As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I have a passion for making language learning fun and FUNctional. We’ve known for decades that when it comes to learning in early childhood, children are more likely to retain information when using a hands-on approach. This isn’t just for classroom learning! If you’re looking for different ways to encourage language development at home, read on for 3 simple tips.
1. Customize vocabulary and follow your child’s lead.
When it comes to functionality, I like to start by helping a child to use words that relate to their family’s routines and the child’s daily needs. For example, if a toddler with a language delay loves trucks, I might first start by working on functional words unique to his preferences by teaching a core set of words including “GO,” “STOP,” “MORE,” “HELP” and “ALL DONE” as he plays with his trucks. These words are higher in their frequency of occurrence and can be used across many contexts including while playing with other toys or during daily routines such as mealtimes or while in the bathtub. These are the types of words that I consider to be “big bang for your buck” words. The goal is that once this child learns to say “more” to request more trucks, “help” when the car gets stuck, or “go” when he wants his dad to push it to him, he can generalize this vocabulary to other activities and routines that are functional to him and his family. Finding the child’s motivation is crucial to making learning language fun for the child!
2. Make reading interactive.
While children have an innate desire to learn, not every child can sit for a picture book. Increasing a child’s attention span during book reading is a common goal for many families. Picture books are one of the best ways to enhance language development as they present rich and meaningful vocabulary in context. When reading to a wiggly child, I like to keep these tips in mind:
Let the child choose the book.
Pair with an object to keep the child’s attention. If the child holds the object that matches a picture in the book while glancing up occasionally, this is a win and an excellent starting point!
Use hands-on books such as books with textures to feel, books with sound buttons to push, pop-up books, or “POP books” where the child is to push a “button bubble” on each page.
Be silly! Changing your voice and making the story as interactive as possible is a very effective strategy to help keep your child’s attention.
3. Use what you have.
Last but not least, while using age-appropriate and educational toys is a wonderful way to build language and bond with your child, weekly trips to the toy store are not required to make language learning fun and functional! One common game that I like to facilitate with young children and early elementary students is a do-it-yourself “What Goes Together?” game. For this activity, we collect items from around the house that go in a pair (For example: a shoe and a sock, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a fork and a spoon, etc.) For a younger child, I will put one item from each pair out on flat surface for them to see, with the other item from the pair in a bucket. The child will then pull out an item from the bucket, and find the item it is associated with. For an older child, I might put all of the items out on a surface and direct the child to scan the items to identify which two items go together. Not only does this activity target categorizations and associations, but it also targets many language skills including: Describing items, answering questions, following directions, and positional terms. This activity also gives an opportunity for learning NEW vocabulary as it can be presented with academic concepts as well.
Language learning starts in the home and when we provide children with opportunities for hands-on and functional learning activities, we are setting them up to be effective communicators. Just remember, when it comes to having fun, it doesn’t have to be complicated!