The Art of Conversation

To help your child learn to talk, make sure you provide interesting and stimulating fodder for listening.
Help your child's speech by talking about what you're doing, no matter how ordinary.

Admiring pictures of the planets with his dad, 4-year-old Wyatt Ronan asked a question about the rings around Saturn. He listened to his father's explanation and then said, "That's insteration, Dad." "Do you mean interesting?" his father asked. "Oh, that too," Wyatt answered. Several days later, Mike Ronan noticed that his son had mastered the appropriate use of the new word. In fact, the boy seemed to use it constantly. Kids' vocabularies and abilities to understand concepts blossom when they are given frequent opportunities to engage in one-on-one family conversations.

"From infancy on, it's critical for parents to respond to their children's attempts to communicate, whether through sounds or gestures," says Carol Copple, early childhood specialist at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. But that doesn't mean the process has to be burdensome. It can be as simple as describing each step of what you're doing, whether you're diapering, feeding, or doing other activities with your baby.

It's also good to label things, Copple says. "When your child points to an object, don't just hand it to him. Name it: 'Here's your bear.' Get into the habit, too, of expanding on what your child says. If your baby masters the word 'juice,' you might say, 'Yes, here's your juice. Juice tastes good.' "

Follow Your Child's Lead

There are many strategies that can help you provide a language-rich environment for your child during the preschool and elementary school years, says Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, coauthor of How Babies Talk (Plume, 2000) and director of the Temple University Infant Language Laboratory in Philadelphia.

"No matter what their age, children respond better when we talk about what they're interested in. The best thing we can do is to build on their interests and get the conversation going," Hirsh-Pasek says. "Our children don't want to hear monologues. The kids who develop the richest vocabulary are those who have parents who are responsive to them, who let them do the leading."

It's also important to learn to tolerate silence instead of filling in for your child whenever there's a gap in the conversation. "When our children don't respond quickly, we often jump in too quickly," notes Hirsh-Pasek. "That creates a 'hover mother.' Like a helicopter ready to zoom in, we answer for them rather than giving them the time they need to figure out what they want to say. As kids get older, this tendency frustrates them so much that they decide not to talk to us. They close us off."

Talk at Mealtimes

"Mealtime is a place where we gather and talk about our day," explains Diane Beals, assistant professor of education at the University of Tulsa, whose research examines dinner-table conversations in families with 3-, 4-, or 5-year-olds.

"In some homes the talk is limited to statements like 'Pass the peas' or 'Be careful not to spill,' " Beals observes. "We looked for the kind of talk that takes children away from the immediate present at the dinner table and gets them thinking about other places and times. Sometimes a child asks questions and the parent provides answers. Sometimes the child explains something and the parent probes for details, asking, for example, 'Why do you think that happened?' We found that the more of this kind of talk a child experiences, the better his reading will be at ages 6 and 7."

You can also stimulate rich table talk by doing the following:

  • Extend the conversation. "One little boy in the study talked about how a firefighter visited his classroom and showed the children his air tanks," recalls Beals. "The boy's father then compared the firefighter's tanks to the two tiny tanks on the boy's scuba diver toy. The idea is to help kids see connections and to challenge the mind to go beyond the immediate."
  • Have company frequently. Inviting a child's friends and other families over to visit opens the door to new subjects and different points of view.
  • Turn off the TV and tune in to your kids. It's difficult for kids to engage in conversation when they have to compete against the tube for your attention.
  • Savor the familiar. "You know how kids seem to drag behind when you go on a walk?" asks Hirsh-Pasek. "Well, that's because they're paying attention to things like the way the wind feels against their skin, or the ants crawling on a stem." By concentrating on the here-and-now, you can engage your child in conversation about what he sees, feels, hears, and smells.

Read and Reread

Reading the same books over andover helps kids learn language.

Respecting the familiar is also a good principle when it comes to reading books aloud. Young children like to hear the same story over and over, "and that's great," says Beals. "Eventually they memorize it, and memorizing allows them to figure out what those marks on the page mean. They get to the point where they can look at the word printed on the page and figure out that it matches up with the words that come out of their mouth."

Rereading favorite stories is also important because it sets the stage for more sophisticated conversation. "The first time they read a story the parent might have to provide a lot of explanation about what's happening," explains Jeanne De Temple, research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "The next time, they're likely to talk more about what the child thinks about the story, and the third time why the characters act the way they do."

Make time for book talk, says De Temple, who has conducted studies on the ways mothers and children interact when they look at picture books. "What's so enriching about book reading is the verbal interaction that goes on between the mother and child," she says. "The important thing is the discussion that ensues about the child's life in relation to the story."

De Temple's research indicates a strong correlation between the quality of mother-and-child conversations shared around books and the child's success in language and literacy during kindergarten and first grade. She suggests parents make connections between the story and the world or the child's experiences. Also, as you read a story, pause to ask your child what she thinks will happen next.

Early childhood specialist Carol Copple says, "Kids who develop the vocabulary, the concepts, and the enjoyment of language through interaction with their parents come into school way ahead."

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