What the young need to hear


“Look, Nana, there’s a limousine – the longest car you’ve ever seen!” My two and a half year old grandson exclaimed recently, quoting exactly from his current favorite book The Little Blue Truck Leads the Way, by Alice Schertle.  I’m always amazed not only by how quickly my grandchildren memorize the words to the books they love, but also that they can apply what they hear and see to the world around them.

A recent study by Stanford University psychologists validates what parents and grandparents have casually observed.  Before they can talk, children as young as eighteen months are building the foundation for language upon which they will construct their ability to make meaning of their world.

The new research follows up a landmark study that took place almost twenty years ago. It revealed the disparity of language development of children from different socioeconomic groups.  Additional research documents the connection between a child’s early vocabulary and later success in literacy and reading comprehension.  While much of the research deals with educational equity—a critical and moral issue—there are lessons for all adults who are nurturing the intellectual and spiritual development of the little ones they cherish.

Language is the fuel for a child’s mind and heart.  Read, talk, sing, rhyme—the more words in context that a child hears in infancy the more words she will be able to say, which leads to the more words she will eventually be able to read and write.  It all begins with the spoken word, and research has shown that language overheard from television and other media doesn’t have the same impact.

Children need to have words addressed to them. The more “child-directed” words young ones hear the more quickly they develop the ability to process them, which promotes language understanding.  The more words children know, the more words they can connect to their prior learning and build their vocabularies.  Stanford University researcher Ann Fernald describes it as a “developmental cascade.”

Reading books with young children can bring the wonders of the world into your snuggly warm chair and provide insights into ideas and feelings that cannot be seen or touched. Books invite children to repeat familiar words and rhymes, make sense of new information, and relate what’s on the page to their own life experience. However, building a child’s vocabulary can be part of every activity.

Talk as you go about your daily routines—those that involve children directly, like feeding, dressing, and bathing—but don’t hesitate to provide a running commentary as you cook, grocery shop, drive along in the car, and walk about your neighborhood.  The federally funded Reading is Fundamental has resources for parents to support language development, organized for babies and toddlers, as well as for preschoolers.

Meanwhile, my grandson wants to show me some “boats with billowed sails” he spotted out on the bay, which may sound familiar to those old enough to have loved the song “Puff the Magic Dragon.” So I have to get busy with some talking and singing of my own and revel in his wonderful growing mind.

Lynda Greene is director of education and philanthropy at Graham Blanchard. Her columns with tips for parents and children appear regularly.

Text Copyright © 2018 Graham Blanchard
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