The advice to “talk, sing and read” to babies and toddlers is universal and ever-present. The advice is given in countless blogs and articles, on countless websites and by countless pediatricians, home visitors and other professionals. Less often read or heard, however, are the details regarding why we should talk, sing and read to children under the age of 3 and how these “whys” lead to future learning and success. Research tells us if parents and caregivers understand more about how brain development works, parents and caregivers are more likely to follow the broad advice of “talk, sing, read to your baby or toddler.” Parents who know the skills that are necessary for a child to be successful in a classroom feel empowered with that knowledge and are more likely to get the job of parenting for school readiness done.
One of the six crucial school readiness domains that makes the advice of “talk, sing, and read” to babies and toddlers so valuable is called receptive language, or language understanding. Children under the age of 3 who understand the meaning of many, many words, and who hear more positive or affirming words, do better in school and life. Children who understand fewer words and/or who hear more discouraging or negative words in the first 3 years of life struggle in school. Children who grow up in a language-deficient home or daycare setting, in which discouraging or negative words are frequently spoken, arrive to preschool, pre-K or kindergarten with poor vocabularies for both speaking and learning. They also arrive with weak skills for attachment or building trust with the grown-ups in their classrooms who have their best interest at heart for developing skills.
These children who grow up hearing little language or language that was emotionally upsetting to them end up believing that school isn’t a place of excitement, learning and possibility. According to child development specialists: “Within the school setting, difficulties in understanding may lead to attention and listening difficulties and/or behavioral issues” and “it may also make it difficult for a child to access the curriculum or engage in the activities and academic tasks required for their year level of school.” Even at the tender ages of 3, 4 or 5 years old, children with poor receptive language skills recognize that school is a language-based setting for which they are unprepared. They realize that they are at a significant disadvantage in this type of setting. Sadly, too many of them give up. Many of them will act out because they want out of a setting in which they know they are cannot be successful.
So, why do we “talk, sing, read” to babies and toddlers? These activities build connections in their brains that lead to the receptive language development of the following skills, each of which is an absolute necessity for school readiness:
- Understand a wide variety of words from many different categories of words (e.g., nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, etc.)
- Understand word categories (e.g., foods, vehicles, clothing, toys, ocean animals, things that are big, things that smell bad, etc.)
- Understand word associations (e.g., a shoe goes with a sock, a pilot goes with an airplane, a pot goes on a stove, etc.)
- Understand the functions of objects (e.g., that a shovel is for digging, that a bucket is not for throwing, but is for putting shells and rocks into, that a carrot is for eating, etc.)
- Understand parts of objects (e.g., a car has wheels, a steering wheel, tires, a trunk, a hood, a roof, doors, seats, etc.) and that words can have multiple meanings (e.g., a trunk can be on a car or on an elephant, that a hood can be on a car and it can be on a jacket, etc.)
- Understand words involving color, shape and size (e.g., “Get the big, blue ball,” “Show me the round, red shape,” etc.)
- Understand grammar and sentence structure (e.g., the plural “s,” tense markers, compound sentences, complex sentences, etc.)
- Understand different question forms (e.g., who, where, what + doing, which one, how many, could you ever, what would happen if, etc.)
- Understand location words (e.g., in front of, under, next to, top/middle/bottom, edge, corner) in a variety of situations (e.g., physical space, when using tools of technology, with regard to a book, etc.)
- Understand “math” words (e.g., more than, shorter than, add to, take away, etc.)
- Understand sentences of various lengths and complexity (e.g., I saw the man who had the box; He took the pencil, the book, the shoe and the dog; The boy and the girl were running and jumping)
- Understand that words can “go together” and belong in “groups” to form sentences (e.g., a hammer and a nail go together because the carpenter uses the hammer to hit the nail into the wood) and that things and people can be compared and contrasted (e.g., The fireman is taller than the teacher; Fire is hotter than pizza; A knife if sharper than a stick, etc.)
- Think critically when a problem is presented via language alone or language plus a visual (e.g., a worksheet, a picture, etc.). For example, if the teacher says “What do you need to do before we go to lunch?,” the child should be able to think critically about what he’s doing, whether or not it’s what he should be doing, and then make a decision about what to do next and/or respond to the teacher’s question.
- Understand language in order to manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information. For example, if the teacher says “Look at the animals on the table and give me all the farm animals,” the child will need to look at the animals, think about which ones live on a farm, listen to the teacher’s direction to “give” them, and do what was asked.
Once parents and caregivers know the skills that are needed in classrooms after the age of 36 months, they are able to be more conscious about how to talk, read and sing to babies and toddlers. They can plan activities (or be spontaneous while feeding, bathing, etc.) armed with the “why” behind choosing certain words, certain books or certain songs which are beneficial and crucial to school readiness.
Related resources regarding building receptive language skills in babies and toddlers for school readiness by 36 months of age:
Cindi Zarpas Stevens is the creator/founder of Operation Ready by 3 (her mission) and the president of Norfolk Speech & Language Services, Inc. (her day job that pays). She is a mother of 5 (her unpaid, 24-7 job). In her work as a writer (her passion), she supports parents, caregivers and early childhood educators as they navigate Baby and Toddlerland with greater consciousness, ease, confidence, expertise and joy. She thinks the best job in the world is talking to parents, caregivers and educators about babies and toddlers (they’re amazing, fun and adorable) about ideas such as sharing power with their child (it’s peaceful and positive) while at the same time having power within themselves (it’s affirming and empowering) to be the best parent, caregiver, and educator they can be in order to get the children in their lives ready for school by the age of 36 months (to make the world a better place).