How to help your child learn language — Learning Foundations

Mom Baby talkYour baby's language development begins early in life, and often we do not consider the complexity of this process and the subtleties of its development.

We know that one of the things we do with language is to understand and say words, but how and why does this happen? Language development begins with shared attention between infant and caregiver. Babies learn in infancy that language, both verbal and gestural, helps to control the behavior of the caregiver. That’s one of the reasons babies learn to cry purposefully — to get their needs met. They also learn the value of smiles early – the adult response is very pleasurable and so babies “know” how to charm their way into the hearts of their caregivers and any attending adult.

It is the development of pre-speech, conversational “turn taking,” that helps us appreciate how early language interaction begins. Have you ever cooed in unison or in alternation with an infant? You were having a baby conversation that enables them to understand the function of communication.

We also know that babies are sensitive to speech sounds and can identify changes in speech sounds directed to them. As babies develop, they begin to narrow down the range of speech sound possibilities to those that are specific to the language in their environment. So, by about 7 months of age babies understand the speech sounds of their language, and by 9 or 10 months are babbling freely and happily.

First words

Many babies (but not all) have their first words at about 12 months. Toddlers build their speaking vocabulary slowly. At about 18 months when toddlers can say 50-100 words, they start to combine words. For example, a toddler may say, “Mommy sock”, which could mean, “Mommy, put my sock on” or “Mommy take my sock off” or “That’s mommy’s sock.”

Gradually, the toddler learns the connector words to start to formulate sentences. In a “language-rich” environment (home or daycare), the average child learns about six to 10 new words daily. Three-year-olds know about 1,000 words and speak in at least three- to five-word sentences. Four-year-olds speak in lengthy, grammatically correct sentences and know anywhere from 6,000-14,000 words. High school seniors have the capacity to understand 80,000 words. Yes, they do — even if they don’t always seem to understand your directives.

Setting your child up with strong, rich language is one of the most important and impactful gifts you can give. It is the foundation in oral language that sets the stage for later growth in reading and academics in general.

Tips to encourage your child to speak

There are many things you can do with your child, even at an early age, to encourage speech and language development.

Birth to 1 year:

  • Encourage vowel-like (cooing) and consonant-vowel sounds such as “ma,” “da,” and “ba,” and repetitions of the sounds to model babbling (“ma-ma-ma-ma” or “da-da-da-da”).
  • Reinforce those pre-word conversations by maintaining eye contact, responding with speech, and imitating vocalizations using different patterns and emphasis. For example, raising the pitch of your voice to indicate a question or using a sing-song-y voice to teach pat phrases like, “So big!”, helps teach early language forms to babies.
  • Imitate your baby’s laughter and facial expressions.
  • Read to your child from books with simple pictures and just a few words or simple sentences on a page – yes, read! Your baby will find comfort in the warmth of your voice and cuddle as you read to them. This is great for a bedtime routine.
  • Do not allow any screen time from a phone, iPad, or TV .


1 year to 2 years:

  • Model single words in the child’s environment within the context — say the words of the foods they are eating, names of family members and pets.
  • Model simple sentences and routine responses such as “How big is Mikey?” for the response, “So big!”
  • If they are starting to use single words and simple sentences, respond by repeating what they say and then expand it (“recast it”) so they hear a slightly more complex version. (Child: “Milk”; Adult: ”I want more milk” or “Please more milk”.)
  • Sing nursery rhymes with finger plays such as the “Itsy-bitsy spider” or gross motor actions such as “Ring Around the Rosey.”
  • Talk constantly to your toddler at home, in the grocery story and in the car.
  • Read to your child from books that are more complex than those you read during the first year. Read books with simple plot lines and simple sentences (just a few) on the page. Have a variety at books on shelves at their level, in baskets on the floor and in their toy boxes.
  • Limit screen time from virtually nothing to very little from any electronic device.

2 to 4 years:

  • Use speech that is clear and simple for your child to model.
  • Repeat what your child says indicating that you understand. Build and expand on what was said. “Want juice? I have juice? I have juice. I have apple juice. Do you want apple juice?”
  • As they approach 3 and 4 years, recast what they say when appropriate to provide examples of more complex sentence structure.
  • Use baby talk only if it conveys the message when accompanied by the adult word. “It is time for din-din. We will have dinner now.”
  • Read to your child at bedtime, during the day and bring books in the car for them to “read” to themselves. Have a large variety of books available to them.
  • Value trips to the library. Provide them with stuffed animals related to favorite books such as “Winnie the Pooh” or “Babar.” Include books that emphasize rhyming like Dr. Seuss books which will facilitate lots of information about how words are formed, which will be used when your child starts to learn how to read.
  • Limit screen time from virtually nothing to very little from any electronic device. Remember, language is interactive and not learned as a passive activity by watching a screen.

For more information about age appropriate activities to encourage speech and language development visit the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association website, http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/Parent-Stim-Activities/.

If you are worried that your child seems to be struggling with speech and language — he or she doesn’t seem to listen or pay attention, points to things but doesn’t say the words — don’t wait and hope this is a phase your child will outgrow. Early spoken language disorders can result in problems with reading, writing and learning. They may also lead to problems with social skills, like making friends.

Early detection is important and the earlier you get help for your child the better. Maryland Department of Education's Family Guide to Early Intervention Services identifies a system of services available to help detect and then support children, birth through age 5, with speech and language disorders. Additional information about early detection can be found by visiting the American Speach-Language-Hearing Association website above.

Dr. Joan A. Mele-McCarthy, CCC-SLP, ASHA Fellow, is a regionally and nationally recognized expert in the field of speech and language development and disorders, learning differences, reading intervention, executive functions, and the connection between oral language development, reading and academic success. She serves as executive director/head of school for The Summit School in Edgewater. Questions regarding language development and disorders can be directed to headofschool@thesummitschool.org. Mele-McCarthy will be hosting a series of community talks throughout the summer, visit www.thesummitschool.org for more information.

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