Tips to ensure that your child has a wide vocabulary

Create the right environment for your preschooler and you will stimulate their brain growth.

Badr Al-Olama. Courtesy Bidayaat
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Nursery rhymes such as Twinkle Twinkle and fairy tales such as The Three Bears might seem the stuff of child’s play, but they have a key role in language acquisition.

Badr Al Olama, the chairman of Bidayaat, a child development company in the UAE, claims that children who are offered a well-
rounded environment learn to speak at least 2,000 basic words by the time they are 4 years old, up from about 1,500 words for children who do not experience a structured learning environment.

“The first five years particularly are crucial learning years for the nation’s children,” says Al Olama. Gaps in vocabulary tend to appear as early as the age of three and widen thereafter. Importantly, gaps in vocabulary are rarely made up for in school.

Here’s what parents can to do to ensure that their children have every opportunity to gain a wide vocabulary, short of swallowing a dictionary.

Talk, talk, talk

The more that parents talk to their children from birth to the age of three, the greater their children’s vocabulary, rate of vocabulary growth and chances of success in school.

A 1991 study by the psychologist Janellen Huttenlocher at The University of Chicago documented the vocabulary growth of 22 children from the ages of 16 months to 24 months. Half of the children had “very talkative” mothers and the others had mothers who were “the least talkative”. Children in the word-rich environment learnt 295 more words by the time they were two than their counterparts.

“Let your children listen, repeat and ask questions,” says Ezette Grauf, the director of education at Bidayaat. “Introduce new words by pointing to items, or explaining what the child points to and saying the word. Talk about the day and ask your child questions. Even if they do not engage immediately, they’re still listening and learning. Once your child has learnt a word, extend their vocabulary by describing the colour, or what it does.”

Switch television for audio

For children’s vocabulary to grow, the television needs to be off. Dr Dimitri Christakis at Seattle Children’s Research Institute found that watching DVDs hindered toddlers’ ability to acquire vocabulary. Christakis found that with each additional hour spent in front of a screen, babies between the ages of 8 and 16 months learnt six to eight fewer words than infants who didn’t watch videos.

Story CDs are a good alternative to television because children have to form their own images of the words they hear. This is brain exercise and actually causes the brain to grow in size and capacity.

Repeat the same stories

While the prospect of reading The Cat in the Hat for the hundredth time may make you groan, recent research by Dr Jessica Horst at the University of Sussex’s Word Lab found that repeatedly reading the same book to toddlers helps them learn new words.

“Reading to children is important as they connect to the sound of your voice and warm to the nuances of language,” explains Al Olama.

It’s a good idea to read to your children for at least 10 minutes a day, or more depending on your child’s attention and interest. Three-year-olds who are read to every day tend to become 5-year-olds who flourish in school.

Likewise, sing nursery rhymes regularly with your preschoolers. Children who learn eight nursery rhymes in their first three years typically rise to the top rank of readers by age 8.

Make learning a game

Children learn better and faster when something is fun, so play games with your child. Try out the familiar unnamed games such as: “What sound does an (insert animal here) make?”, to the ever--popular I Spy, which works well with colours. For example: “I spy, with my little eye, something that is blue – or something that starts with the letter B”.

Interestingly, Dr Christakis has found that basic activities such as playing with blocks with an 18-month-old can result in an improvement in their language skills six months later.

The language learning window

During the first six months of life, babies babble using 70 sounds, according to Ronald Kotulak, the author of Inside the Brain. They will then learn to talk using only the sounds and words they pick up from their environment and their brain will discard the ability to speak in languages they do not hear.

“In early childhood, the developing brain is at a stage which is designed to be highly receptive to learning language, any language. This is a special language learning window,” says Grauf.

At Bidayaat, preschoolers are being taught Arabic. “It is important for expat families to encourage exposure and willingness to learn the local or regional language,” says Grauf. “It aids understanding of the local culture and customs, while recognising the country which we live in and share.”

For a child to learn a second language, they need to be exposed to it at least 30 per cent of the time. It often works well if the parent who spends the most amount of time with the child speaks in the “foreign” language. Exposure to foreign language books, music, movies and toys also helps.

There is much to gain from becoming bilingual or trilingual. “The benefits of learning a second language during childhood is seen to have a positive domino effect on higher self-esteem, thinking and reasoning skills and better cultural understanding,” says Al Olama. “Ongoing research reveals an increased ability to solve complex maths problems, increased vocabulary, increased reading and an overall ease to learn other subjects, as the foundation for learning is there.”

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