How to Help Children Build Language and Speaking Skills

From the day you bring home a child from the hospital, you begin to teach your child how to speak your language(s) and begin building skills.  They are only 8 pounds and can barely open their eyes, much less start talking. Nevertheless, I am going to encourage you to talk to them as your equal right from the beginning.  By talking to them like you would a friend about the NBA, politics, shopping lists, or how gross it is to change a diaper, it will enrich your child’s language experience from Day 1.  By reinforcing the important daily habits of speaking TO and WITH your child. I want you to be confident in how to actively engage children through speech development on a daily basis. Here are a few critical strategies to help children build language and speaking skills.

Patience

The simplest and the hardest part of parenting: Give it time!  Remember, you are raising a child, not trying to win a race!

Start with Rhythmic Poetry

Poetry is often the most overlooked or intimidating concept when it comes to speaking.  Poetry is associated often times with negative experiences.  The high school or college English Literature class where you had to dissect what seemed like an incomprehensible poem is what most people think of when you talk about poetry.  I myself think of trying to decipher poems in Norton’s Anthology at 2 am the night before my English Lit. class and it was dreadful.

Children do not feel the same about poetry.  In fact, they actually LOVE silly and crazy poems. I read Shel Silverstein’s poetry every day to my daughter (and my classroom students) and it was a huge favorite and highlight of the day.  I have a past student who is now in 6th grade and desperately wants to be a poet and author Shel Silverstein when he grows up thanks to my daily recitation of the wacky poems in his book back in Kindergarten.  The rhythmic rhyme and repetition is key for some children to finally connect to print.  Where most teachers skip or gloss over the poetry unit in the curriculum, it is the language, words, phrases, structures, and grammar that begin to be articulated in a child’s mind and give them the ability to speak in that same manner.

With your baby, poetry can be the best way to talk to them. Your baby is not judging your poetry skills; you have carte blanche when it comes to being as lame as you want to and they will think you are amazing.  When you are changing diapers, eating, driving, or just cuddling, try to use rhyming words and make up a short (or long) poem.  My daughter was one that hated to bathe when she was an infant and as much as I did not want to hear her cry, we all know I had to suck it up. I will humble myself and give you an example of a poem I made up before I would put her in the bath as an infant.

Oh, how you love the bath!
You are so very clean.
My how you love the bath.
Please don’t think I’m very mean!

I know, do not give up my day job right, but my daughter loved it. She smiled at me like I had just won an Oscar for my screenplay.   My husband, on the other hand, can take any object and immediately make up a hilarious poem (and then start singing and dancing as well just to show off).   If you want to sing your poem, that is also fantastic.  Choose a favorite tune, and change the lyrics to talk about whatever you have on your mind.  Songs, and especially rhymes, are soothing and expose your child to how beautiful language expression is.  Now if you are one that knows poems from heart, you can also use those. However, for spoken communication skill building, I am encouraging you to keep your eyes on your child and not read from a book.

Use Nursery Rhymes

One of my favorite nursery rhymes moments was when my daughter wanted to work out with me on the treadmill.  She started walking quickly (while holding on) and as she got out of breath after about one minute, she says “just like I have to fetch a pail of water”.  She made the connection to “Jack and Jill” who were going up the hill and certainly must have been tired.  At 3 years old, I thought this was mind-blowing!

  • Adding actions as you sing a song or recite a poem will help your child understand how to break down language into separate words.
  • Help your child begin to recognize syllables by singing songs. In most songs, each syllable is given a different note.
  • Make up your own silly, nonsense rhymes.
  • Recite rhymes and sing songs in the language(s) that is most comfortable for you.
  • Being able to clearly hear and recognize the sounds that make up vocabulary words will develop pre-reading skills in decoding words (sound out words) as they begin to learn how to read text.

Repetition

Let’s take a moment to study the neuroscience involved in speaking.  A baby’s brain must “practice” how to say something many times before the neural pathway is truly activated and it becomes “easy”. Think back to learning how to ride a bike or drive a car. The first time you tried, you were forced to concentrate on each little movement or risk crashing. My father who taught me how to drive made me walk through the steps out loud which as a teenager I found highly annoying.  “Adjust the seat, put your seat-belt on, put the key in, turn the ignition, check all your mirrors, put the car in reverse, SLOWLY!!!!!”

Fast forward to today, I can not only drive easily, I can multitask while I drive by getting directions on Siri, scarfing down what’s left of my daughter’s breakfast, etc. Skills will become automatic. The rehearsal or practice for real words and talking is when you overhear your child babbling or saying a new word again and again in their cribs or car-seats.  No one is listening and you may see no real purpose in the repetition, this is their wonderful brain creating those amazing pathways.

New talkers can sometimes pop out a word once and then never again.  This is because the “pathway” for the word has not yet been established in their little brains. To help this process along, try to get them to repeat new words several times; don’t just settle for once! Use this word in context frequently.  For example, if the new word is truck, collect every toy truck you can get your hands on, make a makeshift (or fancy if you desire) ramp from wood or cardboard for the side of the coffee table and have your child repeat “truck” every time they want you to roll the truck down the ramp. This technique will work because it creates a fun opportunity for repetitive practice.

Set an example

Learning how to speak meaningfully with children all of the time is not an easy skill. I have parents ask me to help them to encourage their child to speak more often. The problem is most often times is when parents spend the majority of the time talking AT their children instead of TO them. An example of talking “at” at child would be a parent saying “I loved your presentation. You did such a great job talking about your garden project.” An example of talking “to” a child would be “You seemed to be having fun talking about your garden project in your presentation. What part of the gardening process made you the most happy/excited?”

When company is over or a play date is arranged, it is easy to get caught in a cycle of giving directions to children instead of engaging them.  Parents can coach children before company comes over with questions to ask the person. “How was your weekend?” “Did you get a new shirt?” “What is your favorite thing to drink?” Simple things that teach a child to interact. When the children are not quite speaking full sentences, use sign language, gestures, or have them repeat your questions (even if it is just a series of grunts). Famous last words of parents/caregivers: “we will start doing that when the kids get older”.

Living Not Teaching

This is another interesting concept I observe parents doing regularly.  I see parents starting at birth having “teaching time” and “non-teaching time” with their kids.  Literally, EVERY moment of your child’s life up to age 3 is teaching time as they are developing 90% of their brain.  You are modeling to your little one exactly what is expected in every situation, and their copycat little brains are soaking it all in.   Raising a child is about living the language, not teaching it as if it were another subject in school! (Ex. see that cat, that is a cat. Say “caaaaat”. The cat says meow. Say “meow”.”)

You need to live the language and impart that love of the language to your children through your way of life. This means speaking or narrating your everyday life as much as possible: while cooking, driving the car, picking up books at the library, going shopping. (Ex. Look at that orange and black cat! He is beautiful.  I wonder how old that cat is. Do you think that cat sleeps on a soft pillow? Do cats eat broccoli? What kind of cookies do you think he likes the best? Let’s invite the cat over for a barbque. Let’s sing a song to the cat. Hickory Dickory Dock..”) and so on.

Make the language magical!  Make it sparkle for your children by singing songs and doing dances, telling fairy tales you grew up with, and sharing stories about your childhood. Read from your cookbook during dinner hour, comment on the news, explain to them the process of changing a tire starting at BIRTH.  Yes, I am encouraging you to sound and look crazy walking through the aisles of the grocery store or going for a walk in the neighborhood. When someone says “are you okay or do you need a ride to the mental hospital”, you tell them everything you know about speaking to an infant and how you are making your child’s brain “fat” with all the language and vocabulary you can while you walk/shop/eat/shower.  When your children are older, then you can pull out the grammar books. For now, make the language a fun part of your everyday life.

Consistency

Ultimately, most young children are desperate to please you.  They need clear expectations and boundaries in order to feel safe.  However, if your child is confused or frustrated because they do not understand what is expected of them, they will simply stop answering or speaking to you.  Please do not confuse consistency with rules.  Having your child say please before they get something to eat is a great “rule”, but I would encourage you to make it a game or a competition before you say “You get nothing to eat until you say please.” You do not want to trap yourself when it comes to your child’s basic needs.  I say NEEDS because rules are different when it comes to toys, friends, etc. I am talking about consistency with eating, sleeping, bathing, getting in and out of the car safely, etc.

Resources

Language development begins and ends at home.  Most of your child’s speaking skills are not learned in school.  The majority of their spoken language skills are learned from parents and siblings.  Most children have too many toys, but does your home have enough INTERESTING books, videos, board games, puzzles, etc.? Without resources to keep their language stimulated, children get bored and will ask for screen time.  As your child develops their own interests (ex. horses, fire trucks, etc.), ask family and friends to send specific materials.  Some relatives or friends will always want to send dolls and toy guns; no problem. Download a free game on Teachers Pay Teachers to add a language component to go along with the toy.

Need

This is a precarious topic for parents. I am not attempting to encroach on your parenting methods or styles.  There have been amazing mentors in my life who have VERY different parenting styles than I do.  I will start with my own family so you can see we are far from perfect! My younger brother had 2 parents and 2 older sisters who would always talk over him. My parents had to intentionally stop all of us from talking for my brother (or interpreting his grunts and gestures as words).  We started to say “use your words” or he would have probably not started speaking until he was 5 years old.  My brother didn’t feel like he “needed” to speak even though he was more than capable.

Why should your child learn or practice speaking skills if you as the parents/caregivers or siblings will speak for them? The same goes for pronunciation. If you do not emphasize speaking correctly and allow them to grunt or use non-verbal cues such as shaking their head for the word yes/no, there is no need for correct pronunciation in their minds. Before they are 18 months old, most of what you do as a parent/caregiver will be to interpret for a child.  After they are about 18 months old, interpreting for a child needs to turn in to consistently coaching your child to use the correct pronunciation.

Pronunciation

Remember, by the age of 4, a child can no longer hear the sound they are making as “wrong”.  As your child’s brain develops, they are able to hear the pronunciation.  After age 4, if they haven’t mastered the correct pronunciation, they won’t be able to ever master it.  For example, as we moved around overseas learning many new languages, my daughter was constantly correcting my pronunciation (from 14 months- 5 years old). She could clearly enunciate the syllables, and even though I tried SO hard, I could not pronounce certain words because I was learning these languages as an adult.My daughter’s developing brain was able to clearly hear each sound and sound like a native speaker.    There can be moments where your child knows more than you; it is humbling, but it makes you proud. Your child’s native language(s) depend on knowing the correct pronunciation early on.

Pronunciation abilities vary dramatically with each individual child.  Practice the words correctly by slowing down the word.  Break words into syllables and after a few times, your child will repeat it correctly. Praise your child when someone can understand what they are trying to communicate (you as the parent/caregiver speak “baby” so use someone else as the gauge for communication:)).  There are also many occasions where children will call objects different things. My 18-month daughter called her pacifier her “night night” because she only used it at night.  I didn’t mind at all that she called it her “night night”. However, I emphasized saying “night-night” correctly until she mastered the word. It is important to strike a balance with pronunciation between practicing vs. drilling them with the words they are learning.

Adequate Exposure

Take a quick mental inventory of how much time you spend exposing your children to many different people regularly.  Again, there are personalities, geographical location, etc.  that will factor into how much time your child spends interacting with others.  However, I do know most parents/caregivers want their child to have the capacity to communicate and connect with others verbally. My rule of thumb with spoken interaction: find a way to practice on someone daily.

On a DAILY basis:

  1. begin practicing and rehearsing greetings and farewells with at least one child or adult (hello/goodbye)
  2. move on to introductions/polite conversation (the child says “hi my name is” or “how are you today”
  3. rehearse asking one question that is SHORT “how was your weekend” or “do you like cookies”
  4. Move onto further questions or more details as they begin to be more comfortable in verbal interaction and skills.

It is imperative to encourage your child to interact even if it may be uncomfortable for you or your child.  Rehearse and practice through role play in the safety and comfort of your own home. Then you can lavish your child with praise for using these verbal communication skills with others. The same principle applies to manners; a child is not innately polite. Parents/teachers/caregivers have to explicitly teach good manners.

It may come easier to some children than others, but verbal engagement is a highly complex skill. Think about the adult you know that puts their foot in their mouth from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Or the person you feel is completely uncomfortable or unfriendly when you approach them. Even the person who is all smiles and politeness. You can see from their facial expression or body language they are communicating something different entirely.  Verbal interaction takes work.


For those of you with social butterfly kids, count your blessings. I know there are many of my students that cry when they are picked up from school because they are sad to leave all of their friends. Even though “outgoing” children have an advantage, there is still a lot of work to acquire speaking and language skills. Whatever you do, please do not use this gift as a reason to judge others with a more reserved child. Remember to champion all those hard working parents and caregivers you see who show up daily for their kids!

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