Talk To Your Kids!

Tell another joke Mom, that one was too funny.

by: Diane Flynn Keith

Talking to your children has academic benefits that will last a lifetime. Children who hear lots of discussion, conversation, and language have a distinct advantage over those that do not. Consider this information published in a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

"By the age of 3, poor children are way behind middle-class children in language skills." In Kansas City, researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley recorded the words spoken in the homes of professional, working-class and welfare families with children from birth to age 3.

In professional families, 11- to-18-month-old children heard twice as much language as welfare children. Middle-class parents used more sophisticated language and were far more encouraging to their children.

By age 3, children in professional families used 1,116 words and spoke 310 utterances per hour. Working class children had 749-word vocabularies and 223 utterances. Welfare children used only 525 words and averaged 168 utterances. The middle-class 3-year-olds had larger working vocabularies than the welfare mothers.

In their 1995 book, "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children," Hart and Risley write: "Just to provide an average welfare child with an amount of weekly language experience equal to that of an average working-class child would require 41 hours per week of out- of-home experience as rich in words addressed to the child as that in an average professional home."

The Abcedarian experiment in North Carolina tried to do that. The children of very poor mothers were placed in full-time day care, starting in infancy. Teachers had college degrees; aides were trained in child development. Each child was prescribed activities and games to develop social, emotional, language and thinking skills. As young adults, Abcedarian grads showed significant gains in education and employment compared with children from similar backgrounds. They did not catch up with middle-class children.

Mastering our language will help your children fare better throughout their lives. Make sure you provide an environment that enriches what they hear. We must frequently and consistently model appropriate use of the language for our children.

What words do you use and how do you use them around your children? Kids imitate the language that they hear at home. If your vocabulary is limited, if you use improper grammar, if you mispronouce words -- it is more than likely that your children will do the same. If your children learn to speak incorrectly, they will undoubtedly write that way.

One way to create a rich language environment is to read out loud to your child every day from good children's literature. Ask your librarian for age-appropriate recommendations. Set aside specific time to read -- many families incorporate story time into their child's bedtime ritual.

Turn off the TV and allow at least an hour to just read and enjoy stories together. Parents can trade off story- time obligations -- but do consider it an obligation. It's your job, your responsibilty, your "sacred duty" to read to your child. The benefits in terms of your child's intellectual growth alone are enormous.

Engage in family discussions. At the dinner table or in the family car talk about the stories you read, talk about what happened during your day, plan out loud for family events like birthday parties, weddings, holidays, weekend outings and vacations. Keep the conversation pleasant and comfortable for everyone -- and avoid using these conversation times as a time to complain or air grievances. (Save those for family meetings -- a once-a-month gathering to discuss family dynamics, behavior expectations, goals, progress, rules, and consequences.)

One way to create a rich language environment is to Read Out Loud.

Once-a-week, place a new vocabulary word written on an index card on the refrigerator door. Point it out to your child. Say the word, define it, and then use it in a sentence. Keep it simple for very young children -- although you won't have to keep it simple for too long. My kids loved to wrap their tongues around multisyllabic words -- they seemed to think that the more syllables a word had, the more fun it was to say.

Look for silly words that have meaning like "flibbertigibbet" (a silly, scatterbrained person) -- or "scatterbrained" for that matter. Ask everyone in the family to try to use that word as often as possible for the rest of the week.

I remember that my kids loved the sound of the word "googol" the word for a number represented by a 1 followed by 100 zeros. Little kids adore big numbers and big words and "googol" fit the bill for my sons -- that is, until they discovered a "googolplex" (a 1 followed by a googol zeroes). :)

Be alert for news stories that introduce new words or interesting names for geographical locations. My kids were fascinated with Timbuktu, a city in the West African nation of Mali. In addition to learning a new word, we looked up Timbuktu on a map, and that increased their knowledge of the world.

If you have relatives that live far away, send them audio letters. Record your child's greeting or message and when you send it to your relatives, ask them to record their response so that your child can hear their voice.

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Play Rhyme Games with your child. They help your child recognize sounds and develop vocabulary. Think of words that rhyme while you are standing in line at the grocery store or bank, or riding in the car. Start with things your child knows, such as things that are part of his/her own body.

Say, "I'm thinking of something on your face that rhymes with (or sounds like) spies." (The answer is eyes.) Once your child gets the hang of it, you can eliminate the clues and just say, "What rhymes with 'star'?" (car, jar, far, bar, etc.) Little kids love tongue twisters too. Start with simple tongue twisters like, "toy boat," "rubber baby buggy bumpers," "a pack of pesky pixies," or "she sells sea shells down by the seashore."
More tongue twisters...

Play the "mall walk" game. As you walk around the mall try to name everything you see that begins with the letter D. For example: dress, doll, door, dollar, etc. On another walk, it might be naming everything that begins with the letter S. Or name everything you see that is the color red - or magenta (naming unusual colors are a great way to improve your child's language skills).

Don't forget to just explain what you are doing as you go about your daily routine. "I'm putting water in the tea kettle. I'm placing the kettle on the stove. I'm turning the heat on so the water will get hot. The tea kettle is whistling. The water is boiling. I'm pouring the water into my teacup. I placed the teabag in the cup. I'm going to let the tea steep in the water. See how the water changes color from clear to light brown? The tea is ready." These simple explanations help kids learn language and its proper use simply by you modeling it during the course of your day.

Parents who talk to their children, and who encourage interaction through language and communication lay the foundation for academic success!