Daily verbal interactions
Really make a meaningful difference in language development
• The average three-year-old has heard 20 million words
• Three year olds from very talkative, socially interactive families have
heard 35 million words
• Three year olds of uncommunicative families have heard less than
10 million words
From Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children by
Betty Hart, Ph.D., & Todd R. Risley, Ph.D.
Vocabulary size
Greatly influenced by familial styles of talking and interacting with babies
• The average child has about a 700 word vocabulary by the age of
• Children of very sociable families have a vocabulary of about 1,100
• Children of uncommunicative, non-reactive families have only about
a 500 word vocabulary
15,000 hours of learning time
• From birth to age three, children have roughly 15,000 hours of
learning opportunity
• Whether these hours are filled with language, or left empty, makes
an extraordinary difference to children’s development
Beyond “business talk”
• The more you talk, the higher the quality of the language
• Quantity results in quality
• All parents engage in “business talk” — imparting necessary
information such as “get down from there,” or “don’t do that.”
– If you don’t talk much, this terse business talk is the only language
children are exposed to
• Talk more — that’s when children are exposed to complex and rich
Richer language environment
Mainly determined by the amount of talking parents are doing with baby
• The interaction with adult caregivers is the most important part of
baby’s world
– The amount of interaction makes the environment richer
• You don’t have to worry about how to talk to your baby
– Just talk a lot
Encouraging Young Storytellers
Silver Spring, Maryland
Dr. Debra Jervay Pendergrass
Co-Director, STORIES
In this preschool, caregivers carefully monitor and use everyday
conversation to improve children’s oral language skills
For more information, see Something Happened! Sharing Life Stories
From Birth to Three
Children pay attention to words
From the beginning
• Talking has an impact from the very beginning
– It’s important to talk to infants, newborns, and toddlers
• The important variable is filling the child’s life up with words and
language — associating words with everything the child is involved in
• Babies are tuned-in really early — even before birth
– For example, if you sing songs or say poems prenatally, babies will
recognize the cadence, the rhythm, and the sounds after they are born
Provide “color commentary”
Just as sports announcers do
• Talk about what you’re doing, what you see, what’s going on
• To the baby, it’s all engagement with the world and people
around them
• Listening and learning contribute to language development
Interaction is key
• Young children watch your language
– They see your eyes light up
– They watch your mouth
– It’s a “dance”
• In addition to vocabulary, they’re learning the rewards of
social interaction
Interaction is key (cont.)
• Babies don’t learn very much from a distance. They learn very little
from watching words on TV or listening to the radio, for example
• Children are immersed in the family “culture of communication”
(i.e., talking a lot or a little), and learn from it
Non-verbal component to language
• Beyond vocabulary, children are learning how to be social beings by
listening to talk
• From listening, being talked to, and observing, children learn about:
– Emotions
– The social context that goes with words
– Interactions in the family and the larger world
Assigning meanings to words
• Fast mapping — children hear a word and use the context of an
activity, an object, or a person to map meaning on to it
– For example, if a child’s first exposure to an animal is a dog, from that
point forward, every four-legged animal with a tail and two ears is a dog
• Over time, children refine those definitions
– For example, they learn to differentiate that cows also have four legs,
but they make a different sound and they give milk
Assigning meanings to words (cont.)
• Children who have world experience from interactions, creative play,
or book reading are the ones who are best able to refine word
– Exposure to an animal in a book or at the zoo gives them a greater
understanding of the definition
• Teaching children the sounds that animals make is not just a game;
it is the process of refinement for a young child
• Play is work for a child
Fast mapping pitfall
• Rather than initially asking for the definition, teachers should define
the word you want children to know from the very start and allow
children to map on to the correct meaning
• Too often, children will provide a wrong definition, and their peers
might “fast map” on the erroneous meaning
– The teacher must un-teach the incorrect things
• Make sure to place correct definitions that children must learn in the
Children love words
• Saying words is a pleasant feeling
• Making new sounds is fun for little children
• Children can often pronounce words that are difficult for us as adults
• They like multi-syllable words
– Try teaching young children sophisticated words
What uncommunicative families should know
• You don’t need to talk differently to your child
– You just need to talk more!
• You already know how — tap into that upbeat feeling and chit-chat,
play, comment, and even gossip with baby
• Make those who were raised in uncommunicative families change
their way of communication
– Encourage them to interact in more “play talk”
What uncommunicative families should know (cont.)
• Don’t worry about what it is you’re saying — talk a lot
– Extend talk beyond limited “business talk”
• With babies, just talking will automatically give you rich content
– Don’t worry about content until they’re older
Parents who are reluctant readers
“Perfect” reading is not the point — rather the interaction around the book is of
paramount importance
• Professionals must provide models for what interaction looks like
and what we’re asking parents to do. Show parents:
– that if you have a 30-page book and a three-year-old child, the point is
turning the pages together, the story, the interaction, the talking, being
involved with the child, not getting through all 30 pages
– that wordless picture books help babies learn, too
– how to tie books and book concepts to things that are important in their
own family
• Children should feel that reading is a valuable and fun thing to do
with parents
Seven learning essentials
Seven kinds of behaviors that parents, teachers, older siblings, and anyone who loves
and cares about children should adopt
These essentials have an effect on brain neurochemistry and
increase intelligence, happiness, and a sense of well-being
1. Encourage exploration
– Babies should learn through their senses (touch, taste, sound, smell,
and vision)
– As they get older, they should learn through talking and demonstrating
– Children benefit from actively experiencing both familiar and new
places and things
Seven learning essentials (cont.)
2. Mentor in basic skills
– Mentoring is teaching with love, with the well-being of the learner
central to your activities
– Showing the what’s and when’s, and the in’s and out’s of how things
• Mentoring activity: teach a child the difference between “up” and
“down” and explain other opposites
Seven learning essentials (cont.)
3. Celebrate new skills
– Developmental advances for learning new skills, little and big, and for
becoming a unique individual
– When you celebrate, you reinforce good behavior by linking positive
feelings with your child’s behavior
Seven learning essentials (cont.)
4. Rehearse and extend skills
– “Practice time”
– Help children get good at what they’ve learned by practicing again and
again, in the same and different ways, with new people and new things.
Every behavior can be used in a more sophisticated way; it’s
5. Protect from harsh and inappropriate treatment
– Shield the child from inappropriate disapproval, teasing, neglect or
punishment, from a kind of harshness that’s not right for their age
– Don’t get mad at a child for something they don’t yet understand
Seven learning essentials (cont.)
• Each learning essential affects different parts of the brain
– For example, celebration and feelings of happiness are reflected in
changes in neurochemistry
• If a child is not exposed to certain sounds when they’re young, it’s
difficult to acquire them later on
– An important window of opportunity for brain development has
been missed
Seven learning essentials (cont.)
6. Provide rich language interactions
– Communicate richly and responsively with sounds, songs, gestures
and words
– Children’s comprehension or understanding is much more advanced
than their ability to say words
Seven learning essentials (cont.)
6. Provide rich language interactions
– Rich language is really engaging the child, through:
• “parentese”: highly engaging speech that captures the
child’s attention
• silly talk
• mimicking
• games with sounds
– Interaction with rich language helps children realize that the sounds
coming from them cause a response in the world
Seven learning essentials (cont.)
7. Guide and limit behavior
– This will keep the child safe and teach what’s acceptable and
what’s not
– Socialization: learning the rules of being a cooperative, responsive,
caring person
– This can help language development by helping children know when
certain words or tones or volumes are appropriate (or inappropriate)
• For example, appropriate volumes in a movie theater versus on a
Late talkers
• By age three, most children are talking
• If a child is lagging in speech development, the problem could stem
a hearing problem
a speech production problem
other special needs
a lack of experience with language
• Very often, late talkers haven’t had enough people talk to them in
ways that can enhance their vocabulary
Perils of late talking
• More than half of children with language impairments, who are not
developing language like their peers, will have reading problems later
• Reading is really “language on paper,” so a good oral foundation
makes the transition to reading much easier for children
• Children’s early learning lays the foundation that you build on for
later learning
– When that foundation is weak or nonexistent, teachers have to go back
and think about a different starting point for those kids
Talkative and non-talkative children
• Chatty children will seek out language interaction, so they will often
get more exposure
– That doesn’t mean that less talkative children are not learning. Shy or
quiet children can absorb a great deal.
• Children are like sponges, and can be quietly building a foundation
for language and reading skills
• Talkativeness is useful, but there are other ways to learn, as well
Books help develop oral language
• Reading is an excuse adults sometimes need in order to interact
conversationally with babies
• Oral language development can come from:
making up stories
singing songs
telling nursery rhymes
reading and looking at books
For more information, see the Calif. Preschool Instructional Network's Concepts About
Books help develop oral language (cont.)
• Early concepts of print:
how to turn the page
books are filled with fun and adventure
books are colorful and pretty
books can be held and touched
• Books are integrated with the tradition of oral language
For more information, see the California Preschool Instructional Network's
Concepts About Print
Reading as Dialogue
Patchogue, New York
Dr. Russ Whitehurt
Dr. Barbara Foorman
U.S. Department of Education
Florida Center for Reading Research
Dialogic reading is a type of shared book reading that involves frequent
verbal interactions. Here, we see how the technique works in a Head
Start classroom.
Dialogic Reading: An Effective Way to Read to Preschoolers
Speech and language problems
• Speech problems
– Difficulty with the sound system, mis-articulation of words
• e.g. “fumb” instead of “thumb”
– Fluency problems
• Stuttering
• Language problems
– Vocabulary issues
– Difficulty with sentences
– Difficulty producing and comprehending language
• These problems are very common in a class of preschoolers
When are mistakes a cause for concern?
• There are qualitative differences between a child who is
experimenting with language and a child who is having problems
– Typical: saying “wabbit” rather than “rabbit”
– Atypical: talk that is unintelligible to adults familiar with the child
When are mistakes a cause for concern? (cont.)
• Early language benchmarks
– At two, the child should be using two-word sentences, “Mommy, up!”
– At three, they should be stringing at least three words together,
“Mommy, up please.”
– That works until kids are about five years old and they start doing things
that are more complex
Stuttering versus disfluency
• For young children, disfluency is common
– A case of “their mouth can’t keep up with their brain” can often appear
to be stuttering
– It can happen when a child transitions from simple to more complex
• When a child has a stutter, you can often see it physically
– Tension in their neck
– Blinking
– Physical effort to get the word out
Stuttering versus disfluency (cont.)
• In both cases, adults must be patients and do not make the child
feel bad or draw negative attention to it
• If it is a concern to you as a parent, talk to your teacher, pediatrician,
or another professional
Dancing with words
• When parents talk to babies, they should not be asking them
questions and expecting answers
• Rather, use:
parallel talk: say what the child is doing
thinking out loud
describing and labeling things that you see, things that you do
comment and pause: children love to take turns, so they
step right in
– take multiple turns talking
• This input enhances a rich vocabulary
Children can change adults
• When children have good experiences, they take it to other places
• If they are in a great child care setting where the teacher pays a lot
of attention and does a lot of talking back and forth, that child will
mirror the interaction at home
– The child can change an adult’s level of communication
Warning Signs
University of Michigan
Dr. Julie Washington
Wayne State University
A speech-language deficit in early childhood can lead to a reading
problem later on. From the moment they are born, kids sends signals to
watch for: late talking; speech problems; hearing impairment; poor
vocabulary; difficulty following directions; difficulty following routines;
trouble interacting with peers; trouble remembering things they learned.
The connection between speaking and reading
• To make sound / symbol connections — between spoken word and
printed word — you have to be familiar with the sound
• Children who are having trouble producing sound will have great
difficulty becoming phonologically aware
The connection between speaking and reading (cont.)
• Broad oral vocabulary also helps children learn to read.
– Early readers check word “symbols” against a mental dictionary. If that
dictionary is limited, reading is harder
• Vocabulary, word knowledge, and knowledge of concepts are the
building blocks of reading that are provided by early talking
Late talkers
• Research in speech and language shows about 70 percent of late
talkers will catch up
– It’s not clear yet which children will fall in to that 70 percent, and which
will be in the 30 percent that will have long-term difficulties
• We really must pay attention to late talking
• A child who is not talking until they are three or four will be at a
tremendous disadvantage when they start school and embark on
learning to read
The role of speech-language pathologists
• Reading is a language process, so speech-language pathologists
are increasingly called up to help:
– in the classroom, rather than pulling children out class
– with all learners, not just those with strong special needs
• Areas in which SLPs provide assistance:
vocabulary-building activities
book reading
research in the classroom
dialogic book reading
determining a child’s ‘language age’ as opposed to ‘chronological age’
Effective early childhood education
Not just a recasting of a first-grade curriculum for younger children
• Play and fun do not preclude building a strong foundation for
school success
• Children can and do play and learn simultaneously
• When creating an effective program for young children, it’s important
to set expectations high, and understand what learning means for
very young children
The achievement gap
• It’s been around a long time and is a multifaceted issue
• We must have an expectation that all children will learn, regardless
of background
• Some inequality happens long before children get to school
The achievement gap (cont.)
• Closing or even avoiding the gap should start at the very beginning
— at the “babbling” in infancy
• Studies show that even very “at-risk” children learned more during
the school year if they get good teachers.
– It is not a question of capability of the student, but a need for good
learning opportunities year-round
Communicating in languages other than English
• The “slow-down period”
– A natural part of the bilingual learning process
– Children slow down, become listeners and observers of language,
then “take off”
• As with other learned skills, you will see “growth spurts” — for
monolingual and bilingual children alike — in language
Communicating in languages other than English (cont.)
• Parents should speak in the language they feel comfortable using
• Parents are their child’s primary language model. They should
– good language skills
– using whatever language the parent has good language skills in
Getting the word out to parents
• Don’t confuse people with too much complexity
• The message is simple
– Talk more
– Interact with your babies
• Educators should provide lots of examples for parents to model at

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