Children love to tell stories. They’re brimming with anecdotes from the adventures of their short lives. Sometimes, they may seem to us like random strands of thought. But we can build off these thoughts, prompting conversations that offer children opportunities for rich language development. While children often love to talk, we can’t assume that they understand how to talk or how to organize their thoughts. We can help them learn by considering some of the following:
- Instead of asking questions that invoke a yes/no or “it was good” response, ask something that encourages further elaboration. Rather than “How was soccer?” say “Tell me about this afternoon’s soccer practice.” Then, ask follow-up questions. What else do they remember? How were they feeling? Describe what it looked like. If the child has not already offered this information, questions like these can help them understand the usefulness of descriptive detail.
- Parents often say that when they ask their child “How was school?” they’re met with “It was fine.” By making it a habit of knowing the child’s daily school schedule (the teacher should be able to provide it), a parent can have talking points from which to ask more informed questions.
- Help a child stay on topic as they talk. If they veer in another direction mid-story, as children sometimes do, bring them back with “Tell more about ____.” This doesn’t disregard their new idea; it can be revisited. But committing to finish a single line of thought establishes a clarity of communication that will have a lifelong benefit.
- Anything can be a conversation starter. If you pass a fire truck on the street, ask “What do you know about fire trucks?” or “What do you want to know about fire trucks?” If they express a preference (“My favorite movie is ____” or “I like ____ Park” for example) ask “Why?” or “What is it you like about it?” Encourage answers in complete sentences.
- When a child is telling a story, help them define the story as having a beginning, middle, and end. Having a narrative progression that makes sense is an important skill that does not come automatically.
Developing the ability to converse in deep, substantial ways will greatly benefit budding readers and writers. Being able to communicate clearly and succinctly in writing is something with school application and far beyond. And the more developed the language of the child, the greater the benefit for reading comprehension and fluency.
None of these suggestions has to take a lot of time, and each can be done anywhere, at any time. One of the first ways a child learns to communicate is through spoken language. We can strengthen that ability in ways that will reverberate through all of their future learning by thinking deeply about how we talk with children.
By Kevin Wood, Private Tutor