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What are some practical strategies parents can use to build their child’s language and interaction skills?

Ask the Experts by Kristen DeVooght and Dorothy Heitjan

Language is the foundation of learning.  Development of language occurs in the pivotal years between birth and 5 years of age. The role parents and caregivers play during this time is monumental. 

There are three main strategies parents can use to bolster their child’s language and vocabulary skills. These three strategies as described by Dr. Dana Suskind in her book, Thirty Million Words, are:

  • Tuning In:  Recognizing and following a child’s interest or focus
  • Talking More:  Using descriptive words to enrich that interest or focus
  • Taking Turns:  Reading non-verbal cues or using questions/comments to extend the number of conversational turns or interactions.

By incorporating these strategies daily, “mundane" daily activities can be transformed into valuable brain building opportunities.  These strategies can be applied anywhere and in any situation.


Q.  Can’t children learn language and vocabulary from the many innovative apps and screen programs offered today?

A.  While some apps and computerized programs are clever and innovative, they lack the dynamic element that only human interaction can provide. Child language research clearly supports the role of attuned parent interaction on the ability of a young developing mind to reach its potential. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under 2 should not have any screen time. Children aged 2-4 are recommended to have only one hour daily. Apps and programs that involve human interaction can be the most beneficial as they combine both human interaction as well as exposure to what current technology can offer. When adults and children are solely engaging with a 2-dimensional screen, unfortunately something valuable is not happening: real-life interaction with humans and the 3D tactile world. 

Q.  Why is the period of birth to five such a critical time in a child’s life?

A.  A child’s brain is growing rapidly during these preschool years. Many changes are happening, and neuro pathways are being formed. During this period of the brain’s neuroplasticity, it is vital to nurture the child’s brain with language, interaction and vocabulary. Vocabulary exposure plays a pivotal role in a child reaching his or her potential with reading and academic success. 

Dorothy Heitjan is an early childhood program teacher and speech-language pathologist and Kristen DeVooght is a speech-language pathologist, both with Grosse Pointe Public Schools. 

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