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Published on May 23, 2016

mother and daughter reading a book

Encouraging Your Child’s Language Skills

From the time a parent brings that precious newborn home from the hospital, language skills are developing. Humans are genetically programmed to learn language. Our use of speech and symbols sets us apart from other species on the planet. But to develop language skills, humans need human interaction.

Here are some techniques you can use to encourage your child’s language skills. Start with the simpler concepts and add others as your child gets older.

Make eye contact, talk and sing

Look into your child’s eyes, smile and talk softly. Put down the devices and turn off the screens! Your child needs to see your mouth move and see the expressions on your face and in your eyes to be able to learn and interpret language. Singing is another form of talking, only with a tune. Typically, when you sing, you slow down the flow of words, which may help your child hear them better.


Whether your baby is making his or her first cooing sounds, or your toddler is saying a first word, repeat back what you are hearing. This rewards the child’s efforts at language, and teaches the back and forth flow of conversation — you talk, I listen; I talk, you listen.

Use self-talk

Talk about what you are doing. As you diaper your baby or prepare a bottle, give a simple running commentary about what you are doing. “It’s time to change your diaper! Let’s put you on the changing table. Off goes your T-shirt!” The more words a child hears, the quicker he or she is likely to learn language.

Use parallel talk

Talk about what your child is doing. The trick here is to make simple statements and avoid asking a lot of questions. Many adult interactions with kids sound like this: “Are you playing? What are you playing with? Is that a car? What color is it? What are you going to do with it?” You get the picture. This doesn’t mean you can never ask a child a question, but too many questions are confusing and don’t really help with language development. Instead, try this approach, “You are playing with your cars! That’s a red car and that’s a blue car. You are making your cars go fast! Which car is your favorite?”

Use description

Take advantage of new experiences to describe the world to your child. When you are on a stroller walk and you see a dog, say, “Look! There’s a dog. He’s running.” Call attention to things in the environment and give your child words for them.

Use expansion

When your child uses language, give one additional word idea. If your child points to a cat and says, “Kitty?” you can expand language by saying, “Yes, it’s a kitty. Kitty is soft.” This adds one more descriptive word to your child’s understanding of “kitty.” This is a great technique for children who are just starting to use words.

Use expansion plus

This technique is the same as expansion above, except that you add several more ideas to your child’s attempts at language. If your child says, “Kitty?” you can say, “Yes it’s a kitty. She’s soft. She says ‘meow.’” This technique is appropriate as your child moves beyond single words.

Use “sabotage”

“Sabotage” is a humorous way to help your child focus on word meaning and comprehension. For instance, when your child is getting dressed, you can say, “Next put on your shoes. Shoes go on your ears.” Then wait for your child to process the words. You will probably get a giggle and an indignant response, “Shoes don’t go on your ears!” Then you can say, “You caught me! Shoes go on your feet.” You can also use this technique when reading familiar books. Change the words and see if your child catches it. “The Bear Family lived down a sunny dirt road, deep in ‘wolf’ country.”

Read, read, read!

Reading together not only expands vocabulary and gives kids experience with sentence structure, grammar and conversation patterns, it also gives parents an opportunity to expand their child’s learning by explaining concepts, answering questions and instilling values. Electronic books are OK, but some experts think the interactive aspects are distracting to kids and may interfere with understanding and comprehension.

If you haven’t enrolled your child in the Sioux Empire United Way Imagination Library, visit and sign up. If you live or work in Minnehaha, Lincoln, McCook or Turner counties in South Dakota, your child will receive a free book in the mail each month until he or she turns 5! If you live in another county or state, visit to see if there is a program in your area.

Screens and devices

Let’s face it, we live in a world of technology and many of us are addicted to it. Some technology may help a child develop language skills, but experts worry about the negative effects of technology on children’s language development. When parents and other caregivers are looking at screens, children miss out on important pieces to the puzzle of language — they hear fewer words, get less eye contact, have less experience reading facial expressions that accompany language, and don’t see mouth movements.

When children spend too much time watching television, using tablets and smart phones, and playing computer games they use less language and they miss out on the “rules” of human interaction. Parents need to think about whether it is necessary to look at their devices repeatedly while playing with their children, or if a child needs to watch a movie on the car trip to the grocery store.

I encourage you to take the time to make uninterrupted eye contact, talk, and sing, and give your child the gift of language.

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