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The Importance of having Meaningful Conversations with your Child

You might think that speaking to your child is a fairly simple concept. But did you know that the way you do it impacts their language capabilities and vocabulary?

Two Stanford psychologists conducted a study that found:

  1. The number of words that children hear from their surroundings and adults makes a huge difference in their language capabilities – the more words they hear, the higher their abilities.
  2. Child-directed speech (conversations with the child) is more effective at building vocabulary than passive input through radio and TV.
  3. Toddlers learn language in the context of meaningful conversations with adults.
  4. Children who experience more child-directed speech are more efficient at processing language. Toddlers who have regular conversations with their parents or others around them can interpret and understand language and instructions better.

There’s also another reason to have regular conversations with your child: it’s important for interview success.

Conversation is an important component in school interviews for Primary 1 admission. During their interviews, children need to converse with the interviewers and peers, and they are judged on their fluency, pronunciation and willingness to speak. Hence, to ensure that your child will be comfortable and competent during his/her primary school interviews, it is important to talk to them frequently at home and at school, whether in English, Chinese or another language.

It can feel natural to mimic your child’s level of speech when talking to them. However, the results of the Stanford study and the importance of conversation to interviews means that this isn’t the best way to help your child.

Here are some tips on making your conversation meaningful:

Engage in your child’s interests

The best way to start a conversation with your child is by taking an interest in what they are doing and what they are interested in. For instance, when you see your child playing with blocks, bend down to his/her level, sit face to face with them and ask questions and give comments. For example, ‘Oh wow I love this little house you are building. Who is it for?

Take turns

Be careful not to take over the conversation, even if your child isn’t very talkative at first. Pause and wait for your child to give their responses. If he/she has not learnt to speak yet, wait for their gestures and facial expressions. This teaches them the expectations of a conversation.

Use short but complete sentences

When talking to your child, stick to easy and simple sentence structures such as, ‘This pencil is blue,’ or ‘Would you like a pencil?’ Though it’s important to keep your speech simple, it shouldn’t be incomplete, e.g. ‘Hayden want banana?’ Your child learns vocabulary and grammar from everything you say, and they can understand a lot more than they can produce themselves. Use clear, complete sentences, and your child will imitate these later on.

Use gestures

Children might not understand everything you say to them. Using body gestures and facial expressions helps children interpret the message and associate words and their meanings. For example, you can use a simple dressing mime to reinforce the phrase, ‘Let’s put on our clothes!’

Don’t pick a time – just do it!

It’s important that parents and caretakers are constantly speaking to their child every chance they get, not setting aside small, separate blocks of time. Keep talking with them, and you’ll be amazed by how quickly they improve.

Sources and Further Reading
Stanford research article on talking to children: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5510534/