Friday, May 20, 2005

Setting the Stage for Learning Language

When you think of children learning readiness skills, what age group comes to mind? Kindergarteners? Preschoolers? Maybe even toddlers? Reading readiness skills begin to develop much, much earlier. Researchers have discovered that even the youngest infants are learning skills that will later help them be successful academically. And you, as parent or caregiver, can nurture these skills and move the process along.

First and foremost, future learning depends heavily on language acquisition. Your baby needs to become an expert at listening and talking at a very early age, since so much depends on these skills. Now, a newborn child or even a baby nearing the first birthday is not likely to have much to say in words; his or her vocal control and other skills just are not ready yet. But little ones are listening from day one. Your baby will understand what you say long before that first word is formed.

Imagine what the world sounds like to an infant. A confusing babble of sounds is most likely. However, the human brain is equipped to make sense of this muddle in a remarkably short period of time. In a matter of just a few months, your baby will begin to pick out meaning from the sounds that those around are making. First the little one will learn to respond to familiar voices. Your baby will smile and coo when he or she hears your voice and will try to engage you in interaction. It won't be long before your baby can recognize and respond to his or her name, and by six to eight months of age, the little one will be following oral directions such as "How big is baby? So big!" It’s quite a process to watch.

Your baby also works hard to learn to talk. The youngest infants coo and make a host of sounds. Did you know that babies the world over make the same sounds, and the sounds they make include all of the sounds that make up every language in the world? Gradually, however, the little one will hone in on the sounds of the language spoken in the home. The baby will begin to babble, or practice lots of sounds that will later become words. Listen carefully, and you will hear first vowel sounds, then consonants being practiced. Your baby will lay on a blanket or sit in a swing and gleefully say "ba-ba-ba-ba" over and over again. A few days later, you may hear "kee-kee-kee-kee." Before you know it, the child will be stringing more sounds together to form syllables, even though they are meaningless ones.

You can help the whole process along by exposing your little one to as much language as possible from birth. Talk to the baby, sing to the baby, read to the baby, and talk around the baby. The more language he or she hears, the more information you pump into the little brain to process into listening and speaking skills. Babies who hear lots of language from day one are better equipped to understand and speak later on. There are many time-tested ways to do this.

Long before your baby is truly interested in books, you can begin to read aloud. It doesn't even matter much what you read! Your baby will learn about the way that words and sentences are put together from nearly any reading you do. Some parents use this time to catch up on magazines or novels by reading out loud while they rock the youngster. Nursery rhymes and poetry are very good for babies, too. There are reasons why these pieces of literature have been handed down for hundreds of years. The rhythm and rhyme will help your child build a set of skills known as "phonemic awareness." This is the understanding about how individual sounds work together to make meaningful words. Babies who listen to poetry and rhymes will learn about the parts of words called syllables, about same and different beginning and ending sounds, and the natural pauses that indicate the breaks in thoughts at the ends of sentences. This foundational learning must take place before a youngster can begin to learn to read, and your baby can begin the process.

Talk to your baby every chance that you get. Use vivid, descriptive words that will build baby's vocabulary. Remember that your child will understand what you are saying long before he or she can talk back. Describe scenes that you are both looking at, point out new and unusual things, and talk about even the everyday, mundane things that you do together, like dressing or taking a bath. Keep up a running conversation with your little one, even though it will seem terrifically one-sided.

Sing to your baby, too. It doesn't matter if you have a good voice or know how to sing or not. Your baby honestly doesn't care! Sing and sing and sing some more. Sing those goofy little kids' songs and sing the songs that you remember enjoying. Sing songs from your faith and from the Top Forty list when you were growing up. Your baby will respond to the rhythm and melody, and before you know it, he or she will be dancing or clapping or showing enjoyment in some other way. It can be lots of fun to sing songs about everyday activities. You can parody songs you know by changing the words to reflect what you are doing at the moment, or you can choose songs like "Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush" that have verses about everyday activities. You remember that one: This is the way we brush our teeth, brush our teeth, brush our teeth. This is the way we brush our teeth, so early in the morning! And if you absolutely refuse to sing, find another way to bring music to your baby. Try CDs or cassettes, or make recordings of someone who's a bit less self-conscious.

Imitate your baby's noises. Babies know that conversation is a give and take activity, and they will "talk" to you long before they use real words. When the child makes a sound, try saying it back to him or her. It won't be long until you have a game going and your baby is chatting right along with you. You'll be teaching about language and about imitation. A lot of learning is based on the ability to copy something that someone else does, so you will be preparing your little one for later school success with this simple game.

So, you can see that there are loads of ways to nurture your baby's language and whenever you do these things, you will be traveling down the road to later school success. Help your baby learn as much about language and you will be giving the child a gift that will last a lifetime.

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