlers. Why put the radar on language on children this young?

Science tells us that toddlers with strong language skills at the ages of two and three are doing well when entering kindergarten, and even when entering school and beyond. They have an advantage in language, but also in thinking, problem solving, and even in math. So strong language skills early on build strong brains that shape children's future learning and lives.

So what can you do to help the child build strong language skills early on? The best is to have lots of language rich back and forth conversations between you and the child, where you really make an extra effort and go an extra mile to keep the conversation going. So my book is full of play activities, and also science-based tips on strategies on how you can do so. I'm going to share three tips and strategies with some games here.

Respond Back, Expand, and Wait

The first strategy is to respond back, expand, and wait. Start using this strategy right away with infants. Responding back and expanding become really important once the child starts to babble—says the first “bas” and “mas”. So engage in babbling the words where you babble back and you talk back in real words, and expand on what the child says.

It turns out that babies notice when you respond back and expand. They start to babble more, and also in a more complex way. So really the key message here is that you can affect how much practice the baby gets by responding back and expanding. Responding back is also really important for the child because it signals to them, “Hey, she's there for me! She notices what I'm doing. She likes it!” And that is what matters for the child. 

Expanding is really important because it gives the child more sounds and more words to learn from. Waiting is key because a pause of several seconds at this young age tells her, “Hey, it's your turn to jump into the conversation!” Use this strategy going forward through the toddler years. 

Repeat Labels Often in “Parentese”

The next strategy is really for young toddlers. It's repeating a label often and doing so in “parentese”. This strategy is really important for children between the ages of one and two, as they’re just starting to understand the first words and getting those words out. So repeating back the label over and over, doing so as you play activities together, and talking in “parentese” is key. So you say the key word clearly, loudly, put it at the end of the sentence, and say it in an exaggerated way— an excited way. 

So I'm going to show you a game that you can easily play where you have a container with a bunch of familiar things of one kind in them, and you pull out one thing at a time so that the child's attention is really on the thing as you label it. 

Here we go. “Okay. What do we have? There’s a duck. See the duck. It's a duck! The duck says ‘quack quack!’ Oh, what else do we have? Oh, there's another duck. A duck! The duck says ‘quack quack!’ Duck and another duck.” So you get the name of the game—repeating and talking in “parentese” is a real brain booster the science tells us.

Be sure to use this strategy as often as you can—that really helps children build their first vocabulary. 

Ask Questions, Describe Things, and Give Choices

The third strategy is asking questions, describing things, and giving choices. This is a fun strategy to use in your day-to-day play time where you really foster language, thinking, and also children's imagination.

Get a bag with familiar things, get a microphone, and play the game “Being a Reporter.” So my microphone is here. I'm going to ask a bunch of questions and engage the child. So you asked the name of something—”What's that?” If the child doesn't answer, then give choices—”Is it a banana, or is it a ball?” Ask what we can do with it. “What can you do with a ball?” Again, give choices if the child doesn't answer. 

Then describe things. “Is it all oval or is it round? Is it round like a circle?” Also ask challenging questions about language. “What do we call a ball we play soccer with? Is it a tennis ball or is it a soccer ball?” Also be silly. For example, ask a question like, “Oh, if balls get hungry, what would they eat?” Also ask personal questions. “How many ears do you have? How many ears do I have? How many ears do doggies have?” Have fun asking questions, describing, and giving choices. 

Talk and engage in language. Having these language rich conversations is now more important than ever before because the pandemic has caused language skills to suffer even in young children. So talk more, engage more, have fun playing these games, and you’ll find more tips, strategies, and games in my book—Raising a Talker: Easy Activities for Birth to Age 3! Thank you.