In their first year of life, while kittens are catching mice and foals are galloping about, human babies are carefully studying and mimicking their parents. Unlike other mammals, children need adult help for nearly everything. Over time, they come to understand that their survival depends on learning from their families and environments. As they acquire language skills, little ones become attuned to using words and gestures to help express what they feel and to get what they need.
As we can easily imagine, most of the words very young children acquire are derived from their parents' vocabulary. But more than hearing words, the non-verbal clues that parents give toddlers about words are part of the context of learning, and influence the depth of children's vocabularies upon entering school.
As parents and caregivers, we can take advantage of the experiences we share with our children to support language acquisition, especially if we keep in mind their perspective. Here are six practical, everyday suggestions to help boost vocabulary in early learners:
1. See Something, Say Something
Describe things that are happening as they are happening, e.g., "Here comes a dog." Children have been shown to learn words more quickly when they can see and feel the object, as opposed to an abstract word with no apparent context.
2. Be Descriptive
Encourage children to describe what they see. Typically when we point out objects to young children, for example a cow, car, boat, etc., we get stuck on nouns. Invite descriptions including shape and color (adjectives) and movement (verbs).
3. Practice Anytime, Anywhere
Take advantage of time in the car or at the supermarket to practice word play, pointing out objects of interest as you talk about them to help provide immediate context and explanation.
4. Provide Feedback
Reflect back what children say to you. For example, if you child says "I see a cat," you can respond by saying, "Was it a grey cat? That's probably Tom, Mrs. Smith's pet cat." This confirms their experience and affirms their ability to have a successful conversation.
5. Use Non-Verbal Clues
Remember that children are sensitive to gestures, facial expressions, tone of voice, and other non-verbal actions, both in conversation and in educational situations. Keep the space close between you when speaking, make eye contact, widen eyes, keep arms at your sides for a receptive posture, and if possible, bend down to the child's level.
6. Offer Positive Reinforcement
When children are pointing at people or objects, validate and name them: "Yes, I see the bunny's nose! His whiskers are twitching."
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This blog post was originally published on The Spark.