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Simple Strategies for Building Brains: Language

We know more than ever about how brains develop and the critical role that parents and teachers play in this process. Essential aspects of brain architecture are shaped by a child’s experiences. This development starts before birth and continues at a rapid rate after birth. Many fundamental aspects of brain architecture are established well before a child enters school. So what sorts of things should parents and early childhood teachers be doing with young children to facilitate this learning?

In the next series of blog posts we will explore simple things that parents and teachers can do to promote early brain development, based on the latest, evidence-based information.

We now know that there are simple, everyday things that parents and early childhood teachers can do that can have a significant impact on a child’s developing brain. We are NOT talking about accelerating a child’s development: hot-housing children (think baby flashcards) at a young age often has a negative long-term effect. Instead, we are looking at what the latest research, from a variety of fields, tells us that young brains need for optimal development.

Interestingly, brain science findings related to the developing brain (the study of neuroscience) are telling us that it actually isn’t rocket-science. The simple things that our grandparents and their teachers and most likely, our parents did, actually foster early brain development. ‘Ancestry parenting’ as it is often called, suggests that young brains need very simple things for optimal development to take place.

The latest scientific research shows that children need to grow up in language-rich environments. Studies have shown that children who come from homes with high incomes and education levels have nearly twice the level of expressive vocabulary (they have an average vocabulary of approximately 1200 words) at age 3 than children from homes characterised by low socioeconomic status (who have an average vocabulary size of 400 words). Other studies have shown that 3-year olds from language-rich homes will have heard approximately 45 million words, whereas children from language-poor homes will have heard only 15 million words by age 3. This is a critical difference.

Listed below are simple strategies that parents and early childhood teachers can use to foster early language development. So what are these simple things?

1. Talk, talk, talk. Language is critical in ensuring a child’s brain develops in an optimal way. Talking to newborn babies is critical, as is talking to toddlers and preschoolers. We have emerging research from Alison Gopnik and colleagues that shows that babies have a strong mastery of language. The brain pathways (neural pathways) for language are established in the first years of life. In fact the first twelve months of a child’s life are a critical period for language development to occur. Between 6 and 12 months is a sensitive period for language development. Talking to young children establishes the foundations for learning language during early critical periods when learning is easiest for a child.
2. Sing Nursery Rhymes and Songs- children of all ages, including babies and toddlers, benefit from hearing songs and rhymes. The rhythm and intonation develop critical understandings about how our language system works and gives young children the opportunity to rehearse language.
3. Interact- Give your child, regardless of their age, the opportunity to respond in a conversational manner. This ‘serve-and-return’ interaction is critical for developing language skills. With babies this might mean responding to their babbles and for toddlers, this might mean asking questions and allowing them to respond.
4. Advance their language skills- Regardless of their age, build on their language skills. If your child is able to use two word phrases, such as, “More milk” then model three word phrases such as, ”More milk, please.” If your child can say, “”I walked to the park.” Perhaps model, ”I walked to the park and I saw two trucks.” Always move a child’s language to the next level.
5. Bilingual- we now know that learning two languages, even from a very young age, does not diminish a child’s language skills. In fact, current research indicates that bilingual children have improved cognitive skills compared to their monolingual peers and improved brain function. The trick for parents and carers of young bilingual children is not to switch between languages. That is, you need to have an entire conversation in one language and then switch to the other language (not mid-way through a sentence).

There have been numerous studies that have shown that there is a significant gap between preschoolers’ language skills from those children who have been exposed to ‘rich language environments’ and those that have not. There is a cumulative effect on children who are frequently exposed to language. One study conducted by Hart and Risley (2003) found that there is a 30 million-word gap between those 4 year olds whose parents spoke frequently to their baby from birth until 3 years of age and those who spoke infrequently.

So What Can Parents and Teachers Do?

Simple things promote a child’s language development like:
• sing songs and chants
• recite nursery rhymes and poems
• read books everyday (both e-books on iPads AND real books)
• retell stories in the car
• ask your child questions
• tell your child or baby what you are doing (even the youngest of babies benefits from this)
• build on their language- if they can say two words, start using phrases with three words
• play interactive games with your child
• avoid too much TV- we have lots of evidence that shows that too much TV viewing actually impairs language skills in young children

We cover more practical tips for both parents and teachers in our workshops and seminars on early brain development and learning. Click here to find out more.


I’m Dr. Kristy Goodwin

Researcher, speaker, author, and mum - and not only do I GET it, I’ve dedicated my entire career to helping my fellow professionals and parents explore this exact digital dilemma.

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