Helping your child become a successful communicator is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give. Much of it will happen naturally, without you making any special effort. But much of it won’t, and it’s a tragedy to see a young child so far behind developmentally that they may never be able to effectively express themselves or advocate for themselves.
Let me hasten to assure you this isn’t about getting out the flash cards at home to do sight-words with your two-month-old . . . or any-month-old, for that matter. Leave primary school work for primary school. That’s not your job.
While all children are unique and develop to different timelines, as well as sometimes having individual developmental challenges, there are some simple things you can naturally work into your time spent with your children at home to help set them on the path to literacy—and communication—success. This falls into three main categories: communicating, reading and rhyme.
Two-way communication with your baby helps them learn to speak, listen and understand, as well as to learn words and build language skills.
Talk to your child from day one. Or better yet, talk with your child. Listen or watch for their response and acknowledge it and continue the conversation. This doesn’t have to be constant—it’s OK to have periods of quiet, smiles, eye contact and loving touch too.
- Talk with your child about the everyday things you’re doing and seeing together. For example, “Let’s get the washing now”, “Look at the red bird” or “Yum, what a nice lunch we’re having”.
- At meal times, talk about the food you’re preparing, what you’re doing to it, how it tastes and what it looks like.
- Talk about objects outside the house. For example, the rustling of leaves, or the sounds of the birds or traffic. Ask your child if they can make the sounds for wind, rain, water, airplanes, trains and cars.
- Play games like “I spy”, using colours. This can be lots of fun, especially for pre-schoolers. For example, “I spy with my little eye, something that’s green.”
- Repeat mispronounced words with the correct pronunciation. For example, if your child says “pasghetti”, you can say, “Yes, we’re having spaghetti for dinner.”
A lot of the time, children will build their vocabulary quite naturally just by interacting with their world. But sometimes you need to be intentional. We did a lot of flying when my daughter was young and I would often talk about catching the plane.
One day, after we’d arrived in Perth, we were in a shopping centre carpark when Liberty saw a plane flying overhead. She reached her arms upward and swung them in a grabbing motion, while saying, “Catch! Catch!”, much as if she was trying to catch a ball. I wondered what on earth was going through her head, when it suddenly clicked: She was trying to “catch” the plane, as I had so often talked about doing!
On another occasion, we were getting in the car to go shopping. I placed Liberty in her booster seat, in the back seat as always, but she was most upset.
“I want to sit in the back! I want to sit in the back!” she demanded.
When I informed her that she was sitting in the back, she paused for the briefest of moments, then resumed her slightly amended chorus, “I want to sit in the front!”
Front, back. Light, dark. Spoon, fork. Red, blue. Catch a plane, catch a ball, catch a cold. There are so many words (labels) for a young child to learn and so many of those words have multiple shades of meaning. Young children are primed and ready for the task, just waiting for a little help from their caregivers.
Reading with your child helps them understand how the printed word works and helps them connect sounds with letters. It also helps them build a larger vocabulary and develop a love of reading: the excitement of a story, the fun of rhyme, the fascination of facts.
Reading broadens a child’s world and is one of the most important things you can do to give your child a solid foundation for future literacy. You don’t need to teach your children to read—their primary school teacher will do that. But you need to bring them to a level where they are ready, able and eager to learn.
Read with your child often, aiming for at least once a day. You can do this from birth, but it’s never too late to start and you may well find your teenager will still enjoy being read to sometimes. In fact, my husband still enjoys being read to!
- Choose lift-the flap books, touch-and-feel books or books with rhyming or repeating words for younger children.
- Encourage your child to hold the book and turn the pages. This helps them start to understand that the book should be a certain way up and that pages are always turned in the same direction.
- Make the sounds of animals or other objects in the book—have fun!
- Visit the library. There are many different types of books you can borrow—ask the librarian for suggestions.
Rhyme further helps children learn about the connection between letters and sound, and it helps make reading fun!
After giving birth, I discovered I possessed a previously dormant talent for making up rhyming ditties to sing as we went through our day.
What’s in your nappy, what will it be?
Will it be a poo or will it be a wee?
What’s in your nappy, what will it be?
Let’s have a look and see.
My daughter recently turned 12 and she still likes me to occasionally sing these songs to her.
- Play games that involve rhyming. “I spy with my little eye, something that rhymes with toad.” Or perhaps make your own cards with rhyming words to play Memory or Concentration.
- Read rhyming books.
Remember though, no-one is expecting perfection from you. Parenting is a hard gig—we know that. But many people aren’t aware of how they can do a few simple things to enrich their child’s foundation for learning and literacy.
It is important to point out however, that as a parent, our goal at home shouldn’t be about pushing our children to excel academically. Many parents mistakenly believe because a child’s brain grows so phenomenally in the first few years, it needs to be stimulated constantly.
Teaching your child to read—teaching them a love for learning and literacy—is not about raising the IQs of our children. Happiness and security should still be a parent’s ultimate goal for their child, not academic success.
A few not-so-obvious elements in building a good literacy foundation
- Eat well and avoid sugar and junk food. Drink water. A child who eats healthily is likely to have a greater capacity for patience, concentration and listening, and to calmly explore their world.
- Explore outside, have undirected play, build with blocks, touch scrunchy things, race toy cars. All these tactile experiences have multiple benefits, not least of which is helping to develop the fine motor skills children need when they start to learn to write.
- Turn off the TV/iPad/smart phone. I know they’re tempting and can be an ever-present help in times of need, but in 2017, the Canadian Paediatric Society released updated guidelines for children’s screentime, which recommended no screentime at all for babies up to two years old. They cautioned that “there is emerging evidence that [regular screentime for infants] can lead to problems with sleeping and learning, as well as an increased risk of obesity . . . and while there is evidence some educational content has benefits for older toddlers, particularly in terms of developing language and literacy, it still pales in comparison to old-fashioned parenting.”
The Australian Government Department of Health has the same recommendations, noting that “TV watched in the first two years of life may be connected with delays in language development” and may also “reduce the length of time young kids can stay focused [and] affect the development of the full range of eye movement.”
Here’s a list of 10 best books to improve reading comprehension.
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