LONDON: Sammy Mackey, our regular contributor, is based in London with her husband and two beautiful children. (2 year old, Leah and 6 months old, Dara). Sammy was previously a consultant with Accenture in London before retraining as a teacher.
I have been working in childcare for the last 6 years in both nurseries and primary schools and with children from all walks of life. During that time one of the most notable lessons I have learned is just how important language is in the early years and how instrumental the role of the primary care giver is in helping establish language skills in young children. I have seen both ends of the spectrum and strongly believe that good language skills early in life can help set the tone for good learning going forward.
As a result I have put a very heavy emphasis on building language skills at home with my daughter who is just over two. I am always proud to hear people comment on how ‘advanced’ her language is. She only just declared to me this afternoon in the buggy “Mummy don’t go fast, I might drop my biscuit and the doggy will eat it”. I think, because I am a primary teacher, people presume that I am doing something special with her at home but really I just try to focus on a few key things. To some, the tips below may just come naturally and come across as common sense, but to others it might help their child develop new language skills.
Talk to your children
It sounds very simple and totally obvious but this is the most powerful tool and you’d be surprise to learn how many people just don’t do it. Even from a very young age, I narrated as much as possible, about both what I was doing and what she was doing. E.g. “I’m just hanging your socks up on the washing line” or “Are you banging the spoon on the floor?”
I am a huge believer of the power of baby sign and am certain it contributed to her being an effective communicator as she was able to sign what she wanted well before she was able to manipulate her mouth and tongue to create words. Please see my article on Baby Sign for more information.
When she points to things and grunts, gesturing that she wants something I tell her to “use your words please”.
I always give her time to her finish her sentence no matter how long it takes, or how many times she goes back to the start. It’s all too easy to predict what she’s trying to say and finish her sentence for her, especially since us mums are usually in a rush, but its so important to give time for her brain to process what she’s trying to say. There must be nothing more frustrating for a child than to be cut off mid sentence especially if you get it wrong. It’s important to show that I have confidence in her, that I have time for her and to teach her to persist and never give up; a small life lesson.
Repeat it back
I make a habit of repeating back what she says after she’s finished especially if there is some uncertainty on my part. E.g. “You gave teddy a cuddle?”
Don’t dumb it down
I always teach her the right vocabulary and don’t intentionally give her an ‘easier’ word. What may sound complicated to us is just another new word to them for instance; ‘paramedic’ rather than ‘ambulance doctor’. She was given a kaleidoscope from her granny and when she asked what it was I told her. We practiced the word a few times together and now she will attempt it on her own. Ok so it’s not completely phonetically correct yet but she gives it a good go and she’ll get it eventually, enriching her vocabulary range. If she asks what something is, I tell her the truth and try to extend my explanation. There is no need to ‘baby-fy’ it. E.g. “It’s a thermometer. I put it in your ear to take your temperature when you’re sick.”
Be a good model
I tend not to correct her when she gets something wrong; rather I repeat it back to her correctly. For instance if she says “The baby wants him dummy” I will say back to her “The baby wants his dummy?” If I were to try and correct it by saying “It’s not him dummy, it’s his dummy” not only do I risk crushing her confidence and discouraging her from trying new words and sentences but it’s been proven not to be effective as they only register the mistake in that particular sentence in that particular instance. By modeling it back each time she will get used to how things sound and will eventually correct it herself.
Look interested and give her eye contact when possible.
I try to build in some time for talk during the bedtime routine, again, time permitting, where we / I talk through what we have done that day. I usually start it with “Thank you for a lovely day today. I had such fun when we…”
I don’t just read the text but I talk about the story, characters, pictures etc. See separate article on Book Talk. I understand that time pressures sometimes require a quick story but a few times a week try to extend the talk at story time.