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Enriching your Child's Language Skills
From Birth through Early Elementary School

by Stephanie Ward

"The Hebrew word for parent is horim, and it comes from the same root as moreh, teacher. The parent is, and remains, the first and most important teacher that thie child will ever have."
Rabbi Kassel Abelson

A child's gift of language grows at an amazing pace: from his first garbled sounds to reading War and Peace and delivering a defense, worthy of Clarence Darrow, of his returning the car three hours late. How do you help your child develop his verbal gifts and become a careful listener, skilled writer, and avid reader?

Every child's language development is unique, based on his genetic design and temperament. Yet they all, amazingly, develop in a somewhat predictable way. Some linguists, such as Noam Chumsky, believe each child is born genetically wired to learn language, just as birds are born programmed to fly. So, if all goes well, a child will develop many of these skills naturally. But parents and caretakers can support this learning at every step. This also fosters closeness between you, and enables you to enjoy every step of this awesome experience!

The following suggestions are grouped according to children's ages. You are probably already doing most of these things with your child. Please don't be anxious to "do" everything on the list, and don't be concerned if some activities seem too easy or too difficult for your child. This is neither a checklist, nor a performance evaluation! It's only intended to reinforce what you are doing with your child, and stimulate new ideas.

Birth - 15 mos: Beginning very early in the infant's first year - he enjoys rhythms and sounds. At the same time, he is learning the rhythm of language, practicing it through "babbling" or "jargoning," and - eventually - learning to understand and use words.

Tips for Enriching Your Child's Language Development (Birth-15 mos):

  • Read to your child daily. Picture books, especially board books (which are nearly indestructible, even in the hands of an infant or toddler) are excellent choices.
  • Inundate your child with songs and rhymes! Traditional nursery rhymes, songs and games - that we share with our babies almost instinctively - are among the best tools for helping babies learn language.
  • Teach your baby to clap in tune with rhymes. This helps him develop a sense of the rhythm of language, as well as practice his motor skills.
  • Provide your baby with musical instruments (pots, pans, and kitchen spoons are popular choices) and encourage him to experiment with the sounds
  • Help your baby tune into loud and soft sounds, and locate sounds, by playing a "noises game." Make different sounds in varying locations. Shake a rattle above his head, bang a pot across the room, ring a bell near his ear. Enjoy watching him respond to these noises.

15 mos - 2-1/2 yrs: Whether he is creating sentences or uttering his first words: your child's vocabulary is burgeoning during this time. By 15 months, he is already understanding most of what you say to him.

Tips for Enriching Your Child's Language Development (15 mos-2-1/2 yrs):

  • Read to your child every day, choosing picture books with one or two words per page and simple stories with colorful illustrations. Let your child supply sound effects ("MOOO! BRRM! BRRM!) when you reach the appropriate part of the story.
  • Help your toddler learn to identify body parts ("Where is your nose?" ... let him point to it) This helps him master an important language milestone, and can be a great distraction during diaper change time! I have a friend who found this trick not only held her daughter's attention, making her more cooperative during changing time, but occupied her hands - keeping them out of the nappies!
  • Use clippings from old magazines, drawings, and duplicate photos to turn an inexpensive photo album, with adhesive pages, into a picture book for your toddler. Use one picture per page, and add text if you wish. This can help your little one expand her vocabulary, as each page teaches a word. More importantly, it can get him hooked on books!
  • Another fun way to boost your child's receptive vocabulary (number of words he understands) is to play the "find the object game." Set three things on a play mat or table - for instance, a ball, a doll, and a cup,- and say: "Can you find the cup?"
  • Play silly "yes" and "no" games: "Is Sarah a bug?" - "NO!" ... "Is Sarah a puppy?..." "Is Sarah a big girl?"
  • Play the echo game - having your child repeat the words you say.
  • Help your child tune into different sounds. When you are taking a walk, call his attention to a bird song, crickets' chirping, or the sound of a lawnmower.
  • Show your child pictures of familiar family members, relatives, and friends. Help him to begin recognizing familar faces in photos. Help him begin to recognize himself in photos.
  • This may be a good time to establish a night-time ritual, if you have not already done so. End the day with a bed time story and "talking time," in which you chat about things that happened that day. If you are a religious family, you can also incorporate simple prayers into this ritual.

2-1/2 - 5 yrs: Around age two, most children are stringing words into simple sentences, and have an amazing repertoire of words they understand! During the rest of the preschool years, his verbal skills will grow by leaps and bounds.

Tips for Enriching Your Child's Language Development (2-1/2 - 5 years):

  • Teach your child games with rhythmic songs and clapping (B-I-N-G-O) and games that emphasize following verbal directions (like "Simon Says").
  • Work with your child on recognizing rhyming sounds. This helps hone his listening skills and will give him a large boost when he's ready to learn to read!
  • Another fun way to help strengthen your child's listening skills is to play the "Name that Sound" game. Cover your child's eyes and play familar sounds - rattle a morraca, ring a bell, click a spoon against a glass. Let him identify the sound.
  • Play "Copy Cat," having your child repeat what you say.
  • Help your child learn to distinguish loud and soft sounds.
  • Encourage your child to explain the meaning of words and describe how things work.
  • Take turns telling each other stories - retell familiar tales and invent stories.
  • Help your child "write" his own stories. Let your child dictate the words, for you to write, as he creates the illustrations. Keep his stories in a special place - like a three-ring binder or a blank book.
  • Work with your child on learning sequences and patterns (What comes next in this sequence?") This will boost his thinking and reasoning skills and reinforce pre-math skills. It will also help prepare him for reading, as discriminating patterns is an integral part of learning to read sentences.

5 - 6 yrs: At this stage, your child may be learning to read, though many children are not developmentally ready for this skill until about age 8-10.

Tips for Enriching Your Child's Language Development (5 - 6 yrs):

  • Continue to read to your child daily. Children this age like more complicated stories, although books with simple, rhythmic lines continue to be good choices.
  • Take turns reading: begin with letting your child fill in words he knows, or supply a rhyming word ("I know a boy who runs all day; He really loves to run and _________"). Work up to letting him read entire pages. Don't be concerned if your child is reciting lines he has memorized, rather than reading them. This is part of the process of learning to read.
  • Play "I'm Thinking of Something in My Imagination" ... ("that begins with the letter "T" ... and is an animal ... and has a hard shell.") This reinforces learning the sounds letters make, along with thinking and reasoning skills.
  • Children love to write about their own experiences. Help your child keep a journal or write an autobiography, dictating the words to you as he draws the pictures. Try creating a biography with him and reading it together.

Additional Tips for Raising a Reader:

  • Share books you loved as a child.
  • Have "library day" every week - in which everyone chooses books for the week. Many libraries allow five- and six-year olds to have their own library cards.
  • Help your child build her own "library." Purchase books that your child will want to read again and again and provide her with an accessible place to keep her own books.
  • Help your child select books that tie in with his current interests - such as insects, dinosaur fossils, or painting. Look for simple biographies of people who interest your child - such as sports figures and other heroes.
  • Encourage your child to "read" to younger kids; even if he invents the text as he goes along.

    Copyright 1999 Stephanie Ward

    Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2, page 6

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