There’s a well-known research finding called the “word gap” that shows some 3-year-olds, particularly those in low-income households, hear as much as 30 million words fewer than others, making a negative impact when it comes to their reading skills and academic success later in life.
As worrying as it sounds, however, parents shouldn’t focus on a child’s word count, says experts. “Parents should not get the wrong message and be stressed out about talking all the time or meeting a set number of words per day,” says a commentary published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. “Instead they should focus on finding time for even brief high-quality, loving interactions.”
Authored by Harvard Graduate School of Education literacy expert Meredith Rowe and Boston Medical Center pediatrician Barry Zuckerman, the commentary gives specific guidelines on the kind of conversation you should hold at each stage of your child's growth. Below are those for infants to toddlers (36 months old):
Age 0 to 6 months Your little one may not be able to talk yet, but how you converse with her already has an impact on her speech and language development. 1. Exaggerate the way you talk. Experts found that infants don't respond well when parents use their “adult voice” to talk to their babies. At this age, you need to exaggerate your facial expressions and the sound of your words to get your little one's focused attention.
Vary the pitch of your voice (a.k.a. making it higher); widen your eyes; use a soft, loving expression; and hold your baby's gaze. You can repeat sentences and phrases too.
Find out what your baby likes and stick to it. “Parents learn by trial and error that modifying their voice and facial expressions are needed because of the infant's slower rate of processing visual and auditory information,” says Rowe and Zuckerman.
2. React and respond to the sounds your baby makes. Be attentive to your baby's attempts at “talking” to you through her babbles and grunts. Respond accordingly by talking back. For example, when she's babbling while you're feeding her, ask her if she's enjoying her breakfast.
Infants only learn language through human interaction, as compared to watching the same words being said by a person on TV, says the experts. Reacting face-to-face to your baby's babbling teaches her “how to take turns in social interchanges, which sets the stage for language learning.”
Age 6 to 18 months At this age, a child's aptitude for learning language grows tremendously, and the words they understand exceeds the words they can say. A toddler may not be able to say “nose” yet, but she will be able to point to it when you ask her to do so. So maximize this stage in her development.
1. Talk to your toddler about things she can see. According to Rowe and Zuckerman, babies at this age learn best when you speak to them about things they can see. You and baby should also be interacting with the object. Here's an example: while reading a bedtime story, point, name and talk about objects in a picture book. While doing activities like bathing or eating, point to and talk about the toy or object she's holding or playing. 2. Repeat words. As with practicing any new skill, repetition is key. “Infants are more likely to learn a word if they hear that word repeated multiple times during engaging interactions,” says the authors. We guess this is how adorable toddler Scarlet Snow was able to say “dermatologist” when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grows up (just like mom and dad!). Pretty impressive!
3. Use gestures. As young as 9 months old, babies can already understand gestures. When you extend your pointer finger, your baby already knows that you are trying to show her something.
According to the authors, pointing is the most important gesture you should practice with your toddler. It’s a great learning opportunity you should maximize. Pointing provides a way for your child to direct your attention to objects she doesn't have a word for yet and which you can name for her. Then, the conversation can go on from there.
Other common gestures include: holding out a hand to ask for an object, nodding, shaking (which means “no”) and waving (as a greeting for “hello” and “goodbye”). Add Rowe and Zuckerman, “These early differences in the use of gestures predict children's vocabulary skills as well as executive function at age 4 years.” Age 18 to 36 months As your child grows a little older, so should the level of your conversations. Provide more challenging conversations.
1. Use diverse vocabulary words. This age is the time to amp up your child's storybook collection. Look for books on all sorts of topics and subjects that have words your child hasn't encountered yet. Exposing her to as many words as possible can help you beat the “word gap.” 2. Ask more “wh-” questions. “Wh-” questions start with “what,””who,” and “where.” Because your child is getting the hang of saying words, she will be more than capable (and willing!) to join in. This leveled-up version of talking to your child also develops her cognitive skills and the back-and-forth communication helps her learn how to take turns in conversation.