Supporting Healthy Language Development

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As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I work alongside many kinds of caregivers to help support the healthy language development of children of all ages. Most frequently, this means I am working closely with the parents of children who have communication delays, but I always love when parents wish to include other people who are important to their child’s development. This generally means I am privileged/fortunate to meet the grandparents!

You are a trusted influence in your grandchild’s life, and as such you have the opportunity to make positive impact on their overall development.

To help support healthy language development in your grandchildren, ditch the technology. Put down the phone or tablet—yours and theirs—and turn off the TV.

Both the Canadian Pediatric Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children under the age of two have no screen time, and that children between the ages of two and five have under one hour of screen time per day, if any. An increasing amount of research shows the link between screen time and language delays, specifically, more screen time equals higher likelihood of an expressive language delay (for example, a delay in a child’s ability to use words and sentences).

There’s no denying it is possible for technology to be an effective learning tool for older children if it is used in the right way, however as it stands, I see the use of technology by both caregivers and children as one of the biggest barriers to supporting healthy early language development at this time. For caregivers scrolling through their phones/tablets, technology is a barrier to tuned-in interactions where we can match our child’s experiences and interests to language; for children playing games on tablets or watching TV, technology monopolizes attention so that they have difficulty attending to anything but the flashy lights and sounds.

If you are a grandparent who relies on technology to connect with your grandchild on a regular basis due to distance, video chatting platforms such as Skype and FaceTime are likely safe exceptions. This is because these platforms are used for the sole purpose of conversation and connection.

Talk with your infants, talk with your toddlers—language quantity is important.Infants are learning language long before they start using words. Since children first learn through experience, talking to your infants and toddlers about what is happening in the moment can help support the development of their understanding of language. Try to really “tune-in” to your grandchild and pay attention to what they are interested in. You can then match words to their experience, highlighting key words as you speak.

Infants love repetition, and repeating those important words will really help them link meaning to words. I also encourage all caregivers to play like a child—be silly and creative. This playfulness and fun will keep children engaged longer, which will result in more opportunities for learning. Remember that language learning happens any time, any place, so try to take advantage of all of the one-on-one time, even while doing the mundane, such as grocery shopping, or even washing your hands together.

Conversation is a two-way street—quality interactions are also important!

Remember, developing good communication skills is not simply a matter of hearing lots of words—children need the opportunity to practice using those words with adults.

Children naturally receive feedback on their language use when speaking with others, and this feedback is very important. When children say a word incorrectly or use words in an incorrect way, caregivers can gently provide the correct substitution. If, for example, a child says, “I falled down” a parent might say, “You fell down? Oh no!” Feedback may also involve building on the child’s sentences to make it longer or more grammatically correct. For example, if a toddler shows you their stuffed animal and says, “bunny,” an adult might say, “Yes, a bunny. It’s a soft bunny. Hi Bunny!”

Help support your grandchild’s understanding of words and concepts by speaking at a pace that is slow but natural, and by using simple but grammatically correct sentences. Make sure to stress key words by making them louder and longer, and use real objects, gestures, or pictures whenever possible—you can literally help your child see what you mean. Then repeat, repeat, repeat—use new words often, and in as many different contexts as possible, and try and have your child experience the words as you talk about them as well.

Parents and caregivers love talking about colours, numbers and object names. While this is an easy fall-back, remember that there are many more interesting things to talk about. Provide vocabulary-rich language models—just think of how limited your child’s words and early sentences would be if all they used were nouns, colours and numbers.

It is also good to model a variety of ideas. Talk about things that are beyond the here-and-now in a way that is accessible to young children by linking it to a their experiences. For example, if you’re baking a cake with your child, you could talk about the past (“last time we made a cake for nana’s birthday!”); the future (“soon, we get to put candles on the cake and sing ‘happy birthday.’”); feelings (“You’re sad because there’s no more icing left on the spoon”); and we can explain things (“We have to put the cake in the oven so it will bake”). Using your child’s experiences to talk about things other than the here-and-now can help them understand and one day use language in the same way.

Remember, frequent, quality caregiver-child interactions are critical to developing good communicators that are ready to learn at school. As a grandparent, you have the power to have a strong positive influence on your grandchildren’s development when you tune in and make the most of your time together.

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