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The (remarkably simple) key to teaching toddlers to talk

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 17, 2014 07:52 AM

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toddler.jpgDo you want your toddler to talk? The best thing you can do is simple: talk to them. And--this is important--use long sentences. With good grammar.

In research presented at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, researchers say that when it comes to building crucial language and vocabulary skills, simply talking to babies and toddlers is what is most important. 

But how you talk to them is just as important. To really build the skills that babies and toddlers need to learn new words, understand what they mean and know how to use them, you need to talk in full, varied sentences that use good grammar. 

Here's an example from the press release about the research. Instead of saying "Here's an orange," it's better to say "Let's put the orange in this bowl with the banana and the apple and the grapes."

Not only does this expose the child to more words, it introduces the idea that all of those words belong together somehow (all fruits) and that they might go in something (a bowl). It's not just about vocabulary, but about understanding language concepts--and giving children the skills and scaffolding to learn new words and concepts.

This needs to start early, because by 18 months, researchers have found a "word gap" between the children who hear a lot of words and those who don't. Much of this gap, sadly, seems to be related to the income and education of parents. Children whose parents are less educated and have lower incomes tend to hear fewer words--and can end up signficantly behind their preschool and kindergarten peers whose parents have more education and more money.

The differences are actually visible on brain scans; kids who hear more words end up devoting more of their brain to learning language. This kind of stuff is hard to make up later. 

So talk to your baby and toddler--and not just in "baby talk". Use complete sentences. Talk about what you are giving them for breakfast, chat about the bath or the clothes you are putting on, point things out and talk about them when you go to the park or store. If that gets boring, talk about current events. Gossip, even. It's all about surrounding your baby and toddler with words and sentences. 

No cheating and turning on the TV or an "educational video". Background TV is bad for other reasons--and the educational videos don't actually work (flash cards are a waste of time, too). As with so much in life and parenting, simple is best.

Just talk. 
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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