Earlier this month I blogged about the dilemmas of the digital age and the changes it might bring to the way in which we communicate with our children. We know that speaking to children in early childhood is vital for their language development, and subsequent reading ability. But with the advent of digital devices rapidly impacting on more and more parts of our everyday lives, are we at risk of speaking and engaging with them less or in a less meaningful way? Today, I want to share with you some of our thoughts on how we can encourage early language development in a more positive and reflective way.

Speaking and listening begins from day one for a baby. Just by interpreting what your baby needs and feels is reflected back in simple language by parents. For example: ‘you are feeling happy’, ‘you are hungry’.  Even simple activities like nappy changing are an opportunity to interact through language.  Speaking to babies before carrying out a task like ‘I’m going to wash your face’, is a great place for new parents to start. And whilst it may seem obvious to many of you, if you didn’t grow up with this kind of interaction it might not always come so naturally. Parents communicate to babies through repetition, eye-contact and the use of mother/parent-ease (that sing-song way of talking to our babies).

Look for enhancing the quality of experience for speaking and engaging with your children, even when doing everyday tasks. Take going to the park for example....talk about the grass, the trees, the sky and the birds. Get your toddler to help you with the laundry, cleaning and preparing meals. Eat as a family at the dinner table and keep the smart phones away. Turn off your digital devices and read your children books and really share with them your joy of reading. Tell them stories, nursery rhymes and sing to them.  Engaging in these sorts of activities will all help build your children’s phonological awareness and their willingness to communicate with you and the world around them. 

Encourage your toddlers to talk during play. Acknowledge their efforts to communicate and make them feel valued. Practice the correct pronunciation of words with children. If you toddler says 'doh' for dog, just say 'That's right, it's a dog'. Avoid responding to toddlers in baby talk only.  Respond as an adult to teach children the correct use of syntax. Play i-spy games to help kids identify the beginning sounds of words, 'I spy someone whose name begins with ssss’.

Children also respond better to comments on their activity than to testing questions (i.e. yes or no answers). For example, 'you have made a very tall tower' is a commenting approach that encourages them to talk and to keep their attention on the task. And remember to give children plenty of time to respond back to you. Play language games that involve speaking in sentences and provide open ended prompts, like ‘what is the mouse doing?’.

Hopefully we've inspired you with some new ideas for speaking games with your child. Even just small changes to the way in which we communicate to young children can make a big difference to their language development, and help lay the foundations for reading, writing and mathematics in the future. 

 *Extracts from Dr Duncan Milne’s book – Teaching the Brain: The New Science of Education.

kids sitting at table