As a speech-language pathologist, I often hear the question, “How can I help my toddler to talk?"
The short is answer is simple: Talk to your child!
This recommendation is rooted in reams of research on speech-language pathology and allied disciplines.
Ironically, the simplicity of this answer is exactly the problem for many parents. This short adage may leave you frustrated and wanting more.
How do I talk to my child? What are some fun toddler activities that can promote verbal interaction, and therefore language learning, with my child?
A love of language is one of the most important things you can give your young child, as a strong language foundation can have a positive impact on later language development, academic potential, and even emotional adjustment.
Here are 4 ways to help your child start gaining speech confidence.
A 2003 study tracked the language stimulation patterns of 42 children from low, middle, and high income families.
The results of the study were astounding.
Children of wealthier families heard more than 3 times more words than those in poorer families. Over the first four years of a child's life, that equates to a thirty million word gap!
The take away is that, no matter what, it is imperative to talk to our children.
If it makes it easier, try not to get hung up on the notion of “quality over quantity." In other words, turn every interaction, no matter how mundane, into a language-rich activity. Language need not be artful or used only when absolutely necessary.
You don't have to be rich or highly educated to stimulate your child's language development. The first thing to remember is that there is no wrong way to talk to your child—just talk!
A spoonful of praise...
The Thirty Million Word Gap study also found that children in wealthier families received many more words of encouragement than children in poorer families.
Over the first four years of life, children in lower income families received 125,000 more words of discouragement than encouragement, whereas children in higher income families received 560,000 more words of encouragement than discouragement.
The study also found that children in richer families fared better later in life in terms of academic and cognitive performance, which indicates that some of this disparity may be due to the typeof feedback children received from parents.
Moral of the story? Make sure you use words of discouragement sparingly; save it for situations in which your child is engaging in unsafe behavior, rather than when your child is simply being a kid.
Also, highlight and praise every new sound, word, or sentence you hear your child use. This will promote your child's verbal development and a love of learning.
Talk to strangers.
Expose your child to a wide variety of communication partners—mom, dad, siblings, family friends, neighbors, the waiter at your favorite restaurant…anyone who is willing to talk to you two!
Every interaction in a young child's life is a chance for your child to put every word he has heard and processed into action. With different communication partners, your child will become accustomed to different communication styles as well as different vocabularies.
The next time you go out to eat, let your child order his own food. Sure, this may take a few extra seconds but expediency isn't paramount here—your child's development is!
The next time your child presents an unprompted question to a family friend or invites a new communication partner to engage in gab, provide praise or a small reward, such as a sticker.
Children are social animals. Providing ample opportunities to communicate with as many people as possible can provide a noticeable boost in language development.
Play, play, play!
Play is a young child's work. So, instead of setting aside time to name letters of the alphabet, embed the names of letters into the play your child is doing right now.
If your child loves trains and hauling freight all over his imagined railroad world, take the pieces of a letter puzzle and have him haul the letters from one place to another.
If building is your child's thing, have her build a house for the letters to live in—heck, build a whole neighborhood for the letters. The letters can even be neighbors who communicate with one another.
Start with what your child is already interested in. Let your child direct you and then integrate little micro-teaching moments throughout playtime.
Sometimes you will see your child demonstrate new concepts right away and other times it will seem to go in one ear and out the other. That is completely normal.
We cannot reliably predict what our children will learn during play, but we do know that a child will learn more when given more opportunities for language-rich play.
During my time as a speech-language pathologist, I've often heard a gratifying refrain from parents of the childrenI have worked with: When she started working with you, she was barely speaking…but now we can't get her to shut up!
I will admit, having two talkative children of my own, that sometimes we, as hard-working parents, do deserve to just chill in relative silence. It's okay to turn on the TV for a little while. Remember that if you're happy, so are your children.
In truth, this kind of quip from parents is what fulfills me as a therapist.
That loquacious child we've created is the fruit of vital labor and is much more likely to experience academic success and career fulfillment. That child is then more likely to pass on these positive experiences to her own children.
So, no matter what your childhood circumstances were or what your current circumstances are now, talk to your children more often than you think is necessary and praise your children more than you may think they deserve.
Your child's generation and the generations in your family after that will thank you!