5 Ways to Encourage Speech Development and Language Skills

5 Ways to Encourage Speech Development and Language Skills

Long before a child speaks their first word, a child is already communicating.  The first signs of communication happen during the first few days of life when an infant learns that a cry will bring food and comfort. The newborn also begins to recognize the sound of a parent or caregiver’s voice. As they grow, infants begin to sort out the speech sounds that compose the words of their language.   As the infant’s oral motor skills and voice advance, they are able to make controlled sound such as cooing and later babbling. Babbling develops into a type of nonsense speech that may have the tone and cadence of human speech but does not contain real words. By the end of their first year, most children have mastered the ability to say a few simple words. Children might be unaware of the meaning of their first words, but quickly learn the power of those words as others respond to them.  By eighteen months of age, most children can say eight to ten words. By age two, most are putting words together in crude sentences such as “more milk.” During this stage of development, children rapidly learn that words symbolize or represent objects, actions, and thoughts.

Research conducted by Hart and Risley in 2003 showed that language exposure varies widely between socio-economic classes. The language experience of young children was not influenced by amount of toys or gadgets, but was instead solely determined by the quantity and quality of communicative interaction between the parent and child. Their research showed that the amount of words heard by a child in a family of low socio-economic status was significantly lower in quantity and quality, than those heard by a child on the other end of the spectrum.  The data revealed that by age four, an average child from a family of low economic status would have heard 30 million words less than a child from high economic standing.

As pediatricians, we can play a key role in fostering appropriate language development.    During our interactions with families – we must educate and empower parents to positively influence their child’s speech and language development from early infancy, as they hold the key to impact not only their child’s linguistic capabilities, but also their future cognitive potential and a child’s future success.

Here are some suggestions that can be incorporated into practices providing care to infants and children to encourage successful early language development:

  • Encourage parents and caregivers to read, talk, sing and play with their children beginning at birth.  Some possible activities to suggest include:
    • Imitate your baby’s laughter and facial expressions.
    • Talk as you bath, feed and dress your baby.  Talk about what you are doing, where you are going, what you will do when you arrive, and who and what you will see.
    • Identify, point, and count objects.
    • Introduce animal sounds to associate a sound with a specific meaning.  “The cow says moo”
    • Sing simple songs with your child and enjoy music together.
    • Share picture books with your children, talk with them about what is happening in the pictures, and possibly even act out stories with them.
  • Educate parents to avoid criticizing their child’s articulation or speech patterns.  Instead they should praise their child’s efforts and lovingly repeat their statements with correct pronunciation or word usage.
  • Implement a literacy promotion program such as “Reach out and Read” that incorporates reading and literacy into the well child visit beginning at birth.
  • Encourage parents and other caregivers to visit their local library with their children to borrow books and for story time.
  • Educate families to use television and technology sparingly.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children younger than 2 not watch television at all.  Children at this age learn better from interactions with the world around them.  In addition, evidence suggests that screen viewing before age 2 has lasting negative effects on children’s language.

Dr. Lia Rodriguez, MD
Medical Director, Texas Children’s Health Plan

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