How To Help Your Children Develop Good Vocabulary And Grammar
August 22, 2019
About a decade ago, before I knew anything about children or parenting, a curious incident took place. One day, in the midst of my many rounds of surya namaskars at a neighbourhood park, I noticed a dad pushing his toddler on a swing. He talked incessantly to his little one in a rather strange way. “Alex-a-ndria, is-n’t it a bea-uti-ful day, to-day?” His speech was deliberate, with a somewhat elongated sing-song drawl to it.
Fast forward to 2011, as a newbie parent myself, I finally realised what that particular dad in the park was actually doing. He was using what noted neuro-scientist, John Medina, calls ‘parentese’. And here’s the kicker: I found myself doing exactly that, as if it were the most normal thing to do, with my new born baby. You see, “parentese” is indeed that peculiar high-pitched voice parents almost always naturally seem to embrace when talking to little ones.
According to Medina, that’s the first step parents (or primary caretakers) inadvertently take to help children develop vocabulary. Interestingly, this kind of baby speech is a great way of connecting with infants and is highly encouraged, even when a baby’s in vitro! It helps a baby’s brain learn language. Further, research shows that talking frequently to your children predicts greater IQ and better performance in school. Eight years ago, as new parents ourselves, we were fortunate to chance upon Medina’s research on parentese, and decided to take some concrete steps to consciously assist our children develop good vocabulary and strong language skills.
Exposure – Talk, Talk, Talk & Talk!
One of the best and easiest ways to help children learn correct conversational (and later written) skills is to constantly talk to them. Talk to them like adults. Speak to them in an elevated manner. Use big words like fatigued instead of tired, for example.
We would simply talk, talk, and talk some more to our children. On walks, we’d talk about the weather, trees, and plants. At home, we’d talk about textures, colours, and everyday objects. During car journeys, our ‘conversation’ was all about cars, the road and what we saw. It was great! Babies are awesome listeners; they can’t respond, but do look at you with interest. And soon, somewhere around 18 months or so, much to your delight, they start talking too. Now as an experienced parent, when I see a mom or dad chattering with their infant describing in great detail what they’re doing while changing their baby’s diaper, I totally get it!
Point And Read
Talking is one thing and reading, quite another. Needless to say, both play an important role in language development. I remember putting my babies on their tummies on a mat and putting a colourful book with lots of textures next to them. I would read the words, point out the various objects in the book, and gently take their little hands and allow them to feel the textures, while describing them in words. Babies love such interactive activities and parents too can derive satisfaction from them.
Verbalising textures is a particularly fun and cerebral activity for adults too. “This is a tree trunk. It’s rough.” Your next task as an adult is to use your words to explain what “rough” means! By pointing out the words as you read them aloud, babies and toddlers can also start visually familiarising themselves with alphabets, and later, spellings. So, when your toddler starts talking and doesn’t mix up his or her tenses, give yourself a pat on the back!
If I jog my memory, I can still recall some of our favourites. These included the likes of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, Pat The Bunny, First 100 Words, Goodnight Moon, Brown Bear Brown Bear. Later we graduated to some of Sandra Boynton’s books (Opposites, Barnyard Dance), and Dr. Seuss’ silly rhyming books (Marvin K. Mooney, There’s A Wocket In My Pocket, The Cat In The Hat).
A few years later, when my now-second-grader had joined kindergarten, the school didn’t believe in sending students home with any homework. But it did insist that we read to our children for at least 20 minutes a day. Couple of years later, I certainly see the benefit of doing that. For starters, reading for 20 minutes a day becomes part of the daily routine. Children tend to improve their vocabulary and also learn to read quicker. Moreover, 20 minutes in 24 hours seems quite doable!
I remember reading the same set of books again and again to my children. This was not because I chose to, but because they wanted me to. My hypothesis is that they were increasing their familiarity with the text and their sponge-like brains were making some unknown cerebral-cognitive connections. I think my hypothesis proved right when they eventually started almost subconsciously “narrating” the books word-for-word.
It was fascinating to see how repetition helped them learn to communicate with correct sentence formation and grammatical use. Likewise, repeating new words in general conversation helps in making children remember them, and at some point, you’ll feel quite rewarded when the same words come bounding back to you!
Encourage Dialogue And Listen
Engage them verbally and encourage them to contribute to a conversation. This positively impacts language skills like vocabulary- building and proper use of grammar.
Start having conversations with them when they’re young. But please remember to be a good listener. Make eye contact and put that cell phone away! From what I’ve seen, kids love to be a part of adult conversations. By listening to them and talking to them, we empower them with a number of skills, like helping them organise their thoughts and using appropriate words to communicate effectively.
Sometimes as parents (or primary caregivers), we get so tangled up in details that we often times miss the larger picture. While we may encourage our children to talk, it’s a sure conversation killer if we keep interrupting them to correct their grammar or vocabulary. Not to say, we shouldn’t correct them, but we should do it gently, mindfully and respectfully, as you would do with an adult. Here are some helpful tips:
- Applaud effort (e.g. “Thanks for telling me about your day, I really enjoyed listening to you.”)
- Seek clarification, respectfully (e.g. “I was wondering if you meant to say that you ‘went’ to the park rather than I ‘will went’ to the park. Just checking.”)
- Reinforce correct grammar tactfully (e.g. “I too want to tell you about my day today. Particularly, the time when I ‘went’ to the market.”)
Play Simple Games
Although, Zig Ziglar and I have diametrically opposing political ideologies, I do agree with him when he says – “Your understanding of what you read and hear is, to a very large degree, determined by your vocabulary, so improve your vocabulary daily”.
That’s right! Our intellect, how we perceive our world, our curiosity and cognition are all, to a large extent, dependent on our vocabulary. And we can certainly help our kids grow their repertoire of words by playing some simple word and paper-pencil games with them. Here are a few tips:
- Ask children questions while reading to them. This helps develop both comprehension and listening skills.
- Ask kids to describe meanings of words.
- Ask them to draw out meanings of words. By creating a visual of a word, children develop a deeper understanding and memory of that particular word.
- Ask children to relate a story they may have heard or read, or even something you may have read to them.
- Play rhyming games. Give each other words (like cat, car, etc.) and challenge one another to come up with as many rhyming words as possible.
- Play games to name opposites and/or synonyms for a given word (e.g. tired).
- Let them write freely. Check spellings later. Free flow of ideas is a great way to get those creative juices flowing.
- Play word games like Scrabble, Boggle and Hangman.
- Encourage children to keep a journal from the time they show interest in colouring and scribbling activities. Review what they “write.” Refrain from asking questions like “What is this?” Instead ask open-ended questions like “Tell me about this page.” The former forces children to restrict their ideas and thoughts to come up with a definition of what they’ve drawn. The latter opens up broader conversations that include imagined scenarios of their expression.
- Snap on that app! A little bit of electronic mediation only spices things up and keeps it interesting. Apps like 7 Little Words, What’s The Word and Word Stack, are a fun and engaging way to help children develop vocabulary and learn correct grammatical usage.
- Create a list of commonly confused and erroneously used words and phrases like “it’s” and “its;” “your” and “you’re;” and “are” and “our,” to name a few. Write out sentences to demonstrate appropriate usage.
- Most importantly, play with children! Purposeful, guided play with lots of make-belief and imagined scenarios is a winner. It enables child-adult interactions and bonding. Additionally, children learn to talk like adults by watching the adults they interact with frequently, including the way they speak.
Some More Books
When my boys were in pre-school / pre-kindergarten, perhaps around the age of 4-5 years, I remember searching for resources to help them master reading, vocabulary and grammar skills. That’s when I chanced upon the wonders of the Bob Books series. These books evolve from very simple three-letter words and short sentences to more complex sentences and stories. It was also a wonderful way for them to see correct punctuation. This age was also ripe to expose them to longer more evolved stories, such as:
- Books by Eric Carle (The Tiny Seed, A House For Hermit Crab, The Very Lonely Firefly)
- Winnie-The-Pooh series like A Hundred-Acre Wood Treasury
- Easy Roald Dahl books like Fantastic Mr. Fox and Minpins
These helped them expand their vocabulary and understand proper grammar usage.
Words are powerful. So why not arm our children with superior vocabulary and correct grammatical usage to help them become thinking, articulate individuals who have the unique skill of effective communication? Especially, given that all you need is a healthy dose of chatter, a smattering of purposeful play, a handful of simple games, and a bit of reading!
Do you feel it is important for your children to have good vocabulary and grammar? What are some of the innovative methods you have used to build your kids’ grammar and vocabulary? Do you recommend any books? Share with us in the comments below.
Nidhi Kirpal Jayadevan
Nidhi is an avid traveller and reader. A sushi and yoga lover. Her 'pre-kids' life was spent in the ever-dynamic field of Communication Sciences. After which, she chose to be a fulltime mom. Reading and playing with her two high energy boys has been a fascinating journey. They have (re)kindled in her a sense of wonder in all things small. Children’s literature has been an inspiring new discovery for her. She’s constantly seeing the world through little eyes, applying simple learnings to deepen life’s meaning for herself and her family.
Read her articles here.