As a parent, you want to do everything you can to nurture your child’s development. The reality is that there is a very simple thing to do that costs you nothing – talk and read to your child.
This may sound obvious, but there are signals in the research literature you should pay attention to because they illustrate ways that are especially effective.
Talking to your child has a profound social effective, promoting your emotional bonding and offering a literal voice of comfort. For example, not long after birth a baby responds selectively to its mother’s voice – and hearing a mother’s voice has been shown to reduce stress hormones, increase the social bonding hormone oxytocin, as well as promoting development of the speech processing areas of the brain.
This selective preference for a parent’s voice continues throughout development, and it highlights the importance of directing conversation directly to your child in order to build language skills. Put another way, they know when it’s you or another live voice, and when it’s background noise. A telling experiment conducted by Stanford professor Dr. Anne Fernauld demonstrated this by outfitting 18-month-olds with a shirt that recorded all the sounds they heard in the home for a 10-hour period. Specialized software could disentangle live conversation versus voices coming through the radio, TV, computer, etc. There was a huge range in the number of words the children heard: for example, while one child was exposed to 700 words, another child heard 12,000. And this range mattered: the more words a child heard, the more capable they were in processing words when assessed in the laboratory, a key indicator of their growing facility with language. Larger-scale efforts are being endorsed to make sure all parents follow this simple advice of talking directly to babies and toddlers as a way of promoting academic readiness. Keep in mind that children’s receptive language skills (what they understand) develops much more quickly than their expressive skills (what words they use), so while your child may not be using the words they hear, they are learning them.
Of course, one delightful way of talking to your child is to read a book. It’s fun, it’s engaging, and there are indisputable benefits to it. A big tip is to make the experience as experiential as possible for your child. The point is not to make a baby or toddler sit passively and just listen to their words. Engage them as much as possible. You can, for example, point to the corresponding images in a picture book, and go off script from the story so that your child says whatever comes into their mind. You then expand on their words and then get back to the story. Put lots of emotion into the reading – children are not just learning the meaning of words, they are internalizing how words are used in real-life conversation and how they convey emotions as well as thoughts. And it’s okay to let your toddler act out a story as you are reading it, as research suggests this actually promotes understanding and retention.
Finally, remember that you are not just talking to your child, but also inviting them to participate in a conversation with you – and that conversational skills are prized by educators and the world at large. When your toddler says something, you can expand on it (such as your child says “doggie” and you say “cute doggie”) to model how conversations build. Make liberal use of the “wh-questions” (What? Where? Why?) when talking with your child because it helps them expand on their utterances. And, just as importantly, encourage them to talk to others. Get them conditioned to talk to the pediatrician, their grandparents, your friends, other children. Don’t answer for them when they are capable of doing it for themselves. A child who learns conversational skills will not just be developing their language abilities, but the broader art of interacting well with others.