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One of the most important gifts that parents can give to their children is the gift of language. According to literacy researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, by the age of three, 86% to 98% of the words used by each child were derived from their parents’ vocabularies. In their study, the educational researchers found that children in homes that gave them the opportunity to not only hear many words, but a great variety of words, fared better than their peers in homes where this did not occur.

At a recent Early Head Start parent meeting, Richland Library’s Heather McCue and Sherry Williams shared ways that parents can help their children develop their language skills.

Research has shown that babies 6-12 months focus most on their caregiver’s mouth to see how words are formed. Face to face interaction is key to babies learning how to communicate.

  • Narration | Parents should talk to their babies as they go about their daily routines, narrating tasks and saying the names of the items they use.
  • Sign Language | Teaching babies basic signs for common words and phrases, such as “more,””milk,” and “please,” can help them communicate before they have developed the ability to form words.

According to a report from the Brooklyn Public Library, toddlers learn nine new words a day. Continuing to use a large variety of words, with specific names for things and descriptive language, will help them build larger vocabularies and become better readers.

  • Books | Reading with your toddler introduces them to new language and literary structures and helps build phonological awareness, the building blocks of understanding language.
  • Games and Songs | Singing songs with your children, especially interactive ones such as The Itsy Bitsy Spider or B-I-N-G-O, is not only a fun way to spend time together, but is also a way to help build mathematics skills.

Preschoolers have words and they want to use them. Parents should encourage conversation, setting the example by modeling good grammar and not focusing on mistakes in children’s language.

  • Reading | Parents should continue sharing books with their children, deepening the experience and children’s understanding by asking questions — “the bear is brown, do you see anything else brown on this page?”
  • Labeling | Writing the names of common household objects clearly and posting them on that object helps children to begin to learn sight recognition of commonly used words. As the children use the object, parents should speak the word aloud, pointing to the label.

Children who hear more words and are read to have larger vocabularies, start reading earlier, and arrive at school more prepared to succeed. Helping children to develop their language skills is one of the greatest gifts parents can give. It costs nothing, and the rewards are huge.

Adapted from a presentation made to Early Head Start families by Richland Library children’s librarians Heather McCue and Sherry Williams