How Caregivers Can Help Develop Children’s Emerging Language Skills

As children develop the ability to understand language and speak and communicate, it helps them interact with others and understand their world. Research shows that a child’s early language skills have a long-lasting impact on later life outcomes.

Children with better language skills are more likely to regulate their emotions and interact with their peers, possibly in part because they are more likely to communicate their thoughts, feelings and thoughts.

Children with better language skills are also more likely to be prepared and successful in school and have better reading and writing skills. When they are older, they are more likely to have a sense of success and fulfillment at work.

Given the importance of language skills to life-long outcomes, it is critical for children to achieve language success as early as possible. Parents, grandparents, carers, and early learning and care programs can play an important role in supporting children’s language skills. We propose three ways to help develop children’s emerging language skills.

Early learning and care programs can play an important role in supporting children’s language skills.
(Bridget Coila/Flickr)CC BY-SA

1. Use language around your child as much as possible

Talking to children, especially children, helps their language learning. This applies to children of all economic and cultural backgrounds.

Both the quantity and quality of what caregivers say is important to children’s language learning.

Our research shows that children who hear more words and sentences have stronger vocabulary and language skills. So, talk to your child as often as possible. Even if they can’t speak, children are still absorbing and learning the language they hear around them.

A man with two small children and a baby sat around a table.
Children who hear more words and sentences have stronger vocabulary and language skills.
(Pexels/Kyra Burton)

Pretend you’re a commentator and talk loudly about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what’s going on in your child’s environment. For example, when sitting in the park with your baby or preschooler, you might say:

“Look at that green tree. It’s a maple. How many trees do we see? That tree doesn’t look the same as the tree next to the bench…”

It’s not just the number of words that children hear – the quality of the language children hear is also important.

This means it’s important to use a variety of word and sentence structures when talking to your child. For example, instead of just pointing at a dog and tagging it, you can describe a dog’s coat color, talk about what the dog is doing, and ask questions about the dog.


“Look at that dog. The dog is big and fluffy with long legs. The dog is running towards the ball. That ball is bound to bounce. I hope the dog will catch it.”

Caregivers can also ask questions that begin with the words “who, what, when, where, and why” to encourage the child to provide more complex responses. This gives them the opportunity to use new words and sentence structures in their speeches.

Open-ended statements are also helpful in encouraging language development. You can use the statement: tell me more, is that so, and what happened…? Try to wait at least 5 to 10 seconds to give your child time to react.

Mother, daughter and dog.
Talking about the different properties of a child’s environment and surrounding objects helps children make connections.

2. Read a book with your child every day

Shared book reading provides another great opportunity for language learning. Reading exposes children to new words and sentence structures that are less commonly used in everyday speech. Books are a great way to expose children to high-quality language and create a uniquely connected experience.

Reading together can also help children focus longer, which helps them learn and prepare them for success in school.

Caregivers can try to make reading with their children part of their daily routine. How you read can help improve your child’s ability to learn new words. Describe pictures, give definitions of new words, ask questions, and incorporate music. Stories provide an opportunity to connect with your child’s experience. Even if your child is young, ask them to turn the page and ask them what they think will happen next.

Read more: Parents play key role in fostering love of reading in children

A father was seen reading to his child.
Reading with children helps them concentrate for long periods of time.

3. Participate in the “Service and Reward” interaction

Language skills can be developed through daily interactions between caregivers and children. Sensitive caregivers will notice vocalizations, cries, facial expressions, and other cues that suggest a child needs help, comfort, or reassurance.

Sensitive interactions are often referred to as “serve and return” interactions because they are like a game of tennis. The child “offers” the prompt by pointing to something, asking a question, or saying something, while the caregiver needs to “reply” to the service by repeating, answering, or commenting.

While parents can be sensitive when talking to their children, they can also show sensitivity by comforting a sad or hurt child. Our research shows that children’s language skills develop better when caregivers are sensitive to their children’s needs and engage in service and reward interactions.

A video from the Harvard Center for Developing Children on the “Serve and Return” interaction.

Even young infants can benefit from service and return interactions. For example, ask your baby a question and give them some time to answer! When they do, by making sounds like “da”, repeating it again, then elaborating by saying “dada” and connecting it to a reference point (like “daddy”) to encourage more language use and understand. In this way, we can support the child’s inner drive to connect and communicate with us.

Children learn language from a very young age and continue to develop their language skills throughout childhood. Caregivers can help develop and improve this important skill in everyday life by speaking, singing, reading, and tuning in!

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