Building Language

The science of PUP Reading: Literacy skills for children 0-3


Building Language focuses on younger children, ages 0 to three. This skill set refers to a child’s growth in communication, beginning with making sounds and gestures, and then understanding and saying many words, and many types of words. This skill category also includes more language as a child reaches the age of 3, allowing him to understand and say more extended and complex sentences. Research heavily supports the fact that children who build strong language skills early are set up to be strong readers: they are more likely to enter school with the kinds of Vocabulary & Knowledge skills that support learning and academic achievement as they grow older.

To grow their language, infants and toddlers need to hear lots of words, but they also need to hear words repeated. When a parent says to the baby, “There’s the doggie! What a sweet doggie. He looks so happy. Do you see the doggie’s ears?” the baby gets a chance to hear the word doggie over and over, and starts to hold onto that word. Later, when there is a dog in a book, or when they are out in the neighborhood and a dog walks by, if the parent calls the child’s attention to the dog by saying, “There’s another doggie!” the child hears the word again and benefits from the repetition. This kind of talk, especially the ongoing, back-and-forth communicating between baby and parent (when babies coo and parents respond), helps children attach to language, and research shows that when children are more attuned to language before the age of one, they have stronger language outcomes at age two. So early repetition of words, and more opportunities to attach to language (through loving language interactions with the people in their lives), makes a difference for babies and young toddlers.

Before a child starts speaking, they communicate through cries or coos or facial expressions or body movements. Indeed, children should be communicating in non-verbal ways well before they start to speak. It turns out that the gestures that children make before they start speaking -- the pointing and communicating they do without words -- are a strong indication of later vocabulary skills. And those moments of parent/child interaction, when a child gestures and a parent responds in speech, are really important to language learning, and give yet another opportunity to repeat the word for whatever the child is pointing at and help him build up his understanding of that word. Indeed, research shows that children who gesture more early on have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences at the age of 3 ½. Overall, it seems that use of gestures by pre-verbal children is actually more indicative of later language abilities than early speech.

As toddlers’ basic understanding of individual words grows, their language develops best when parents challenge them with more complex speech used in a supportive way, and give them lots of opportunities to hear such speech. In other words, children at around age 2 ½ know more language and are therefore set up to hear and take in more complex language from the adults in their lives. At this point, studies show that parents who use more different words and more rare words set children up to have stronger vocabulary development at 3 ½. Finally, with 3 ½ year olds, language develops best when parents tell stories -- when they talk about something that happened or something that will happen. Of course, this is another instance in which Awareness & Regulation skills are also crucial, as children have to be able to attend to conversations and learn from them.

Ultimately, Building Language is all about supporting language development in different ways throughout a child’s early years. At first, this means lots of talk and bonding through language interactions; later, this means making sure to include high-quality talk (rare words and different words, and more complex sentences and ideas) to challenge children as they understand more and more language. Often the best way to incorporate high-quality talk into children’s lives is a rather simple one: read to them!

Research

  • Acredolo LP, Goodwyn SW. Symbolic gesturing in normal infants. Child Development. 1988. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, DHHS. (2010). Developing Early Literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel (NA). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  • Rochelle S. Newman, Meredith L. Rowe, Nan Bernstein Ratner. Input and uptake at 7 months predicts toddler vocabulary: the role of child-directed speech and infant processing skills in language development. Journal of Child Language, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S0305000915000446
  • Rowe ML, Özçaliskan S, Goldin-Meadow S. The added value of gesture in predicting vocabulary growth. In: Bamman D, Magnitskaia T, Zaller C, editors. Proceedings of the 30th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development; Somerville MA: Cascadilla Press; 2006
  • Rowe ML, Goldin-Meadow S. Early gesture selectively predicts later language learning. Dev Sci. 2009;12(1):182-7.
  • Meredith L. Rowe. A longitudinal investigation of the role of quantity and quality of child-directed speech in vocabulary development. Child Dev. 2012;83(5):1762-74.
  • Timothy Shanahan, Christopher Lonigan. The Role of Early Language in Literacy Development