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How parents can help children develop rich vocabularies

How parents can help children develop rich vocabularies

By Kathy Scott:

Every parent I’ve ever known, who holds their newborn infant in their arms for the first time, is immediately enraptured with baby love. We hold them, kiss them and talk to them. When they smile at us, we’re delighted. Everything they do, every sound they make is adorable and precious. When we realize they are making sounds associated with their needs – like calling their bottle a “baa baa” – we think they are geniuses. And since the child seems to understand “baa baa,” we start calling it a baa baa, too.  

But as the child’s first teachers, parents need to model good vocabulary and grammar because the child’s absorbent mind is soaking in everything we say and do.

According to Dr. Maria Montessori’s philosophy of education, children pass through stages of development during which they are most ready to learn. She defined these learning readiness phases as sensitive periods. The longest and most powerful period is that of language development which takes place from birth to age six.

At birth, children are born with the ability to absorb oral language. Following birth, the child is continually surrounded by language and through a process of watching, listening and mimicking, the child begins to repeat syllables at around six months of age. By age two, the child's mind is filled with the dialect and language of the environment in which the child is nurtured.

The child begins to speak the first intentional words by 12 months. It is around this time that communication becomes a “two-way street.” The child is not just the receiver of language but he or she is also the giver of language, being able to use purposeful sounds to get attention.

Explosion of vocabulary

There is a gradual increase in verbal capabilities that the child achieves until around 24 months when the child experiences an explosion of vocabulary. The child is totally aware of the fact that everything in their environment has a name and they want to know that name. I remember many times while driving in my car with my two children naming things that were outside the window in answer to the question "What's that?"

The explosion of language continues with the child beginning to formulate complex sentences. Language development continues over the next few years with appearance of proper syntax and grammatical structure. By the age of seven, most of all the rules of a child's language are mastered and the child is able to communicate with great ease.

How to help young learners

In our Montessori preschool, we optimize the learning environment for language development. The child walks into a well-organized and well-prepared Montessori classroom with materials specifically designed to refine the child's senses such as hearing (auditory), touching (tactile) and seeing (visual).

The Montessori teacher, who uses a "quiet inside voice" with words that are simple, clear, distinct and pleasant, provides a model for the child to follow. As language itself is a social behavior, the cooperative learning and multiage influence in the Montessori classroom provides a rich atmosphere full of oral language through storytelling, book reading and conversation.

Dr. Montessori believed that writing precedes reading. She also found that writing actually requires two distinct skills. First, the child must be able to make the movements necessary to reproduce the form of the letter and second, the child must be able to manipulate the writing instrument. She developed special materials – such as metal insets, sandpaper letters and the movable alphabet – to refine each of these skills utilizing the child's sensitivity to tactile, visual and kinesthetic senses.  

Tips for parents

Like Montessori teachers, parents are role models for children. Optimizing your environment with opportunities for language exposure will help the child develop language. Here are a few tips on what parents can do to optimize the child’s experiences and environment for language development.

Talk to your child: Studies show that children who are read to and spoken to often during early childhood develop larger vocabularies and better grammar. Use a rich vocabulary, not “baby talk.”  

Let children speak: Instead of anticipating a child’s needs and speaking for him or her, allow the child to speak. If you do all the talking, the child doesn’t need to talk.

Read to your child: Much research has shown that one important thing that parents can do for their children while they are infants is to read to them daily. By reading to children, they are able to absorb the flow of words and the “melody of the spoken language.”

Access the library:  Visiting a well-stocked and varied library is one way to expand the vocabulary of the young child. Include in the repertoire rhythmic rhyming books, repetitive language stories, books that contain quality illustrations, multicultural books and stories with predictable text. The more varied the library, the deeper and richer the vocabulary base is for children.

Take field trips. Exploring the zoo, the aquarium, parks and museums provide new experiences for children and opportunities to learn new vocabulary words.

Limit screen time: Children need interaction. They need to speak and hear responses. Television, computer and cellphone screens do not this.  

Be wary of ear infections: Chronic or frequent ear infections can cause language development delays because of hearing loss. 

References & Links

Maria Montessori: Her Life and Work, E.M. Standing.
The Absorbent Mind, Maria Montessori with forward by John Chattin McNichols Ph.D.
The Montessori Method, Maria Montessori
Dr. Montessori’s Own Handbook, Maria Montessori
The Daily Montessori: Sensitive periods
Parents.com: 9 ways to help your child's language development

About the author

Kathy Scott is the Montessori Director at The Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, Ohio. The program is one of a few in Greater Cincinnati applying the Montessori philosophy to children as young as 18 months. Mrs. Scott has a Master of Education in Early Childhood with Montessori three-to-six certification through Xavier University and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Webster University in St. Louis.