“Reading and writing float on a sea of talk” (James Britton, 1983)
We are all aware of the benefits that talking with our children brings for them. Research suggests that children whose parents talk with them frequently hear about 45 million words in the first four years, in families that don’t talk as much children heard 13 million words. This is a stark difference you might say, however the news is not all bleak as more recent research tells us that it is not the quantity of words children are exposed to but the quality. A report for the Education Endowment Foundation on Early Language Development in October 2017 found that “The quality of input that children receive is likely to be more important than the quantity.” They found that “putting words together may be a better predictor of later abilities than the number of words that a child uses.”
How can we, as parents and educators, ensure that we are supporting our children with this? I like to think of it as a three-pronged strategy: Time, Narrate, Read.
Children, and we as adults, create stronger attachments and relationships when we recieve care and attention from those in our lives. Effective communication is built on close, strong relationships. These relationships nurture a sense of value and security in young children and help to build the high levels of wellbeing that are vital to the learning process. Yet our busy schedules and the demands of society don’t always reflect how valuable talk is. In the classroom, teachers are encouraged and supported to use their time to show that talk is valued. This is done by playing alongside the children during their own play within the classroom, and sensitively knowing when to add to this learning experience using quality vocabulary or quite simply being a silent observer. Children are natural sponges and like parrots when it comes to language acquisition, often imitating what they hear. If they hear an adult say it enough times in the right context, they will start to use it themselves. Classroom teachers will carefully plan the vocabulary they want to see and hear being used by students and by displaying and using it, we can see the positive impact on children’s talk. At home, devote some time in your day to play with your child or to ask about their day. Keep the questions specific to avoid a reply of “nothing” to the question like, “What did you do at school today?”
Take a look at some of the suggested questions:
Tell me about the best part of your day.
What was the hardest thing you had to do today?
Did any of your classmates do anything funny?
Tell me about what you read in class.
Who did you play with today? What did you play?
Who did you sit with at lunch?
Can you show me something you learned (or did) today?
Narrating your day, or plans for your day, will help children to hear and understand the language required for different contexts. When planning a trip to the park, explain to young children what you will do to get there, point out what you see on your journey and model to your child how you would describe it or how it makes you feel. Talking about your day to a child sets an example of what we expect of them when we ask them about their day. To support their mental health, let them know when it was a challenging day in an age appropriate manner, so they grow up in an environment where conversations around mental health are normal and healthy.
Sharing books with babies and young children is a fun way to share talk. You and your child will enjoy the experience, which means there is a strong chance it will become a regular activity. Talking and listening to young children develops their social and literacy skills, and reading aloud is a good way of encouraging two-way communication. Books introduce children to the exciting world of stories and help them learn to express their own thoughts and emotions. Stories provide parents and carers with a structure to help them talk aloud to children and listen to their responses. It helps overcome adult inhibitions and provides topics for discussion. Reading together gives babies and young children the chance to respond: a gurgle in anticipation of a favourite story ending, or a smile of enjoyment, shows you that young children like to communicate and do so from a very young age. Characters, words and sounds discovered through books can be talked about outside of reading time. Books are an important source of new vocabulary. Songs and rhymes are especially good for children as the rhythms and repetitive language make it easier for babies to learn language skills. Studies show that the number of nursery rhymes a child knows by heart by the time they are four has a direct correlation to their reading successes when they are older. Reading aloud combines the benefits of talking, listening and storytelling within a single activity and helps to build the foundation for language development. Here at the British College of Brazil, we value all opportunities to read using different texts and media, and in different languages, and support our families doing the same.
On Tuesday 18th January, I will be talking some more about this in an online workshop for parents and I would love to share some more ideas and hear about how you use talk and reading to support your child’s language and communication development. More details of the session will be shared with all parents in due course.