Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Oral-language skills are required for reading. Just as kids crawl before they walk, they talk before they read. And before they talk, babies listen, grunt, and coo. We must facilitate and encourage it all.

As language development expert Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and colleagues put it, “Language is causally implicated in most of what children learn in the first years of life. Indeed, kindergarten language scores, which are deeply rooted in the language development of infants and toddlers, are the single best predictor of school achievement in all subjects in third and fifth grade.”

Psychologists Anne E. Cunningham and Jamie Zibulsky describe the delayed strong influence of early oral-language skills and reading development as a kind of “sleeper effect.” The importance of early oral-language skills should not be underestimated, they say, because “no matter how accurately a middle school student can sound out new and difficult words like omniscient or prejudice, his ability to understand these words in context will depend on how often he has talked about these words and the concepts related to them. Each new word that a child acquires verbally becomes a word that he will eventually be able to recognize and make sense of when he sees it in print, so early vocabulary development is an essential skill for later reading success.”

The influence that frequent, quality parent talk has on eventual literacy is so strong and begins so early in life that many experts now rank it above the once be-all, end-all practice of reading aloud. In fact, some argue that talking with your child from infancy may be “the single strongest action you can take to increase your child’s educational opportunities.” Language learning starts early—in utero, by about 35 weeks gestation—and the formation of synapses involved in language learning peaks during the first 6 months after birth. Researchers in one study found evidence that the richness of a child’s early-language environment predicts their vocabulary, their language and speech processing, and fourth-grade literacy outcomes better than their mothers’ education level or family welfare status. 

Words matter. Timing matters. You matter.

Language Nutrition Defined 

We talk to our kids for all kinds of reasons in the moment—to soothe, to encourage, to entertain, to direct. And there’s power in every word we speak, including the impromptu conversations we have while giving baths, making meals, and playing at home. But sometimes we go above and beyond, delivering a kind of fortified talk that’s extra nourishing to their long-term brain, language, and social development. 

Some early-language advocates call this “language nutrition” to emphasize just how vital it is.

Try This at Home: Learn to TALK

Oral-language experience is critical for reading development, but making nourishing conversation with babies and young children comes more naturally to some parents than others. So I created the TALK Method to help even the quietest parents find something to say while reading or spending time with kids. The next time you’re with your child, challenge yourself to:

  • TAKE TURNS. Even preverbal infants can be dynamic conversational partners, if you let them. Pause to listen for their coos and babbles and to observe their eye movements or facial expressions. When you notice their gaze and utterances, conversation gets much easier because you’re responding to their prompts versus initiating talk all on your own. Acknowledge the interests and attention the child shows: Yes, I hear you. I think the dog is pretty silly, too. Your reply fuels early brain development.
  • ASK QUESTIONS. Want to give babies a language boost, even before they start talking? Try asking questions about a scene unfolding in real life or within the pages of a book you’re reading, like What’s that? Do you see the bird? or just Ready to turn the page? A study found that the number of questions moms asked during shared book reading with 10- month-old infants predicted language skills 8 months later.
  • LABEL AND POINT. There’s plenty to be said for describing your surroundings or what’s on a book page, as well. Pointing to everyday objects or book illustrations and talking about their colors and shapes, or discussing related action, is conversation, too. And the finger- topage or finger- to- object connection helps bring the baby’s attention in line with yours. For example, you could say, There’s the umbrella. Right there. (Pointing.)
  • KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING. Look for opportunities to extend, expand, and elaborate on whatever you’re talking about. For example, while reading you could bring book content into the realm of everyday life and experience by linking characters and plot to things the child has experienced. Saying something like the following builds on the book without veering too far off topic: Look! It’s raining in the picture. We saw rain outside our window, too.

Yes, you can have a conversation with an infant who’s not yet talking, and you can keep using these same prompts as they age. Taking turns, asking questions, highlighting interesting things, and discussing books never get old. Sooner than you think, your baby will turn into a toddler who points and labels on their own, and then a preschooler who discusses and shares their reactions with you, having learned from your fine example. Trust me, all of this gets easier with time, practice, and attention. One day, it’ll feel second nature.

Edited and reprinted with permission from Reading for Our Lives by Maya Payne Smart, published by AVERY, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Copyright © 2022 by Maya Payne Smart.

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