The development of communication skills begins in infancy, long before a child speaks her first word. In the first year of life, how a baby responds to sound, makes gestures, babbles, and mimics sounds often indicates her future social and emotional development, as well as literacy and academic success.
It is critical that parents encourage language development early in life. They should also pay close attention to whether their child is reaching expected milestones, noting any potential delays. By doing so, parents can play an important role in addressing an emerging speech or language disorder. Through early intervention, they can help prevent later social and academic difficulties.
Social and emotional development
Early speech and language development are closely tied to positive social and emotional development. Children who struggle to communicate may also have trouble connecting with family and peers. They may become hesitant or self-conscious, which can lead to social or emotional withdrawal. At school, they can be targets for bullying and become further discouraged about interactions with peers.
Literacy and academic success
During early speech and language development, children acquire skills that are critical to literacy and future academic success. In fact, spoken language provides the foundation for reading and writing.
Children also appreciate books, learn the alphabet, and scribble on paper long before they can read key steps toward the skill of reading. Children who begin elementary school with poor language skills are much more likely to have problems developing literacy skills than those with stronger verbal abilities.
What you can do
During everyday interaction, parents can play an integral role in developing their child’s speech and language skills. Exposing children to a lot of conversation, reacting to sounds they make, narrating activities, and singing and reading to kids are great ways to build these skills.
Here are some specific things parents can do to encourage language and literacy as recommended by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA):
For babies and toddlers
- Repeat sounds, like "dada" and "baba," that your child makes. Build on these sounds and words.
- Teach your baby to imitate actions, such as peekaboo, clapping, blowing kisses, and waving bye-bye. These activities teach the turn taking required for conversation.
- Practice counting. Count toes and fingers or steps as you go up and down them.
- Expand on words. For example, if your child says, "car," you respond by saying, "You’re right! That is a big red car."
- Read picture books with sounds and rhymes. Read your child’s favorite books over and over again.
- Teach new words during special times like holidays or visits to places like the zoo.
- Give your child crayons, markers, and paper for scribbling and drawing.
For children ages 3-5 years
- Follow your child’s directions as she explains how to do something.
- Look at family pictures, and have your child explain what is happening in each one.
- Alert your child to the printed words that are all around you: on street signs, cereal boxes, etc.
- Go to the library and help your child pick out books.
- Read different types of books like fairy tales, nursery rhymes, alphabet books, picture books, and poems.
- Ask your child questions about what you just read or to predict what will happen next as you read a story.
- Write your child’s name on pictures and drawings. Say the letters and the sounds they make out loud.
Signs of a potential communication disorder
It is critical for parents to be attuned to the early signs of a potential speech or language problem, as early intervention can prevent a problem from occurring or diminish its effects.
Some signs of speech and language disorders include when the child:
- does not respond to or follow sound (infancy and older).
- does not interact socially (infancy and older).
- does not follow or understand what you say (starting at 1 year).
- says only a few sounds, words, or gestures (18 months to 2 years).
- does not combine words (starting at 2 years).
- struggles to say sounds or words (3 to 4 years).
Early identification and treatment of a child’s speech and language problems can reduce the chances they will persist or worsen. Such intervention can help children be more successful with reading, writing, schoolwork, and interpersonal relationships.
If you are concerned about your child’s speech and language skills, learn more about the signs of communication disorders from ASHA’s Identify the Signs campaign at www.identifythesigns.org. If your child shows any of these signs, seek an evaluation from a certified speech-language pathologist. A searchable database of speech-language pathologists in your area is available on the site.
Treatment is also available for children through early intervention programs. You can find a program in your state at www.ectacenter.org/contact/ptccoord.asp.