Nurturing Oral Language Skills in Infants and Young Children

Reprinted with permission
LDA of America
Published in the May 1999 issue of Newsbriefs

For most children, all the skills needed for oral language are acquired naturally by the time they are five years old. A kindergartner, for example, uses sophisticated vocabulary and grammar and has nearly accurate pronunciation, which are used effectively to manipulate his or her social environment. In order to acquire this much language skill, however, young children must first and consistently hear the language.

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Infants and young children begin to make connections between words, or signifiers, and the things they indicate, when parents and caregivers name objects and actions for them. This is a simple activity, performed almost naturally, that does not require children to speak, but which gives them, nevertheless, words they will later use themselves. Moreover, listening to language is the groundwork for later reading skills. This is evident, for example, in the early stages of emergent literacy, when children do not comprehend stories sequentially. Instead, they perceive that each picture in a book has its own oral tale. As they appear to mimic reading, children are really retelling the events they have heard read to them previously and still see in the pictures. However, as children learn to identify letters and words, they gradually come to learn that words tell the story that pictures merely illustrate, and that the story itself does not change.

Early language interaction (infants listen, even though they cannot speak), and early language skills acquisition, are critical to the brain's development. The brain is fully ready to think through tactile learning as early as nine months, and the neural networks for abstract thinking, such as math and logic, are set to begin to function. Language interaction and early exposure to sounds, music, and rhythms remain critical to later learning.

Parents can do much to nurture early oral language development in their children through creative and focused quality time spent with them. The following simple activities are valuable and can be done, even when quantity of time with children is hard to come

1. Talk to your child.
Finding time to do this is not necessary if you remember to talk to your child whenever you are together. In addition, language, reading and math can be taught informally as part of conversation:

2. Read to your child while he or she sits in your lap.
Take turns reading (or reciting) pages aloud. This fosters in the child a positive association with reading. For children with a limited attention span provide illustrated books with big, colorful, eyecatching pictures and minimal words.

3. Reading books should be an interactive experience. Try:

4. Cultivate phonological awareness with auditory and visual word
games, such as:

5. Children learn one-to-one correspondences, then patterns and sequence.
Children learn to count, for example, and to recite the alphabet before they connect numbers and letters with math and reading. Help them master concepts by interacting with everyday objects around the home. Try:

6. Link young children with positive early reading experiences using audiotapes, videos, reading buddies, lap reading, and with a print rich home environment.
A love of books helps to make the ongoing effort of learning to read fun and worthwhile, even for children who struggle to master its skills.