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   Ask Jeanna - Helping Children to Speak Well

How can I help my child learn to talk?
.A:   Here are four ways to help your child learn to talk, to use words appropriately, and to have a growing vocabulary by age four.  (When I say that there are four ways, I don't mean choose one way.  I mean, do all four!)

Way Number One - Spend lots of time with your young child actually responding to your child - speaking simple words and sentences to your child.  Delight in your child's sounds and attempts to say words (by smiling, repeating these sounds and words, and saying additional words).  And read simple picture books with your child every day.  For instance -
  • Your baby smiles at you.  You can respond with a smile back and some words like, "I love your smile!"

  • Your toddler reaches for a ball.  You can respond with some words like, "You want the ball...You got it!  You can roll it to me and I'll roll it back to you." 

  • Your toddler says "juice" or "doos" (meaning juice).  You can respond with some words like, "I'll get you some apple juice.  You must be thirsty" or "Thanks for using your words and saying 'juice.'  I'll get you some juice."

  • Your young child drops (or throws) a toy.  You can respond with some words like, "Let's put it down gently"  and demonstrate (with a smile) by picking the toy up and putting it down very gently once, twice, or even three times.  And each time you put it down slowly and gently, you can say words like "I like to put it down gent-ly.  You can put it down gent-ly too"  Just like this!"

  • You change your child's diaper. Instead of being silent or saying something negative (like "stay still" or "what a mess"), it's a perfect chance to say words like, "I'm going to give you a clean, dry diaper . . .  I like how you help me - you lie down and we talk to each other while I change your diaper."

  • You look at a simple picture book with your infant, toddler, or two-year old.  There are so many good ways to "read" a book to babies and very young children - take your pick and try different ways! 

    You can read Mother Goose rhymes and simple picture books to your baby while your baby is in your lap.  (Even though your baby won't understand all the words, your baby will enjoy hearing your voice.  Your baby will enjoy hearing the language and words you speak, and over time will understand that the words and pictures are interesting and mean something.) 

    You can read simple picture books with your toddler by looking at a few pages in a picture book and naming the objects "I see a ball!  I see a baby!  Oh, look at that dog!  What a sweet puppy dog!" or you can ask your child to show you the book and say, "What do you see?"  When your child shows you the page with the dog, you can say something like, "I see the dog.  Thanks for showing me the dog.  You can say 'dog'!" 

    And you can try reading the simple, short story in a picture book to your toddler while he or she looks at the pictures, points at the pictures, and listens to the handful of sentences that make up the story.

In all of these ways - spending lots of time with your child responding to your child, speaking simple words and sentences to your child, and reading simple picture books to your child - you can truly help your young child learn to speak well.

Way Number Two - Make sure that whoever else spends lots of time with your child (nanny, child care provider, babysitter) does all this too.

If someone else spends hours each day with your young child and doesn't speak English well - or doesn't understand how important it is to speak to very young children - or doesn't know how to talk to young children in a positive, clear, and supportive way, your child will be at a disadvantage.

It's really important to do everything that you can to find a caregiver who will love your child, keep your child safe, and help your child learn many, many things - including how to speak and "use words" well throughout the day.

If you have any doubt about how important this is, let me tell you a true story (without naming names).  There is a very wealthy community just north of New York City where highly successful, highly educated, highly verbal people live.  Many of the mothers and fathers in this wealthy community commute to New York City for highly paid professional jobs, leaving their young children in the care of private nannies. Their children have plenty of toys, clothes, food, play-dates, etc.   A number of years ago, educators in this wealthy community's very-well-respected elementary schools noticed a disturbing situation - when these children started kindergarten, they had poor vocabularies, what the school system referred to as a "language deficit."  The school system actually hired a well-respected, nationally-known literacy expert to help them identify the cause and to help address the situation.

What was the cause?  Lots of wealthy, well-meaning mothers and father had hired nannies who spoke another language and who didn't speak English well.  And culturally, these nannies didn't know that it was really important to speak to (and with) very young children - using well-chosen, increasingly complex words and full sentences - because they hadn't been raised that way.  The result?  Kids with a "language deficit."

Now I realize that most working parents don't have private nannies, but this true story illustrates that there is an important window of time from birth to five when children can acquire a wonderful vocabulary of familiar words that they have heard, learned, and to some extent use - or they can start school with very limited language skills and at a real disadvantage.

So if your child is going to attend a child care program while you work, try to pick a situation where your child's teacher(s) or caregiver(s) talk to each child, respond to each child, encourage each child, and read to each child.  And if you want your child to speak English well, then choose a child care situation with attentive, well-spoken, English-speaking adults who understand child development and who promote language skills.

When combined with the wonderful attention you are hopefully giving your child, this will add up.

Way Number Three - Keep expanding the number of words and the variety of words that your child hears each day. 

A great way is to read picture books out loud in the morning, afternoon, and evening.  Instead of reading one book a day, read three.  Instead of reading a super-simple board book (where there's a picture and a word on each page), read stories that have one sentence - or a few sentences - on each page of the picture book.  Have fun!  There are so many wonderful picture books to look at and read with your child!

An equally important way to expand the number of words your child hears and learns is to "update" and expand how you speak to your child.  Perhaps you've gotten used to talking in a limited way like, "sit here" or "stop crying" or "not now."

It's time to talk with a full sentence or two.  If your child says, "cat" you can respond by saying, "I see the cat!" or by saying, "I see the cat near the chair!"  If you want your child to sit in a chair, you can say, "I'm going to put you in the chair.  It's time to sit and eat some food."  If your child is crying, you can say, "I see you're upset. You want [whatever it is].  Let's use words and see what we can do."  If it's time for your child to put on a jacket, you can say, "It's cold outside.  You need to put your jacket on so you'll be warm.  Which hand do you want to put in first."

In just a few short years, your child will progress from making sounds to saying one-word and then two-word communications.  And then, copying you, your child will start saying simple sentences using a growing vocabulary, asking questions, and actually holding conversations with you!

Way Number Four - Expect your children to use words to the best of their abilities.

I've worked with young children and their families for over forty years and am also a Mom. I continue to believe that a useful, guiding principle with young children is, "Do the best you can, and I'll help you with the rest."

When it comes to children "using words" to the best of their abilities, here's a sample progression.

Your baby whimpers or cries to be picked up.  You pick up your baby (and you might say something like, "Here sweetheart" or "I'll pick you up" or some other sweet words).  Your baby has (effectively) communicated with sounds, and you've responded. Since your baby can't yet say any words, you don't expect words.

The months go by (during which you're hopefully talking to your baby). 

Now you have a one-year-old who whimpers or cries to be picked up - or lifts his or her arms up and makes a whining noise.  Instead of just picking up your child (since it's clear what your child wants), first take a moment to describe what your child wants.  Just smile at your child and say, "You want to be up!"  Emphasize the word up! as you look at your child.  And as you pick up your child, you can repeat the word, "up!"  You've responded to your child's noises with kindness - and you're helping your child learn the word "up!" by saying it more than once, including while you're actually lifting your child up.

The months go by.  Now your child is about one-and-a-half, making lots of different sounds, and therefore perfectly capable of saying "up" (or "uh").

Now, when your toddler whimpers, whines, or cries to be picked up, you can calmly remind your child to use words.  You can smile and say to your child, "You don't have to cry or whine.  You can say up! up! and then I'll pick you up!"  Then, when your child says "up" or "uh", you smile and pick your child up -  while saying something like, "I like how you said 'up'!  You're really learning your words!"

The next step?  To encourage your child to add a very important, one syllable word: "please."  (If you want your child - for years to come - to say "please" in a variety of situations and with a variety of people, it helps if you're a good role model.  It helps if your child hears you say "please" when you talk to your child - as in "Please hold my hand" or "Sit here, please."

Another reason to have your child say "please" is that many people tend to respond more positively to a child's request when the request is said in a nice voice and the child says (what some people call) "the magic word."  If you're like me, you don't like giving in to whining or being ordered around by a demanding two-year-old, four-year-old, or yet older child - so helping children learn to "use their words" to the best of their ability and helping children learn to say "please" makes sense.

So now, the weeks or months go by.  It seems like your toddler is learning new words every day and is able to say two words or two sounds together.  Now, it is completely reasonable to help your toddler or two-year-old learn to say these two words: "up please!"

When my child was this age, she would stretch her arms up and say "upeez."  And I would smile and pick her up - and tell her, "I like how you said up please!"  It was one of her first words, was a delight to hear, and her "upeez" remains a delightful memory.

You, too, can help your child learn to say "up please" (or some approximation of these words, like "upeez").  When your child wants to be picked up - and stretches his or her arms up, whines, cries, whimpers, or says "up" - you can take a moment to smile and remind your child to say "up please."  Just say something like, "You want me to pick you up.  You can say 'up please! . . . up please!"  Then, when your child says these words, you can smile and pick up your child - and tell your child "I like how you said up please!"

What next?

In the coming months, you can encourage your child to use yet more words.  For instance, when your two-year-old wants to be picked up, you can smile and say something like, "You can use all your words.  You can say pick me up please!  Pick me up please!"  Your child may pronounce these words like "pih-mee upeez" and that's O.K.!  (Actually, it's wonderful!  A sequence of words! A sentence!  A clear request!  A polite request!  A child who is using words to express his needs and wants and who is successfully and pleasantly communicating with you!)  So up in your arms your child goes!

Before long, your child's pronunciation will improve.  And over time, your child will tell you additional words like "Pick me up please.  I need a hug" or "Pick me up please so I can reach [something high up] or see [something high up]."

 It's a wonderful progression!

You've helped your child to use words.  And you've helped your child to feel secure, to be successful, and to be polite and verbal.  Wonderful!

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