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Building Language Skills Must Begin Early in Life

Too Small to Fail
By Too Small to Fail

“Mommy, what does ‘tectonic’ mean?” asked a four-year-old recently during a conversation about earthquakes. The resulting explanation may have left a few questions in the boy’s mind about the geology of our planet, but helped establish an important pattern for the boy—to learn to recognize complex vocabulary words in speech. 

Language—regardless of its country of origin—plays an important role in the development of an infant’s brain. By age three, a child has heard millions of words from parents, caregivers and educators, which help establish word recognition and comprehension skills. The more diversity in words a child hears during these early years, the better she will be at picking out meaning in what she reads and applying it to other things she learns as she gets older.

Reading a wide variety of books aloud to children from early infancy through age five is critical to vocabulary development. According to Reading is Fundamental, the vocabulary of the average children’s book is greater than that found on prime-time television. And the more words a child hears from a book, the more she will associate reading with learning. Unfortunately, more than 40 percent of preschoolers are not read to regularly.

But reading is not the only way that children pick up important vocabulary skills. Not all parents may feel comfortable reading books to their young children, but they can talk, tell stories and sing nursery rhymes, and even ask questions of their verbal toddlers to engage them in conversation. And the sooner parents begin to read and talk to their children, the better. The process of acquiring words is cumulative from birth, and research has shown that the “word gap” between low-income children and high-income children begins as young as 18 months of age. 

In short, parents and caregivers—regardless of their native tongue or reading ability—can make a big difference in the future learning of their children. The key is to start early.

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