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Our Blog: January 3, 2011

The Power of Talking with Children

By Pam Schiller, Ph.D.

Many people think that talking with children is not important because there appears to be so much children don’t understand. This is a huge misunderstanding! Children understand our intonations and speech patterns almost from birth. If they are around talkative caretakers, they understand most of what is said to them by the time they are eight months old.

An infant is biologically wired to learn to speak, but this wiring will not happen without human interaction. A baby can’t learn to speak from hearing people talk on television or radio, or from hearing conversations at a distance. Babies learn to talk during one-on-one conversations as they watch how the speaker forms his/her mouth or moves his/her tongue while talking.

The baby’s brain also forges wiring for the sounds of language during the first year of life, between the fourth and eight month. The brain forms a neurological “community” for each sound in the child’s native language. For English speakers, this is 44 communities, one for each of the 44 phonemes used in the English language. The more a baby is spoken to, read to and sung to, the more distinct each community becomes. By the time children reach age 5, it will be easy for them to distinguish various letters sounds if they have had a rich language experience during their preschool years.

Vocabulary also develops rapidly in the first five years of life. An infant who has a “chatty caregiver” will at 18 months have 181 more words than a peer who has not been exposed to language. By 24 months, this gap will have grown to 295 words and by age 5 to 1,500 words. The more words children hear, the more words they acquire. The more words they acquire, the richer the language that others use with them. Children are more receptive to developing vocabulary from birth to 5 than at any other time in their life. In fact, by the time a child is 5, he or she will have three-fifths of the vocabulary they will ever have.

Children need people who will listen to them and who will respond to their ideas sincerely. This exchange of language nurtures not only the development of vocabulary and sentence structure, but also social intelligence. Humans are a complex interplay between their genes and the experiences and interactions they encounter in their environment. The environment plays the major role ― about 70 percent. Children learn language and social graces as they experience life and as they interact with caring adults.

The time we spend talking with children during the preschool years is providing them with tools they will need throughout their school career. With the proper tools, children will tackle academic and social challenges with greater confidence and they will encounter a much higher rate of success.

Tips for Talking to Beginning Speakers

  • Most toddlers understand more words than they can say and more complex grammar than they can produce. When speaking to toddlers, try to match their understanding of words rather than their ability to produce them. If a child says “wa-wa” for water, don’t imitate them. Respond with the correct pronunciation, “water.”
  • During routines, like feeding and diaper changing, or while playing with toddlers, provide vocabulary for the things around you. If something nearby is something you know a song or rhyme about, sing or say the rhyme.
  • Be consistent in the words you use when toddlers are beginning to speak. If you call what they are putting blocks into a “container” today, don’t change the word to “pail” or “bucket” tomorrow. As toddlers gain control of their vocabulary, around 2 or so, you will want to expand it by showing the many different words that can be used to identify the object: container, bucket and pail.
  • Provide time for toddlers to respond. They are not able to process information as quickly as adults or even older children. If you are patient for a response and allow them plenty of time for practice, you will be surprised at how quickly they will improve their speed and accuracy when responding. Waiting also signals that you respect their thoughts and ideas.
About the Author

Pam Schiller, Ph.D.

Dr. Schiller is a respected curriculum specialist and freelance author and speaker. Dr. Schiller served as head of the Early Childhood department at the University of Houston, where she also directed the Lab School. She is the author of six curriculums, 18 children’s books, more than 30 teacher and parent resource books, and a number of other creative projects such as activity books, DVDs and CDs.