Language skills are truly one of the most incredible skills that a child can learn. They allow children to investigate and be curious about the world around them.
Children use their receptive language skills (or comprehension skills) to follow parents, carers and teachers’ instructions, learn new information and words, listen to rules of games and activities and to listen and understand what their friends are telling them. As children grow, they use their receptive language skills to understand what they are reading, learn more and more complex words and ideas, be able to understand the school curriculum and be able to understand jokes and social nuances.
Children use their expressive language skills to communicate their wants and needs to parents, carers and friends, talk about their interests, tell people about everyday activities and special events in their lives, and demonstrate what they are learning in the classroom through talking and writing.
How to Build Your Child’s Language Skills
Speech pathologists work with children and adolescents who find language acquisition a challenge. We are trained to provide evidence-based intervention to help children follow instructions, answer questions, learn new words and information, tell stories, and learn how to read, spell, and write.
However, you, as the most important language teacher in your child’s life, can play a vital role in facilitating your child’s language skill development. Research tells us that the home ‘language’ environment can positively impact a child’s reading, language, and cognitive skills later in life.
The great news is that you can add language to the mundane and simple things you do with your child each day, creating a language rich environment for your child. Utilising activities like bath time and meal prep to help your child develop language skills can set them up for success with education, vocation and life. For example:
Are you filling up the bath?
For the little kids, you can use it as an opportunity to talk about what you are doing and make fun sounds (e.g. splash, slip, turn the tap on). For older kids, you can talk about floating and sinking, where water comes from and how we can take care of the environment.
Are you chopping up vegetables for dinner?
For the little kids, you can use this an opportunity to talk about the names of vegetables and utensils, and the colours and different shapes you see. Chat about different actions words (verbs) like chop, grate, slice. For the older children, you can talk about where in the world the vegetables came from or how they grow.
Evidence-based Ideas for Creating a Language Rich Environment
We’ve touched on a few basic ideas of how to inject language into everyday activities, but there are some key activities you can incorporate into your daily routine that are proven to have a significant impact on your child’s language skills.
Read! Read! Read!
Reading is one of the most effective ways to facilitate a child’s language skills at home. Research tells us that reading to children 6-7 days a week has a significant impact on their vocabulary development, reading skills and their cognitive and educational abilities in the future. Studies have shown that the more a child is read to at the ages of 4-5, the higher their scores on the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) assessments in year 3.
Families often tell us that it is hard to get their children engaged in books, and also to find the time to prioritise reading. Here are some ideas to get you into the routine of reading:
- Read at the same time each day. With my kids at home, straight after dinner clean-up is reading time. It has become such a routine now that they go and find their books for us to read. My son is 12 and he we still read to him. He is able to read very well himself, but he enjoys the one-on-one time.
- Let the child choose the book. Children are usually more motivated to read if they are interested in the book. Head off to the library or let them choose a book from the shops to motivate them to read it with you. Younger children usually love flap books or texture books. As a child is getting to primary school, they may enjoy non-fiction books about a topic they love. My daughter never really enjoyed reading until I found a series of books called Sew Zoey. My daughter wants to be a fashion designer, so finished three books in a matter of days.
- Don’t worry if your child doesn’t let you read the book cover to cover. My youngest daughter and I often play eye spy with her picture books rather than reading them. This is still a fantastic opportunity for her to listen and learn to new and exciting vocabulary.
Use the Dinner Table as a Language Opportunity
Sitting down to dinner together as a family is another amazing predictor of language skills, including a larger vocabulary, higher reading scores and overall better grades at school. The benefits of sitting together at the dinner table don’t stop with language development either. According to a Harvard Study, children who eat dinner with their families eat more fruits and vegetables, have lower rates of obesity, a higher self-esteem, lower rates of depression and substance abuse and fewer eating disorders (just to name a few!).
Simply by having conversations around the dinner table about your day allows your child to hear how to structure conversations, ask questions, share important events and even listen to jokes. Some children are more than happy to sit and chat around the meal, but sometimes our children might need a little bit of help to engage.
Here are two of my favourites games to play around the dinner table (or anywhere at home) that can help encourage conversation and grow language skills:
- Chewy Chat – Roll a Catch up – ADHD Done Differently has a free downloadable game to help get the conversation ‘rolling’ at the dinner table. All you need is a dice to create a fun opportunity that encourages conversations. Click here to access the downloadable resource.
- Would You Rather? – Family Education has a big list of “Would You Rather?” questions that encourage lots of conversation and lots of laughs around the dinner table. For example; “Would you rather stick your hand in a bowl of eye balls or a bowl of brains? Why not ask your kids tonight?
- The Alphabet Game – This one is a great way to stimulate the neurons and build vocabulary (for all of us). Simply choose a category like animals, school, food or things at the beach and take turns going through the alphabet thinking of things that belong to that category. Think of animals: A = ape, B = bilby, C = camel, and so on.
Building a language rich environment at home doesn’t have to be challenging or even boring. It is all about looking into those mundane activities that fill our days and finding ways to ask questions, talk about what you are doing and help your child grow their understanding of words, phrases and conversation. Connecting as a family, particularly during games, would have to be my favourite way of building a language rich environment – what is yours?