Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Becoming Your Baby's Speech Teacher

by Deborah Rosalind Nieto

Imagine that you are a speech teacher to a student; only she is bald, toothless, doesn't know how to read and write, and oftentimes does not respond to your efforts in the way you expect. This may be the exact situation that most parents are in when encouraging their babies to talk.

For these parents, I have created a list of suggestions to make the learning process of talking easier, more effective and, at times, enjoyable. Of course, there are some cautions, too, as to what things you should avoid to help your baby maximize his speaking skills.

Concept correlation. By often pointing at objects or people and telling your baby their names, she will find it easier to learn to associate them with each other. You could hold out her bottle and say "bottle", touch her cheeks while saying "cheeks" or point to her father and say "Papa". Also, holding out a mirror in front of her and saying "That is Eloisa" may be a good idea. Making actions, while associating objects or expressions with them, is also an easier way for her to learn. You could say "hello" while waving your hand or utter a "no" while shaking your head.

Broken record. The key to any teaching activity with your baby is repetition. By holding out things or pointing at people while saying their names several times, your baby finds it easier and faster to utter their names. For the first few months, you may get only a coo or a gurgle as a response, or no response at all. But after awhile, you may even be surprised to hear him utter his first words. Risk the silliness of becoming a broken record for the sake of your baby's communicative development.

The Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is a strategy used by teachers which involves asking questions from the students to elicit answers. This method may also be employed when communicating with your baby. Although you can't expect her to give you the right answers, it helps to ask her questions instead of always bombarding her with words and concepts. This way, when the time comes that she's able to talk and you ask her a question, answers will come out from her naturally since she has grown used to being asked questions.

Simple questions like "Where is Papa?" or "Where is your nose?" can make for good questions for your baby. You may also ask him about what he's doing when he's eating or bathing, wait for him to answer, then after a pause, tell him "Mama, I'm eating" or "Mama, I am taking a bath."

Asking your baby questions which require phrases or words other than yes or no, is a good way to have an effective conversation with her. Ask her what food she would love to eat and other questions about her or the world around her to let her explore the different ways people talk to her.

Lastly, one value which your baby may learn from answering questions is making his own decisions. While you may ask him questions which involve knowledge you've taught him, it would be interesting and even more effective if you ask him questions which incorporate these knowledge in matters related to him.

Instead of asking him the colors of his pairs of socks, you may ask, "Which one do you like better, your green or yellow socks"? This question does not simply ask your baby to identify the colors of his socks; he is asked for his opinion as to what he likes better. You may even tell him, "Which one do you want to eat, banana or apple?" Like the first question, he is trained to decide for himself based on the knowledge he has gained in the past.

Baby mimicry. Imitating your baby's gurgles makes her feel and think that you are acknowledging her attempts of communicating with you. When she utters "eeeehh", you may do the same, or when she responds to a question with an "aaaaah" you may echo her. This is one way of reinforcing the communication skills she presently has, thus encouraging her to talk more.

Gibber games. I bet you're quite familiar with baby games similar to peek-a-boo. There is a good reason why it is famous among parents and their babies. You see, games which involve gibberish words and movements stick easily to your baby's mind. This is another way of making the learning experience of talking pleasurable. Do this several times and in no time your baby may finish your phrases and eventually learn saying the whole phrase himself.

Speech through song. Singing "Twinkle twinkle little star" and other nursery songs is another effective way of providing an entertaining learning experience to your baby. Also, by singing lullabies, you not only improve her communication skills, you also get to put her to sleep in a less stressful way.

Singings songs to your baby benefits both of you since it breaks the monotony of talking to him in the same manner. You don't even have to stick to nursery songs or lullabies. You may sing to him popular songs nowadays or anything that may come to your mind. To make the experience more interesting for both of you, you may pepper your songs with facial expressions and body movements. You may also provide additional sounds by stamping your feet or clapping your hands while singing.

Book buzz. Another great opportunity to talk to your baby in a different way is reading books to her. Babyhood is the perfect time to expose her to different words, rhyming sounds, alliterations and assonances. Although you may not be able to read to her every single word in her book since she's more interested in drooling over the book or eating it, it still develops her communicative skills. You get to talk to her about the pictures on her book, the shapes, colors and characters in the story. You may even ask her questions about the book. While your goal may just be to develop her skills in speaking, she may even develop a liking for reading books even after babyhood.

Sound of silence. You may be proud about the active household that you have: the presence of your relatives, the frequent visit of friends, the constant watching of television or listening to music. With the multitude of sounds, conversations and music your baby hears, he may have a big chance of learning words and their meanings fast.

Then again, you must set some time each day for tranquility. Perhaps the perfect opportunity to have this quiet time is when the least number of people is around the house. Make sure that equipment like the television or the radio is turned off. The reason for this need is not only to reduce the stress experienced by your baby, but also to encourage her to speak or blurt out her own sounds. If we older people tend to speak to break the silence, the same is true for your baby who may take the tranquility as an opportunity to say what she wants to say since she knows she will be heard.

Broadcast for babies. Be like a public announcer. As you do your everyday activities with your baby, try to broadcast everything to him. As you feed him, you may say, "Okay, Luis is eating now. He's going to love this mango mush." You may tell him "Now we're finished eating, Mama will sing a song to you. I'm just going to get your little book from your crib and then we'll be singing together."

Just imagine that you're on the phone with someone with whom you have to discuss in detail what you are doing as you talk to her. This means grabbing every opportunity of saying something to your baby. It's putting your speaking skills to the limits. It may feel stupid at first and may feel tiring after awhile, yet you may enjoy it once you get the hang of it.

Bravo baby! As a baby's parent, you are entrusted the role of being his first teacher. One of the essential jobs of teachers, which they must not fail to remember, is reinforcing the child's right answers or good behavior. The same is true when communicating with your baby.

When you ask her something and she responds to you by babbling or gurgling, acknowledge her answers. When you ask her, "What is my name?" and she responds with even a simple gibber, clap your hands and say, "Very good, Chloey, that is right, I'm Mama."

To get the hang of reinforcing your baby's attempts at communicating with you, start doing this even while he hasn't learned a single word. When the time comes that he can utter syllables or even whole words, you may realize that reinforcing his learning comes out naturally from you.

You may do these reinforcements when she points or looks at something that you ask for or utter a word which is the answer to your question. You may give her a peck on her leg, a warm embrace, or a gentle rub on the back while telling her how smart she is. You may bring your face close to hers and give her a big smile. Since these actions bring pleasure to her, they translate to acknowledgement of her actions and encouragement for her to learn more.

Widening words. When your child reaches the stage where he can say words and even associate them with the right things, besides reinforcing him for his development, add more details to his words. If he says apple, you may tell him, "Yes, it's a delicious red apple." This way, while reinforcing his right associations with words, you get to strengthen the brain connections made in his brain and add new ones by giving further details.

Riding with words. Having rides in your car with your baby is another interesting way to talk to her about different things. While she may not be able to appreciate right away the street signs and people on the road, you may start by talking to her about the feeling of moving while inside the car. You may point at different parts of your car or hold out stuff found inside it.

To make the riding experience even more enjoyable, play children's music or nursery songs. Your baby may respond by kicking his feet or bringing his hands together, or he may not respond at all. Just keep at it and in no time you'll realize that he already knows some of the syllables or words in some songs.

Don'ts

I have also created a short list of don'ts when encouraging your baby to talk. While these are just suggestions, you will find that it helps to avoid them when dealing with your little one.

Don't..

  • Talk in a stressful voice within your baby's earshot. I bet you have an idea of the possible repercussions of shouting at your baby or simply letting her hear your voice in an unpleasant tone. The last thing you want to happen is for your baby to associate your voice with negative emotions she may feel. This may produce bad effects not only on your baby's emotional health, but also on your relationship with her.
  • Spoonfeed him through over-coaching. Once your baby knows how to utter some words or phrases, you may find that he is still struggling with the application of these in his speech. While you may help him by coaching him the appropriate words in every situation, you may be doing harm than good. You may help your baby when you find that he fails to remember a certain word but you can do it without spoonfeeding him. You don't want to be his crutch whenever he gets lost for words. You have to train him to remember the words you teach him. This means you have to give him thinking time to find the right words in his memory bank. Coaching him the right word should just be a last resort in case he really forgets it or says a different word.
  • Make the television too accessible to both of you. Set boundaries for the use of your television. It is better to place your television in a place not too available to you and your baby like cabinets or other rooms both of you do not frequent.

You need to establish communication with your baby through the simple things you see. There is a reason why the television is called an idiot box. It's like a machine which replicates a person who always does all the talking. Chances are, your baby will just stare at the television for a great fraction of the time it is open. If you want her to maximize her learning of the spoken language, then engaging her in a one-way activity where she barely does the talking is not a good idea. In fact, most psychologists say that it is not advisable for babies younger than 2 years to watch the television.

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