No matter what language your kids are speaking, be it their mother tongue (or one of them) or a foreign language, sometimes conversation just doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. Especially when you reach the tween years it seems, children change their desire to confide in parents, preferring to chat with friends or go to the internet for answers. But children at a much younger age can also respond well to encouragement, and by encouraging more conversation children learn new words and concepts, develop active listening skills, learn to problem solve and make connections, and most importantly, become independent learners.
How do we go about creating conversation? When I go to a restaurant with my family we are ‘that family’: the one which makes all the noise and usually has a ring of empty tables around us- the 5- metre exclusion zone for people who don’t want the loud neighbours. But despite the fact that “shh” is my most often- used word, I would prefer to be ‘that family’ than the one which sits in silence, with not even the parents engaging in conversation, or the couple who sit in silence (maybe companionable silence, but still silence) for the full length of the meal.
Although we spend a lot of time with our children, much of that might not be devoted to conversation. Recent research shows that children’s language skills can be poor in many cases. It’s not yet known why this is, but theories include an increase in screen time and a lack of communicating outdoor play, as examples. At the park they sit on the swing, play in the sandpit etc., and speaking is minimal; at home if television is common they do little but listen. Try to build the following into your day with your children, and see how their communication develops:
– Ask open-ended questions (using why/ when/ how/ what etc.). This helps children to think critically and expand their vocabulary. It also builds their confidence, aiding their personal, emotional and social development. Helping children to expand their vocabulary like this is a skill set in itself, and simple questions can open up a whole conversation. For example, instead of asking “Do you like this?”, ask: “Why is this special to you?”; instead of “Did you enjoy school today”, ask: “What did you enjoy doing at school today?”; instead of “Was X upset with you?”, ask: “How do you know when X is happy/ sad?”
– Make good use of time and have conversations with your child in a variety of situations, such as changing their nappy, meal times, and car journeys. In the car play games like “I spy”, bringing it down a level to “Eye spy with my little eye something that is green” if they are not yet ready for the alphabet version. Describe what the different foods taste like at mealtimes, or when shopping ask them to find things for you in the shop, or get them to pick the food they want to eat that day.
– Make regular visits to local places of interest to stimulate conversation and add new words and concepts. There is a wealth of vocabulary waiting to be used in a trip to the park, the zoo or a museum. You can develop more than the words for the animals, but also discuss favourites, talk about what the animals eat, describe the people in the park, and basically use imagination to guess what people are doing, or what the animals like.
– Make use of your local library to build up your child’s reading, or start a book- swap with friends. Try out different books that challenge your children’s interest and typical gender norms. Books that have a lot of repetition are great and children will remember key words with confidence.
– Sing songs and rhymes and share poems for a fun way for your child to learn new words. If you’re looking to practice in a foreign language there are always great rhymes with hand actions or special dances, which help children remember the new words.
A lot of this is stating the obvious, I hope! Building conversation will help your children to become more confident in themselves, not only in their speech, but in other areas of life. They will be happier talking in groups or with other adults, and they will be more able to describe things that are going on, and to elaborate on their own thoughts and feelings. Speaking more improves listening and reading skills, and for those children ready to learn to write, or already writing, it will boost their literacy in general.