Promoting language at home: Part 1

My top three tips for promoting literacy and language skills at home are…

  • Talk and listen!
  • Read together!
  • Promote language as holistic!

To expand briefly:

Talking and listening is an incredibly powerful way of helping your child to develop language skills. It allows you to model all sorts of conversational and semantic skills, including tone, cadence, inflection and context. You can also use these conversations to introduce new words to your child in a relevant manner, helping your little one to develop a broader and deeper vocabulary.

Reading together is so simple yet so effective. It not only introduces language but helps your child to develop a positive relationship with words through that special shared experience. Having good quality books in your home environment helps your child to build the relationship between spoken and written language. It’s ideal to have books where your child can reach them independently as well as taking the time to read them together.

Promoting language as holistic means finding opportunities to explore words and meaning as they apply to other subjects. Rather than viewing words as a separate subject of their own – like “English” – a young child should view literacy as a perfectly natural and intertwined part of every learning experience! So if your child spontaneously shows interest in a dragonfly that’s fluttering through your garden then you can use that moment to introduce the nouns, verbs and adjectives that might relate to that little creature. There are so many of these natural, embedded language experiences each day and they can be more impactful than planned activities because they are relevant to your child’s natural curiosity!

 

Teaching language lessons at home: 

There are also lots of ways to integrate more ‘formal’ language experiences, but it is important to be balanced and positive in your approach. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to “teach”. Remember that your child has an incredibly powerful absorbent mind, so a lot of language learning will happen very naturally. Try to ignore the ‘peer pressure’ of friends (or commercials!) making you think that other children are reading or writing fluently in early childhood. The vast majority of primary schools have absolutely no expectations that a child will be reading or writing by the time they enter their first year of school. So any ‘formal’ reading or writing skills acquired during early childhood are an added bonus, but they are not a prerequisite for school and they are not “the norm” for most children. By all means create lessons, arrange environments and promote experiences but don’t feel that you need to pressure your child.

 

Part 1: Prepare a language rich environment. (Click HERE for Part 2). 

Think of your whole house as your child’s prepared environment. Try to place language – written and verbal – in as many places as possible throughout the house. The book on your bedside table is showing your child the purpose and value of written language. The notes on your fridge should be low enough for your child to read them too, so that they can start to see the different contexts and structures of language (such as invitations, to-do lists etc).

 

Be wary of the language lessons your home environment is teaching by accident! For instance, if your child watches TV then think about whether those shows model real language or if they rely on “baby talk” and babble. Choose high-quality over novelty every time!

 

If you’d like to introduce purposeful ‘language’ activities, place these in a consistent place in the child’s environment. A little low shelf, with enough space for


If you’re using activities it’s a good idea to have a balance of constancy and novelty. Have some language items that are always present – such as a little letterbox where your child can write and post cards to family members (this could be a purchased letterbox or one that you and your child make from a shoebox!). These constant items promote repetition and make language part of the child’s natural routine and rhythms. Supplement these constant items with some activities that are rotated regularly (read below for some activity ideas). The presence of these, and how often you change them, should be based on your observations of your child.

 

Here’s a few quick rules for those observations:

  • If your child never picks the activity from the shelf, then it is either lacking a suitable ‘point of interest’ or it does not fit your child’s current needs.
    Your first response here is to change its presentation slightly to create more of a ‘point of interest’ – if its in a box, try taking it out and putting it on a tray/basket so it’s easier for your child to see. Or change some of the colours/materials in the activity to make it a little more appealing to your child.
    If you make the activity more enticing but your child still doesn’t choose it then the next step is to try a presentation. Invite your child to try it with you and show how it works. Sometimes a child is just simply unsure of what to do with an activity, so they don’t take the plunge of choosing it spontaneously, but a demonstration from mum or dad might help them see how fun it is!
    If you’ve tried improving the point of interest and you’ve given a presentation but your child still doesn’t return to the task independently, then it’s a sign that the task doesn’t quite match their needs. Remove the activity for now (but either store it, or take a photo as a reminder, so you can reintroduce it later). Try something a little different, but don’t be discouraged! It doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with the activity, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with your child, there was just a mismatch in timing!
  • If your child regularly picks the activity but struggles with it then you should first engage in a presentation, working together to develop the skill. If your child still seems unable to grasp the concept then try to decrease the level of challenge (for instance, if it’s sorting by initial sounds and you have 4 sounds to sort then try reducing it back to 2 sounds at a time). If your child still doesn’t respond comfortably then remove the activity and wait for a later date to try it again.
  • If your child regularly picks the activity and uses if effectively, engaging in problem-solving and repetition, then leave it there! Even if this keeps happening for weeks or months – leave it there! As long as your child is engaged in a positive, productive and purposeful way there is no need to make a change. Let your child keep revisiting the task and refining their skills.
  • If your child regularly picks the activity but uses it in a destructive way then it may be that your child is ‘bored’ by it. Intellectual boredom can leads to destructive behaviours so if your child is being rough or careless with the material then perhaps it’s too easy. Either swap it for a more challenging task or add steps/materials to the activity to extend it.
  • If your child regularly picks the activity and breezes through it then this is again a sign that you need to increase the level of challenge. Either swap it for a more challenging task or add steps/materials to the activity to extend it.

 

 

Look for opportunities to embed language into other projects or explorations. For instance, in the pictures below we used language to record our observations of a growing silverbeet plant.

  

 

There are so many ways to incorporate writing, letter recognition or reading into your daily routines or special projects. Let your child help to write the shopping list - or write one yourself but then let your child look for the matching words in the shops! Look for opportunities in your daily interactions to promote verbal or written language naturally. The more relevant language feels (especially written language!) the more your child will want to acquire the skills involved in it. 

Promote ‘writing without writing’. Dr Montessori used materials such as “The Insets for Design” to help children begin making the shapes used in letters without the pressure of actually writing the letters. Through these ‘indirect preparations’ the children were able to acquire writing skills more naturally and thus had a spontaneous ‘explosion into writing’ when their hands were ready. You could invest in Montessori Insets or you might simply look for ways to allow your child to acquire ‘pre-writing’ skills without actually writing. These can include using paintbrushes, drawing on a chalkboard or even making marks in the dirt or sand with a stick. These motor movements help prepare the body while also reinforcing that ‘writing’ is just another way of making marks to express meaning.

 

The 'Insets for Design'. (Please note: They are usually used with a piece of paper that is the same size as the pink inset frame itself - in this case the little girl pictured was creating a larger, more elaborate design and so she chose a bigger piece of paper). 

Other fine motor experiences, such as using kitchen utensils or tools that require strength and coordination, also promote pre-writing skills by preparing the hand. So when you have a cup of tea and you ask your child to use tongs to squeeze the tea bag – you just promoted pre-writing skills! (So you can pat yourself on the back for awesome parenting even as you relax for that brief moment with your tea!)

 

 

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