Inclusion and wellbeing

4 daily practices to boost language development in early childhood

Small, everyday habits make all the difference with language learning.
Boosting language development in early childhood
November 2, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • This story looks at how you can boost speech and language development in early childhood through small, daily habits.
  • Supporting language development in early childhood is all about quality over quantity. These daily practices can be small, but quite meaningful.
  • We'll run through the four practices, explain why they help children develop language skills, and how you can put them into practice.

Language learning doesn’t just happen during story time.

When we look at the science behind language development in early childhood, we'll see that this amazing process that young children go through is a holistic practice. Whether or not you’re focusing on the lesson at hand, children are still learning how to communicate and are always practicing their new speech and language skills.

As early childhood educators, it can be easy to fall into the trap of solely focusing on different lessons and activities to help build speech and language development. Instead, we can use the daily moments we have while interacting with them, and little practices you can implement, to help boost their language learning and development process.

With this in mind, let's look at these daily practices that help you boost children’s language development in your early education setting.

How sharing stories helps support language development

Okay, this one is a bit self-explanatory, but reading to children is crucial for their early language development. What matters, though, is how you read.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University, University of Delaware, and Temple University came together to review and compile various studies to highlight the importance of reading to young children, and how it builds speech and language skills.

Here are some highlights from their review:

  • Reading supports children’s receptive and expressive vocabulary. Reading gives children the opportunity to hear new words within varied grammatical sentences. In other words, it allows children to add new words to their own vocabulary, while also learning how to use them in different ways. Through reading, children learn the meanings of words and what they’re referring to, and which helps them to produce those words in the right contexts.
  • Frequency matters. The benefits of reading don’t stem from just one reading session. Children benefit most from regular reading routines: The more they hear, the more likely they are to repeat words, learn them and put them to use.
  • Early language learning sets the stage for later learning. To put simply, language learning builds on prior knowledge. So, the more you read to a child, the more they’re able to absorb, and use in future learning contexts. This boosts literacy development, as well as speech and language skills in everyday use.

Speaking together is the easiest way to boost language development in early childhood

Dialogic reading: What is it, and how does it boost language skills?

Dialogic reading is reading with children, not just reading to them.

It’s an easy practice to implement in day-to-day routines within your early childhood setting. Not only is it accessible and inexpensive, but it is a reliable way to engage in a shared activity with your little ones, while also contributing to their language development. 

What’s important to note is that the benefits don’t just stem from getting through a book front to back. Rather, it’s the back-and-forth interactions you initiate with children that really boost learning, according to a 2016 study from the University of Iowa.

The study discusses the benefits of dialogic reading, which occurs when you and a little one put less focus on the text itself, and put more emphasis on engaging in conversation about the story. Using dialogic reading practices invites children to be active during book reading, and allows them to engage in responsive interactions about words, phrases, and their meanings. 

This style of reading has been shown to contribute to children’s vocabulary development and productive language abilities – in other words, their ability to produce words and phrases – especially in their early childhood years. 

Here are some easy dialogic reading practices to implement into your story time:

  • Follow the child’s interest. The best opportunity for learning occurs when children are attentive and engaged. If you notice a child gazing at a particular image on a page, this is the best time to stop and discuss, or ask them a question. You can also do this during simple nursery rhymes.
  • Ask them about personal experiences related to the book. Prompting children with opportunities to make text-to-world connections creates a rich learning environment. These connections allow children to tie what you’re reading, to an experience they’ve had before, therefore solidifying what’s written on the page.

For more tips on how to implement dialogic reading practices, head on over to one of our other stories on dialogic reading in early childhood settings.

Asking children about their interests is a good way to boost language development in early childhood

For speech and language development, it's quality over quantity

As we’ve established, social interactions are key for children’s language development and communication skills.

However, the kind of interaction you engage in with a little one really matters: Quality over quantity always wins. It's not about more words, but picking the right ones at the right time. If you notice you're losing a child's attention, it's okay to take a break.

Young children benefit from interacting with adults who are responsive, and who offer appropriate reactions and responses to what they say. 

Researchers from the University of California analyzed day-long recordings of families to see what was really occurring in their language environments, and what factors contributed to their language development. They found that back-and-forth conversations were strongly associated with future improvements for the child’s language scores

It’s most important to allow children to give their two cents and respond appropriately: Allow them to ask questions, share what they’re interested in, and get them to try speech out for themselves. Practice makes perfect, especially when children are learning more words and building oral language skills. Make sure to give children a chance to show you all the skills they’ve acquired. 

Here are some appropriate ways to respond to children’s initiations to support their early language development:

  • Follow children’s lead. Allow them to show you what they’re interested in, and respond accordingly. If a child shows you their favourite toy, and excitedly tells you something about it, you can show them how excited you are by asking them more about it. 
  • Express positive emotions. At any age, but especially during childhood, we love to interact with those who display warm, positive affect. When interacting with any child – in any context – show them that you really care by responding with a warm, accepting, tone. By doing so, they’ll know that you genuinely care about what they have to share, which encourages them to continue what they’re doing!

The best thing is, contingent interactions can be implemented in any setting: during lunch time, while playing outside, during story time, and the list goes on! It’s all about letting the little ones take the lead, and closely following. 

Dialogic reading is a classic strategy to boost language development in early childhood

Self-talk and parallel talk: how they build language skills

It can be daunting to figure out the best time to talk to a child. You’ve probably wondered, should I say something only when I have something important to mention?

A great time to engage is while you, or a child, are completing an action, engaging in a routine, or doing an activity. This is known as self-talk and parallel talk.

Self-talk is when we narrate our own actions using child-friendly language, and parallel talk is when we use simple language to narrate a child’s actions. This could involve describing the action, talking out loud, or commenting on what you or a child is doing, seeing, or touching.

Though research on this strategy is a bit limited, findings suggest that this child-directed strategy creates joint attention between you and the child, which is a crucial component of any interaction. Not only does it give you something to talk about, self- and parallel talk helps to create natural opportunities for conversational turn-taking – the back-and-forth between you and a child. 

In action, self-talk may look like:

  • Washing dishes:
  • “I am scrubbing the cup.”
  • “Time to rinse the plate with some water!”
  • Tidying up the classroom:
  • “I have to put these books back onto the shelf.”
  • “This garbage must go in the bin.” 

And, parallel talk may look like:

  • When a child is drawing:
  •  “You have the red crayon.”
  • “That is a pretty picture you are drawing.”
  • When a child is playing with a car:
  • “That car is going fast!” 
  • “Look at the car! It’s going up the ramp.”

Developing language in baby steps, every day

By engaging in either self-talk or parallel talk, you enable children to learn new words, and see how they can be used in different contexts. Through this, they pick up on what the word means, and what it refers to, as well as how and when to use the word.

This strategy is also great to use with both verbal and non-verbal children. Since it doesn’t require them to ask or answer questions that they may be unsure about, self- and parallel talk can allow you to facilitate opportunities for meaningful interactions easily, and naturally.

Language development is a holistic process, and there really isn’t a one-size fits all approach to it. However, by incorporating little practices into your daily routines – like reading, responding contingently, and engaging in different styles of talk – you can be sure to support their language development, while also engaging in meaningful moments with the little ones in your early education setting. 

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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