Most parents anticipate that sometime during the first two years of life, their children will begin to express themselves through language. Moms and dads all over the world listen for and celebrate the first recognizable word uttered by their child, whether it be “Mamma,” “Pappa,” “Bye-bye,” or “Ball!”
After learning to say individual words, children usually start to string words together into phrases, eventually mastering full sentences in order to communicate their wishes, needs and thoughts to those around them.
Harvard professor and language and literacy expert Catherine Snow asserts that children learn to talk by talking. Snow and other researchers learned and have claimed for many years that the size of a child’s vocabulary at age 5 is a major predictor of literacy and school success later in life, including skills such as reading fluency, comprehension and the ability to write and communicate clearly and effectively. Recently, Snow and some of her colleagues additionally argue that the size of a child’s vocabulary is superseded by the knowledge base a child has, although there is naturally a direct link between vocabulary and knowledge.
As children progress through stages of development, their communication needs and abilities adjust and expand as they interact with caring adults in their environment. Parents can and do have a great influence on their children’s language and vocabulary acquisition. Some children may seem to naturally be more talkative than others, however, parents and other caregivers can intentionally stimulate their children’s talk from an early age, laying the foundation for later school success and learning.
According to Snow, the first two years of a child’s life are a time when parents need to engage in back and forth verbal and non-verbal interaction with their infants. As parents participate in imitation games with their babies, interpreting their infants’ attempts at communication by responding in kind, they share “proto-conversations” or conversations that occur before a baby can talk. Proto-conversations consist of the back and forth exchange of facial expressions, gestures and sounds including words spoken by the adult. Snow encourages parents to LISTEN to their infants as much as talk to them, because when parents listen and interact responsively to babies, their talk and conversations become more effective as they reflect the baby’s interest and attention.
Throughout and following the third year of life, parents can make the most of their children’s natural curiosity to boost both vocabulary and knowledge skills. Parents of preschoolers will not be surprised to hear that research findings by Michelle Chouinard of Stanford show that from a very young age, children are capable of actively seeking out information by asking questions and that they remain persistent in finding out the answers to their questions. Chouinard found that by the age of 4, most children have asked between 220,000 and 660,000 questions. Imagine how much information they would know if all those questions were answered!
Children are naturally curious. If we want our children to learn, it would be beneficial to them if we engage them in conversations they want to have, discussing topics they want to learn more about. In addition to providing the answers we may immediately have, we can also seek out more information through books and other media to share with our children, thereby expanding their knowledge base and vocabulary as well as providing an opportunity to increase their interests by introducing new topics.
Catherine Snow encourages parents to read books with their children. Primarily, reading books together provides an opportunity for parents to engage in warm, nurturing behavior while sharing a pleasant experience with their children. Snow urges parents to expand upon basic book reading and to participate in dialogic reading. Dialogic reading is essentially having a dialogue between parent and child within the reading experience, with the asking and answering of questions while talking about observations and reflections.
Snow maintains that interacting with children within the context of shared reading experiences provides an excellent opportunity for extending conversational topics, vocabulary and knowledge about topics that may not usually be encountered in daily life and experiences. Reading books together and having back and forth conversations about them promotes question asking, having conversations about emotions, engaging in critical thinking, as well as processing information and making inferences.
Children learn to talk by talking, and therefore as parents, we should encourage them to talk more, to ask questions, to listen and respond. If a child’s vocabulary is an indicator of later reading and school success, we should find interesting things to talk about so we can engage our children in interesting conversations. After many years of research and study, Snow maintains that children’s reading abilities reflect all the conversations and every life experience they have had.
If we want our children to talk, we need to listen to them and respond to what they are saying and asking. We need to give them opportunities to talk and provide them with experiences and topics to have conversations about. These experiences can be through books as well as through actual life occurrences. What did your child talk to you about today? What is your child curious about and what questions have you answered recently on that topic? What new topics can you introduce to your child through books and life experiences?
Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., Klebanov, P., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428–1446.
Rowe, M., Raudenbush, S., & Goldin-Meadow, S. (n.d.). The Pace of Vocabulary Growth Helps Predict Later Vocabulary Skill. Child Development.
Snow, C. (2015, June 24). Learning to talk by talking: a developmental approach to maximizing language and literacy skills. Lecture presented at Usable Knowledge Workshop, Cambridge, MA.
Snow, C. E., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.