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13 Strategies for Successful Early Language Development

During the first three years of life, the brain is rapidly developing and maturing, making it a crucial period for language development. Language helps children communicate and understand the world around them. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “a strong foundation in language skills is associated with positive, long-term academic, occupational, and social outcomes.”

Speech and language development is an important and exciting time for both parents and children. With this excitement often comes a certain level of stress over how best to approach this important stage.

As a family nurse practitioner I have studied this topic extensively and seen continued success with the following strategies within my own practice.

13 strategies for successful early language development

  1. Talk with your child, treating them as if they are already speaking. Describe what you’re doing, what will happen next and where you’re going. This also helps them know what to expect.
  2. Talk to your child about what they are doing using descriptive language about their actions and feelings. This helps them associate these words with what they do and how they feel.
  3. Respond to your child’s attempts to communicate. When you finish talking, give your child a turn to respond. Even if the response is babbling, respond as you would to a talker. You will find that your child babbles back again and it feels like you’re having a conversation. It’s educational and adorable.
  4. Describe objects to them when they point at something. If they shake their head, respond as if they said “no.”
  5. Sing songs with them. Music, even in informal settings, has been shown to strengthen language development in early years. Particularly, timing and melodic skills are linked to phonological awareness (the ability to recognize and manipulate spoken words) and grammar. 
  6. Teach your child to imitate actions such as clapping and saying animal sounds.
  7. Read to them. Let the child decide how to read and when they have finished. Let them put board books in their mouths, handle them, and choose how to explore. As they grow, you can read more complex books. Reading allows your child to hear words in different contexts. This helps them learn the meaning and function of words.
  8. Link what’s in the book to what’s happening in your child’s life to get them talking. You can also make a book about your child. This will help them learn that books can be about their lives too and ultimately builds a stronger connection.
  9. Point to the words when you read aloud with your child, including those on packages and containers. This will help them create a link between written and spoken words and learn that words are distinct parts of language.
  10. Show your baby that you’re pleased when they speak.
  11. Listen to your child’s sounds and repeat them back. Affectionate “baby talk” to your child is okay on occasion, but because your child learns to speak by imitating you, it’s important to limit this type of speech.
  12. Repeat and build on what your child starts to say by modeling more complex sentences. For example, if they say “apple,” you can say “do you want a red apple?” When you tune in and respond to your child, it encourages them to communicate.
  13. Find opportunities to talk about everyday occurrences with your child to help them understand and interact with their world. The key is to use lots of different words and contexts. This helps them to learn the meaning and function of words in their world.

Consistent language exposure makes it easier for children to learn, so creating an environment that is rich with sounds, sights, and speech is the best way to encourage speech. 

Multilingual and bilingual families

Brain plasticity allows bilingual children to achieve language development milestones at a similar rate to children who speak one language. There are two main models for raising bilingual and multilingual children that can be applied in addition to the strategies already mentioned.

One person, one language

In this case, if one parent speaks English, they speak English to the child; if the other parent speaks French, they speak French to the child. This model can also work with more than one language. For example, if you speak Italian, and your partner speaks Farsi, you would speak your own language to your children at home and choose to use English with them outside the home. Your child will also learn to use English at school and in the community. It is ideal if both parents understand each other’s languages so that neither feels left out when you speak to your children.

Teaching your first language first

If both parents speak the same first language they may want to make this the language their family speaks at home. For example, if both parents speak Mandarin, they may choose to teach Mandarin as their primary language. The child will learn to use English at school and in the community. As children get older, they may be reluctant to speak in a language other than English. Regardless, it’s still useful to keep using the language even if children increasingly respond in English.

Speech milestones and delays

While generally children follow a typical progression timeline for speech and language development, some families will have varying experiences. Speech, language and developmental assessments, such as hearing, are addressed in your child’s ‘well child’ visits. If you have concerns around these milestones, please speak with your child’s nurse practitioner, physician or care team so we can do our best to support your child’s optimal health and development.


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