The Science of Talking with Your Preschooler

Communication is the practice of sharing information. Children learn at a very young age that information can be shared in many different ways, including gestures, pictures, movements and words. Research tells us that language is the fullest and most useful way of communicating with each other. Young children develop the ability to use their language to listen and respond with understanding by talking and having conversations with the important people in their lives. We can teach young children how to use language by engaging them in conversations, which helps them develop speaking, listening, reading and writing skills. Research also tells us there is actually a “science” to having good conversations with preschoolers. There are three main conversation techniques that parents can use to help their preschooler develop important oral language skills.

  1. Clearly explain new words and add details to help a preschooler unravel confusing ideas. The more details that are added in a conversation, the more opportunities the young child has to learn new words and build vocabulary. Listening closely and picking up on an idea that the child is talking about, and then explaining it further by adding more details, can help a preschooler expand language. The following example demonstrates how you can explain a new topic and add details to what your child says.
    • Child: Look! It is running to the tree!
    • Adult: Yes, that’s a squirrel. He is climbing up the tree.
    • Child: Climbing up?
    • Adult: Yes, he is climbing up the tree to look for acorns to eat. Do you see his bushy tail?
    • Child: Yeah
    • Adult: Remember when we went to Grandpa’s house? There were a lot of squirrels in his backyard. He put some sunflower seeds on the bench and they all came to get the seeds. Those squirrels were brown. The squirrel in our tree is gray.
  2. Interact by asking questions and telling answers that are meaningful to the child’s interests. Asking relevant questions and giving detailed answers help a child maintain interest on a topic, activity or experience. It also gives preschoolers opportunities to use the new words they are learning daily. By asking different types of questions like who, where, why, what, how and when, young children are encouraged to use their own vocabulary words and express their own ideas. The following example demonstrates how you can ask questions and interact with answers that draw attention to the details during an activity.
    • Adult: Let’s paint a picture today with our paints and brushes. What would you like to make today?
    • Child: Can I make a sun?
    • Adult: Yes, you can paint a sun. What color would you like to start with?
    • Child: Red
    • Adult: Sometimes the sun in the sky does look red. When did we see a red sun?
    • Child: We saw it with Jacob.
    • Adult: Yes, that’s right! We saw a big red sun when we were at the beach with Jacob. It was at the end of the day and we saw the sunset. Your sun looks so beautiful and bright! Are you going to paint anything else in your picture?
  3. Help young children learn to use their language to consider and solve a problem. By “wondering aloud,” an adult models his thinking process and exposes preschoolers to curiosity and the abstract uses of language. “Wondering aloud” is simply saying out loud what you are thinking. By verbalizing your thoughts, you can involve your child in what you are doing and demonstrate how to think through a problem to come to a conclusion. For instance, you can “wonder aloud” while you are helping your child dress in the morning.
    • Adult: Let’s see, I wonder what we should wear today? We can look out the window and think about what kind of weather we are having today. I can see that it is windy today because I see the branches on the tree bending and the leaves are moving. I also see that it is a sunny day. I wonder if the air outside is warm since the sun is shining. How can we find out? Let’s feel the window. The window feels very cold so I bet the air outside is cold. What kind of clothing should we wear when the weather is cold?

Most oral language young children learn is through conversations with the people in their lives. Oral language skills are very important for the development of speaking, listening, reading and writing. Research tells us that strong oral language skills developed during the preschool years will help a child’s success with later reading comprehension in school. Engaging our young children in rich conversations can help them build important language skills. It can also help you and your child continuously learn about each other and have fun together!