Language Development: Talking With — Not Just To — Your Child

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Mother and daughter talking Parents already know that it is important to talk to their child — even when they are infants! Research shows this helps children develop language skills and vocabulary, which are predictors of future academic and social success!

A new research study takes that idea a step further.

Researchers recorded every word children 4 to 6 years old and their parents said for two days and analyzed recordings. Then the children listened to a story during a functional MRI, which tracked brain activity, and afterward took standard language tests.

It turns out that the child-parent pairs that had more back-and-forth conversations — vs. parents just talking TO the child — showed increased activity in the language center of the brain and better overall scores on language testing, no matter the family’s socioeconomic status. The study was published in Psychological Science.

While talking to your child is still the right thing to do, you will also want to include opportunities for taking turns. Here are some ideas for turn-taking activities with different aged children.

Try these!

Infants and Toddlers:

  • Play with dump and fill toys, such as a box of blocks or container of toys. You can put the toys in and let your toddler dump out the toys. Use words like, “uh oh,” “fill it up,” “clean up,” “in” and “out.”
  • Open doors on a pop-up baby toy and let your child close the doors. Say, “knock knock,” “open” and “closed,” or “hi” and “bye-bye.”
  • Hand things to your toddler and open your hand to allow your child to give it back, saying, “Thank you!”
  • Pretend to have a phone conversation by holding a phone, toy phone or another object to your ear.
  • Push a car down a ramp or a train on a track, and say, “My turn,” “Your turn,” or “Ready, set …” for your child to fill in “Go!”
  • Play peekaboo with a blanket or your hands. Take turns being the person who “hides.”
  • Mimic each other’s sounds or baby talk.
  • Blow bubbles and model “My turn,” “Your turn,” “You blow,” “You pop,” “I blow,” “I pop,” or “Pop, pop, pop!”
  • Copy each other’s actions, such as clapping, stomping, jumping or making silly faces.

Preschoolers, 3 to 5 years:

  • Play turn-taking games with a prop, such as a fishing pole or a ball. Pass it back and forth and make comments while you play.
  • Place pieces for Legos, a puzzle, Mr. Potato Head or dress-up dolls in a clear box with a lid. Take turns looking in the box and selecting a piece. Use words or short phrases to say which piece you want next.
  • Pretend to cook with a toy kitchen and foods or with child-safe bowls and spoons from the kitchen. Comment on stirring, cutting and eating. Bring dolls or other toys to the table and have a play meal or picnic.
  • Hide toys around the room and give clues to help your child find them. Use concept words like on, in, under and behind. Then allow your child to hide the toys and give you clues to find them.
  • Color pictures with your child and take turns using different color markers and crayons. Ask for the colors and share. Talk about if a crayon is broken, light or bright, or if a marker is dry or you cannot find the cap.

When reading to your child:

  • As you read, ask your child point to a specific animal, item or place, such as barn or beach, and say the name. Take turns making animal, vehicle and other environmental sounds with your child based on what you see in the pictures. Encourage your child to tell you to point to things on each page by saying, “Now you be the teacher. What should I point to?”
  • Comment on your favorite part of the story or picture in the book, and then allow your child time to comment on a favorite part or character. 
  • Take turns “telling the story” by looking at the pictures. Ignore the words and have fun making up your own story!
  • Take turns asking each other questions about the story, such as, “Where is the dog?” “What is he doing?” and “What do you think will happen next?”
  • Have your child “read” to you and ask you questions.

Remember to make it natural and fun while you practice turn-taking with your child in play, reading and during conversations. The reward for your patience will be improved language skills, cognitive abilities, and academic success.

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Contributed by: Angie K. Stinson, MA, CCC/SLP, Kristin E. Greene, MS, CCC/SLP