The Surprisingly Simple Way to Give Your Toddler a Learning Advantage

image source: think stock
image source: thinkstock

My 13-month-old Katie has been babbling away like crazy these days, trying to form words, and in the process we’ve stumbled upon a fun verbal game – she makes a sound like “Dah?” and I repeat it back to her: “Dah.”

Katie:  “Dah?”

Me: “Dah.”

Katie:  “Dah?”

Me: “Dah.”

On and on it goes, until we’ve exhausted the probing “dah” discussion and move onto a different sound scenario (“Mah?” “Mah.”)

What may seem like a mindless way to stave off boredom on winter afternoons is actually laying the building blocks of language development.

I’ve been reading about this interesting municipal-wide program out of Rhode Island called Providence Talks that seeks to close the “word gap” between underprivileged children and those from more affluent families. Research shows that talking frequently to young children facilitates better language skills and vocabulary, giving them a leg up by the time they enter kindergarten.

But kids from poorer families tend to hear 30 million fewer words by their 4th birthday than their peers in middle- and high-income households.

It’s not hard to see why. Parents in lower income families might not feel so chatty when they’re working two jobs and struggling to pay the electricity bill. Who feels like talking when you’re super stressed? (Kids in higher income families can also hear fewer words if parents are also equally stressed, neglectful and constantly glued to their screens.) But vocabulary disparity can affect IQ and school achievement. This “gap” can compound over time because so much of learning depends upon basic vocabulary.

Providence Talks seeks to change that by tracking and improving how parents speak to their children. They do this by coaching families in better ways to communicate and by recording the number of words spoken by families in a given day. (You can learn more about how it works here).

Whether you’re rich or poor, stressed or relaxed, you can still make the most of your talk time with your toddler to facilitate better language skills. Here are eight simple tips I gathered from the research and from Providence Talks representative Rob Horowitz:

1. Encourage and add.

Whenever a toddler attempts a new word – lets say, car – encourage him/her, then add to the discussion: “Yes! That is a car! It’s a blue car. A big, blue car.”

2. Emphasize encouraging rather than discouraging talk.

Instead of using restrictive language like, “No, that’s not a squirrel. It’s a bunny,” try, “Although it looks like a squirrel, it’s actually a bunny.” Too much corrective or critical talk conveys the message the language attempts is “wrong;” they may feel less inclined to try in the future.

3. Talk to them, not simply around them.

Although it seems like kids should pick up sophisticated language simply by listening to adults (talking on the phone, for example), that’s not always the case. Kids develop better language skills when they’re actually involved of the discussion.

4. Talk while doing chores.

Explain what you’re doing as you sweep the floor or load the dishwasher.

5. Take a word walk.

Carry your baby around the room or outside and name objects of interest to your child.

6. Don’t simply read books, but ask questions while reading.

Example: “Why is the girl happy or sad?” Your child might not totally comprehend what you’re getting at, but you’re laying the foundation for analytical thinking.

7. Play telephone.

Use a toy telephone and take turns and having a conversation.

8. Get on their level — literally.

Kneel or bend down so you’re eye to eye while speaking, it demonstrates interest.

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