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The Whole Child
Let's Talk About It:
Building Language and Literacy Skills
abc's of child development
for parents
for early care providers
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Dos and Don'ts


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Young children have many ways to communicate, including sounds, gestures, facial expressions, and body language, but once they begin to master language, they can more easily let parents and other caregivers know what they want or need, what they feel, and what matters to them. A good command of language appears to go hand-in-hand with the ability to think logically and creatively. All of the important adults in children's lives, and especially parents, play an important role in helping young children develop verbal language skills and build a good foundation for later reading and writing.

Talking with Babies and Young Children
Babies love to be talked to. Exchanges of sounds, gestures, or expression not only lay the groundwork for conversation, they also help babies develop the sense of mutuality and give-and-take that underlies secure relationships. By listening to and watching children with real interest and responding in a way that continues the exchange, you let them know that they will be attended and responded to.

Once children begin talking, be sure to allow them time to formulate what they want to say. Waiting patiently for your child to formulate his thoughts or answer a question is one of the most important things you can do to encourage language growth. You can also ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes or no answer, including questions to which you don't already know the answer.

When parents talk to babies, they often speak slowly and melodically, using a form of speech that experts refer to as "parentese." This is exactly the kind of speech that is best suited to helping babies learn to talk. To engage your baby's attention, it is helpful to be lively and to vary the tone and pitch of your voice. It is also helpful to speak slowly and distinctly, and to repeat words and phrases. However, don't underestimate your baby's grasp of what you are saying. Well before they can respond with words, babies and toddlers can understand a lot of what is said.

Look for opportunities to give children something real to talk about that interests them. Children's attention can wander when they are expected to talk about something abstract or something they have never experienced. They are more likely to respond when the conversation is based on real, concrete, lived-through experiences. For example, asking children to discuss ways they might transport water over to a sandbox or flowerpot challenges their problem-solving abilities while keeping the subject both real and relevant to them. They can make the conversation even more real by trying out their ideas to see if they actually work. Encourage siblings or playmates to ask each other questions and to have conversations. In that way, children learn that talk can be fun, satisfying, and helpful in building relationships.

Bilingualism
In today's world, speaking more than one language is a definite asset. At the same time, in order to get along in our society, children must be able to speak, read, and write English well. But speaking English doesn't mean children have to give up speaking their first language. There is no finer way to honor children's ethnic or cultural background than by welcoming and encouraging the use of their home language or dialect in other settings, including preschool.

Gaining a sense of belonging at school helps children become good learners. Even when teachers don't speak your child's language, you can help them to learn a few essential words or phrases, beginning with the correct pronunciation of your child's name and your family's names. Help teachers learn about your family's culture and heritage. Share songs and stories in your native language as well as cultural customs.

Emergent Literacy
Gaining literacy-the ability to read and write with ease-is an essential part of language learning. To achieve literacy, children must first acquire many basic concepts and strategies, including an awareness of the sounds that make up language, an ability to rhyme syllables and words, and a familiarity with print materials. By playing language games with your children (asking them to make rhymes or to think of words that begin with the same sound), you can help them get ready to read.

One of the most important things you can do to foster children's literacy skills is to read aloud to them every day and to encourage other caregivers and teachers to do the same. Chat about the story as you read together, bearing in mind that the talk surrounding the story is as important as the story. As children turn the pages, ask them to point to things that interest them. When they pretend to read, children are making progress toward reading.

Provide young children with plenty of opportunities to experiment with writing, including scribbling and drawing, but resist the impulse to pressure them to write correctly. You can also write down children's own stories and help them dictate and decorate letters to other children or adults. You can also encourage kids to add written materials, such as signs, phone books, or menus, to their pretend play.


Find more tips on encouraging your child's emerging literacy.

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