A mother in one of my parenting classes expressed dismay that her baby did not like books. Ella, an infant less than a year old, would not sit still to be read a story. Even when Ella was allowed to turn the pages herself she reportedly squirmed and indicated her disinterest.
When I heard this story, two different ideas occurred to me. The first was that Ella was an active infant, who seemed to be working assiduously on her gross motor skills. She was a baby on the move who might not want to sit still for long, even when presented with a warm lap and bright pictures on cardboard. This behavior is well within the range of normal and, in a sense, much easier to understand than a ten-month-old sitting still to look at pictures when the tactile world is at her feet.
The second thought was that Ella might be absorbing some of her mother’s anxiety. Sarah, Ella’s mother, is a writer, an expressive, open woman who candidly shares her worries in class. One of her worries was that Ella would never enjoy books, and that she might never learn to read or appreciate language the way her mother did. Sarah’s projection of her own anxiety regarding her daughter’s future literacy may have made it impossible for Ella to settle comfortably into a book.
A few weeks later, Sarah excitedly shared a realization. Sarah suddenly understood that Ella, who had been making one-and-two-syllable ‘baby sounds’ for quite awhile was attempting to communicate with each and every utterance. Each of Ella’s vocalizations actually meant something. Ella may not have been interested in books, but she was demonstrating an early ability to express herself with words.
Sarah’s story illustrates a common worry among parents: namely, the usually unfounded fear that a child will not develop normal language skills. Recalling the fact that Einstein did not speak until he was three years old seldom brings comfort when a parent is nervous about a toddler’s abilities to speak, read, write and go to college. But, just as parents can trust a normal child to begin crawling and walking when he is ready, they can usually also trust a child’s unique developmental timetable when it involves language. Unless there is a problem with hearing or sight or a developmental disorder like apraxia), children will speak and read when they are ready to speak and read. Before that time, they are internalizing the language models in their environment.
Here are some ways to encourage a child’s language development.
Talk to your infant. Parents should open the door to communication with their child from their first days together. Telling a newborn we are picking her up before we do it; talking an infant through a diaper change and giving time for her to respond; sharing each step out loud to a baby as we put her to bed: these open, early communications will help an infant begin to internalize language.
Talking slowly, but naturally, in short sentences about the events that a child is directly involved in will create a much greater impact than, say, pointing to a random object and naming it. When an infant is asked to help put his arm through a sleeve, he is not only being treated with respect, he is also hearing words that are pertinent and meaningful to him. Most importantly, he learns that communication is a two-way street and that his participation is desired.
Model. We want our children to learn our language. So, it is helpful (and feels more natural) to speak to an infant in our normal voice, trusting that we can be our authentic selves with our child and do not need to talk ‘down’ to him.
Try to understand. When our child begins to vocalize we can encourage him by working to understand what he is saying. If we cannot figure it out, we can honestly admit, “I’m trying to understand, but I don’t know what you’re saying.” The child appreciates our attempt to understand and the words and tone encourage him to keep trying to express himself. When we do understand a word, we can respond by modeling the use of the word in a complete sentence. For example, if our baby says “ball,” then we might respond, “Ball? You see the ball in that basket?”
Let a baby stand uncorrected. It is important to refrain from correcting toddlers when they begin talking. If a toddler calls a stuffed bear a “dog,” we can encourage the child to continue speaking by responding, “That looks like a dog to you,” rather than saying, “No, that’s not a dog, it’s a bear.” A child will learn to differentiate between dogs and bears soon enough.
In the book, Learning All the Time, author and educator John Holt explains why children’s early language mistakes should be left alone. Asks Holt, “If you were just learning, in a foreign country, to speak a foreign language, how would you feel if everyone around you corrected every error you made?” Holt observes that the vast majority of people would be intimidated by such hyper criticism. The ordinary person “would wind up saying little or nothing—like a man I know who after six or seven winters in Mexico, cannot speak twenty words of Spanish because he can’t bring himself to say anything unless he is sure he is right.”
Sharing books and stories. Make reading time pleasant and relaxing by letting go of any agenda and following your baby’s lead. Allow him to turn pages, look at books upside down or backwards if he chooses to, stay as long as he wishes on a particular page, and let you know when he’s finished.
Tell stories! Even when babies are impatient with books, they will often enjoy listening to a parent or grandparent tell a story (and they don’t mind hearing poorly composed ones…believe me).
After several weeks in class learning from Sarah and Ella’s experience, I was gratified when Julie, another mom in the class, shared an anecdote. On a recent afternoon, Julie took her three-year-old niece for a walk around the neighborhood. The little girl picked up an acorn off the sidewalk and held it out for her aunt to look at. “Look! A street shell!” she exclaimed. Julie proudly reported that she held her tongue and did not correct her niece’s description of the acorn. By doing so, Julie allowed the child to revel in her discovery, thereby encouraging her niece to go forward boldly and experiment further with the beauty of language.
Well, I can certainly relate. My daughter is three years old, and I still find it a challenge to not “skip ahead,” past where she is developmentally. There are all these things I want her to try – music lessons and board games and cycling – and she’s not ready for everything I want her to do. I really do have the best intentions. I just get so excited for her to try new things. But I am learning to let her lead me and to show me what activities she’s ready for. Now when I look back at my own childhood, I wish my parents had done the same.
I have a funny story about my son. When he started talking he would call Barney the Dinosaur “Bobby”. We then noticed that other things were “Bobby”. One day, my mother came to visit from out of town and Joe called her “Bobby”. We got a good laugh that even Grandma was Barney!!! lol. He wound up being a very good, clear speaker.
Wow can I relate.
When our now 11-year old daughter was in first and second grade she had reached full command of her gross motor skills and creative play. But, she was not at all ready to “sit down and learn to read”. We couldn’t tear her away from her dance classes, but ask her to read a book? No way.
The reading/writing pressure from School was an enormous tension & stress for her, her teachers and her parents for over a year. But then it happened, in her own way and her own time. She got drawn into some very visual, fantastically creative stories that she read. And from there, it’s been no turning back.
Our daughter, now 11, the reluctant reader who teachers were flagging as delayed from the others, is now a voracious reader and wonderfully creative writer. She even decided on her own this most recent summer to spend it reading! She knocked off many 1000s of pages, including books that are a few years ahead of her grade.
Janet, we are so, so glad that we were exposed to and stayed true to the philosophy that you’re talking about in your blog. And supported our daughter’s development as her ‘inner agenda’ unfolded on it’s own.
I found your blog through a Wikipedia search (big fan of Janet Julian, especially in “Swamp Thing”), and since I have a 2yr old and a 6month old… I love your site!
Thanks, Bettina, and welcome!
Hi – I love your post – lots of wonderful and encouraging ideas for parents. But one of your items is wrong and goes against years of carefully documented research and expert opinion. Modeling adult speech with no adjustment for the cognitive development of the baby is likely to be less effective than using motherese (baby talk). Just like you would have trouble visiting a foreign country if everyone spoke to you in complex paragraphs at high speed before you knew the language, babies need adults to simplify their speech so they can begin to make sense of it. Many studies have shown that it is the natural, automatic response of most adults – and even older children – to simplify sentences, raise pitch, and speak more slowly when talking to babies. This appears to help them decode language more quickly and successfully. This doesn’t mean you have to use silly made-up baby talk words. But if you want all your other strategies to be successful, you have to encourage parents to do what comes naturally – and that means authentic baby talk. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_talk
Thank you for adding this, because I agree with most of what you say and I apologize if my meaning wasn’t clear. Yes, we must speak much slower and make our sentences briefer, so that babies can begin to comprehend our language. I wrote about that in my post: Talking To Toddlers. But, I don’t agree that we need to speak in a high-pitched voice. The studies I’ve read about that have been inconclusive, and changing pitch can feel forced and inauthentic. Infant expert Magda Gerber encouraged parents to talk to babies in a genuine and loving voice. And I believe that babies want us to be ourselves with them from the beginning, which means using our own voice, our own way of talking. Magda advised parents to “show your child you believe she can understand you.” And in Your Self-Confident Baby she wrote, “Baby talk is not our language but an artificial one created for what we think children like.”
Hi Janet, What an interesting post (and comments!) , I can understand all the worries that parents may have regarding the development of their children. Sometimes we, adults, forget how we were as children. How it was to make new discovery in a world where all is new and stimulating.
My mothertongue is Dutch, I live in Italy and my partner is German. My child didn’t speak until she was almost 4 and teachers at kindergarten didn’t understand why I spoke all these languages to her. I just can’t speak a language to the biggest love in my life that is not authentic to me. I am sure she’ll manage to maker herself understand.
Lovely greetings, angelique
Yes, Angelique, from what I understand children exposed to multiple languages usually speak a little later, but than have the benefit of being fluent at more than one language. Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Can I add an idea for encouraging language development? I think it’s very important to RESPOND to your baby’s vocalisations, and to take all sounds made while baby looks at you as an attempt to communicate.
Even if my tiny baby son was just saying ‘ah-goo’ to me, I’d smile and say something like ‘Is that right? Tell me more!’ in my normal voice, and pay as much attention to his reaction to that as I would if he’d spoken a sentence.
My son started to talk coherently at a very early age- I don’t know how much was an innate gift and how much was due to my encouragement, but I know that the transition to recognisable words was very fast. I didn’t use baby talk at all; I did use a very expressive tone.
Aunt Annie, thank you for adding that… I couldn’t agree more! Almost every sound babies make is an attempt to communicate. And I’m sure your encouragement contributed to your son’s advanced language abilities.
I have just had an experience with this, with my 7 month old son. This weekend, he suddenly started saying ‘ba ba ba ba’ while I was changing him into his pajamas. He knows after that he always gets a bottle, then goes to bed. I repeated the sounds he made in a silly way and smiled at him, and the next time he said the same thing and started patting his stomach. I had an ah-ha moment then, and asked him, ‘are you saying you want your bottle?’, and he gave me this huge grin and a delighted laugh because I finally understood him! This same child also learned to pull himself up to stand in the same weekend- we went into his room to wake him up and he was just standing there in his crib waiting to greet us! He is not at all interested in books or sitting still yet though. It really is amazing what babies can surprise us with doing sometimes, and how they tell us quite clearly what they are and aren’t ready for yet.
Very interesting! My question then, is what age is it then okay to correct? My 7 year old stepson still says a lot of things wrong, and I’m not sure whether to correct or not. Thanks!
My oldest did not like books as a baby. I didn’t force it. At 18 months, he became obsessed with books. At age 3, he still loves them and will sit and “read” to himself for hours. So hating reading as a baby doesn’t necessarily mean they are doomed to hate reading forever!
This post makes me curious what your opinion on teaching kids sign language is. I’ve seen reels on Instagram touting its benefits and wonder if you have any thoughts.
Your blog is a joy to read— it’s so thought-provoking yet intuitive. Thank you for all that you do.