Small talk: KU experts suggest techniques for building children’s language skills

Beth Barnett, Lawrence, and daughters Isabella, 3 months, and Gabrielle, 3, have a moment together at her workplace. Barnett uses various vocalization techniques to help her young children develop language skills.

Beth Barnett, Lawrence, and daughters Isabella, 3 months, and Gabrielle, 3, have a moment together at her workplace. Barnett uses various vocalization techniques to help her young children develop language skills.

Beth Barnett talks to her daughters constantly. She talks to Natalie, 8, after school — about her day and her homework. She talks to Gabrielle, 3, and Isabella, 3 months, throughout the day — when she gets them dressed in the morning and when she drives them to work and home. She talks to them at breakfast, lunch and dinner. She talks to them at story and bedtime.

“I talk to them all the time, no matter what’s going on,” Barnett says.

All this talk matters.

“The impact of talking to your baby is really, really huge,” says Dale Walker, associate research professor for KU. Walker’s research focuses on infant and toddler communication. “There has been lots of research in the last two decades in particular demonstrating that the amount parents talk to infants greatly impacts development.”

One study, conducted by KU researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, found that infants and toddlers hear very different amounts of language at home — in terms of quantity and quality. Children reared in language-rich environments tend to have higher receptive and expressive language abilities. And when Walker and her colleagues followed up on those same children, they found that children exposed to less talk have smaller vocabularies and more disadvantages when entering school.

"The thing to do is give children the richest language-learning opportunities you can,” says Walker. “ They should have lots of opportunities to hear language and to practice language.”

Fortunately, researchers at the Schiefelbusch Institute of Life Span Studies have found and collected several strategies that facilitate language development. Here are some suggestions:

Follow the lead

You have a better chance of boosting a child’s vocabulary when you have his attention. One baby-attention grabber is infant-directed talk, or motherese. Motherese is that sing-song, silly sort of voice that young babies seem to enjoy. But you wouldn’t want to use it all the time. Babies will grow bored.

“It appears to be cross-cultural,” says Megan Blossom, an expert on early language acquisition. “Young babies prefer to listen to that kind of voice over adult-directed speech.”

Blossom earned her bachelor’s degree at Brown University and is now enrolled in KU’s child language doctoral program.

“Babies can’t tell us what they know, what they understand or what they don’t understand. One of the most common ways of guessing is to study looking behavior,” says Blossom. “And even if a baby can’t respond with words, they are learning all the time.”

Toddlers, on the other hand, should be able to verbalize interests.

“A child will develop vocabulary quicker when you talk to them about what they are interested in,” Walker says. “If a child’s playing with a truck, talk about the truck. You might be able to introduce two or three new words.”

Label and comment

Every activity lends itself to labeling: When Barnett bathes her daughter Isabella, she lists off body parts and relays actions.

“I talk to her about her hands and her feet. I tell her I’m washing her hair, talk about her big blue eyes. I tell her I’m putting the soap on, describe the warm water,” says Barnett.

This strategy helps infants and toddlers become familiar with words. It also works in tandem with another strategy:

Provide a stable routine

Repetition can help children develop expectations. Predictable routines help children anticipate, and eventually name, upcoming activities.

Ask open-ended questions

It’s important to remember the “follow-the-lead” step here. If a child is tinkering with a toy truck, you could ask him what color it is. Or if you’re reading a child a book, you could ask what he thinks will happen next.

Imitate and expand

Sometimes when children are first learning to talk, they will say approximations of words, like “ba-ba” in place of bottle, or “tu-tee” instead of cookie. When this happens, repeat the correct form of the word and expand by adding something: “milk bottle” or “oatmeal cookie.”

Offer options

Choices force children to express desires. When it’s playtime, adults might dangle a ball and a doll in front of a toddler, or present him with two or three books during storytime, letting him select his favorite.

Use a time delay

Time delays help enhance retention. They’re best used when reading a familiar book or singing a favorite song. For example, an adult might read the words “I will not eat them Sam I am. I will not eat green eggs and ...” and then pause, letting the child say “ham.” If the child fails to fill in the blank, do it for them after a few seconds.

Reward efforts

If a child doesn’t supply a correct answer, or doesn’t give one at all, remain positive. Prohibitive words like “no,” “stop it” and “don’t do that” deter speech efforts. And it’s important to encourage speech with positive comments.

All in all, language production should occur spontaneously and unforced.

“Parents have so much to worry about: organic food, poison in plastic bottles. But when it comes to language, it’s very simple,” says Blossom. “All it is is talking to your child in a normal, natural way.”


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