Developing and promoting strong communication skills is vital for young children. Your child’s nonverbal communication (such as pointing, gesturing, and facial expressions), their capacity to comprehend language, and their use of different sounds, are all precursors for speech production. They also set the stage for school readiness, helping your child with the speech and language skills needed for reading, writing, and social success.
Fortunately, as a parent or guardian, you have everything at your disposal to develop your child’s communication skills. You don’t need a fancy workspace, materials, desk, or a textbook to get started. In fact, the beauty of early language skills is that they can be easily incorporated into your everyday activities – from playtime to brushing teeth, to getting ready for bed. All you need is a willingness to work with your child and the knowledge to help integrate language-building activities into their everyday routines.
In this post, we’re going to cover some important early language skills, and how parents and caregivers can empower children with fun, everyday activities to improve their communication skills.
Teaching children to listen and follow directions can minimise behavioural problems, improve comprehension, and help set your child up for academic success. When giving directions, you want to hold your child’s attention, make eye contact, ensure comprehension, and provide clear steps for completing each task. Here are a few enjoyable ways to improve direction taking.
- Cooking and Baking – Making a simple recipe with your child is a great way to reinforce this skill. Have them gather the ingredients (“first get the butter, next get the eggs, then the flour”). Go over the recipe step-by-step, having your child follow along and complete the task. This is also a great way to start introducing them to numbers and measurements.
- Games – Some games never go out of style, including “Simon Says” or “Red Light, Green Light.” Fortunately, these activities are fantastic ways to help children hone their direction taking skills. Not only do children have to listen attentively for your cues, but they get to have fun and move while learning both one-step and two-step directions.
- Daily Routines – Every day, dozens of opportunities arise to practice directions. Make sure to capitalise on each one, surrounding your child with a language-rich environment. When it’s time for dinner say, “go get the plate, please,” or “put down the placemats on the table.” Before bed, make sure to tell your child, “put toothpaste on the toothbrush,” or “let’s get into our pyjamas.” And remember, repetition is key. Consider repeating the same direction over a period of days or weeks to ensure proficiency.
We want our early language learners to develop a rich knowledge of vocabulary. Generally, before children can learn to read and write, they need to have a good understanding of basic vocabulary words and their definitions.
- Routine Reading – While this seems like an obvious one, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of reading on early literacy, comprehension, and vocabulary building. To hold your child’s attention, make sure to pick books they’re naturally interested in, and use funny or exaggerated voices when mimicking the characters. Take the time to model labelling pictures and action words. Also, asking questions throughout will help develop your child’s critical thinking abilities. For young children, simple “yes or no” questions will do. For older children, ask more thought-provoking questions such as, “what do you think will happen next?” You can find more reading tips here.
- Take a Walk – Every time you and your child venture outside on an afternoon stroll, you’re surrounded by opportunities to introduce new vocabulary. To not overwhelm your child, start by picking a new focus each time: trees, houses, plants, road signs, etc. Model that vocabulary in simple sentences “I see a bird!”
- Crafts – Who doesn’t love making sock puppets, or creating slime, or building a gingerbread house? Each time you do this, pay attention to the different items you’re using. Make sure to discuss what your child wants to make, different colours choices, how the materials feel, and more.
Inferencing consists of using information you already know to make predictions about the future. While we use inferences every day, it can be a complicated skill for many children to learn because it requires some complex logic and processing. However, it’s vitally important to help children develop their social interactions and reading abilities.
- Watching Movies – Watching films is a great way to help your child predict what will happen next. While I wouldn’t recommend pausing the movie every 30 seconds, take opportunities to ask questions about characters, scenes, or plot points. For example, “how do you think they’ll rescue the princess?” or “where do you think they’re travelling to?”
- The ‘I Spy’ Game – This perennial favourite helps expand inference and vocabulary skills. Think of an object in your vicinity and have your child ask probing questions until they come to the right answer. This helps them practice their nouns and adjectives as they describe the object using shapes, colours, size, and more.
- Guess Where We’re Going – Provide some fun entertainment during your next long car ride with this simple game. Offer your child clues about your destination and see whether they can guess the location. For example, “we’re travelling to a place that has sand and water, and we’re bringing our bathing suits – where are we going?”
The ability for a child to recognise, understand, and explain their feelings is instrumental to their social and emotional development. It helps children maintain friendships, develop interpersonal relationships, resolve conflict, prepare them for school, and more.
- Label Your Feelings – You can help your child identify and name their feelings by finding opportunities to give them labels. Try to incorporate this throughout your day. For example, “daddy is going to work, are you feeling sad?” or “remember that dragon? He was so scary!” You can also print out different facial expressions or emojis and play a fun matching game where children have to label each with their corresponding emotion. For young children, we want to focus on simple emotional descriptors like happy, mad, or scared. For older children, we can focus on more complex words like nervous or frustrated. This will help children continuously build their emotional vocabulary.
- Books and Movies – Next time you read a book or watch a movie, take the opportunity to ask your child how certain character decisions make them feel. Relating these feelings back to your child’s own experiences can also help them provide a relatable point of comparison. For example, “remember when our puppy ran away – how did that make you feel?”
- Encourage Empathy – It’s easy for children to think the world revolves around them. As a parent, we want to encourage them to step in other people’s shoes so they can relate and empathise with their experiences. If your child knows that pushing their friend or stealing their toy will make them sad, they’ll be less likely to do so. Make sure to talk openly with your child about how a person may feel in a certain situation. Also, one of the simplest ways parents can do this is to lead by example, recognising the feelings of others and responding in a caring way.
If you notice your child is struggling with their foundational communication skills or is lagging behind peers their age, consider seeking treatment from a licensed speech-language pathologist. Speech therapists are communication experts and can evaluate, diagnose, and treat a wide range of speech and language issues.
About Leanne Sherred, M.S. CCC-SLP:
Leanne calls Austin, Texas home but studied Speech and Hearing Sciences at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and gained her Master’s in Speech-language pathology from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She has worked in pediatric outpatient clinics, schools, early intervention, and home health. Leanne is currently the President and Founder of Expressable online speech therapy, a company that envisions a modern and affordable way for anyone who needs speech therapy to access these vital services. You can check out her blog here.