Ask an Expert: How Can I Use Story Time to Boost My Child's Language Development?
If you've ever wondered how daily stories affect your child's language skills, or how you can make that reading time even more valuable, you're not alone. Here, Jann Fujimoto, M.S., CCC-SLP, R.SLP, a certified speech-language pathologist and owner of SpeechWorks in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, answers all of your questions about reading and language skills!
Q: We know reading boosts children's language development, largely because it exposes children to new vocabulary. But what gives hearing a story an added edge over hearing everyday conversation?
A: There are so many benefits of reading, but to start, one is that it simply helps a young child understand what a book is. That sounds weird, but sometimes 3- or 4-year-old children can't recognize that a book is upside down—reading exposes children to how books work and how letters are orientated, even before they can read. As a bonus, books showcasing animals often have fun, onomatopoeia words [those associated with sounds] like roar. This helps engage the child with the story, and increases their attention span. Following along with a story benefits short-term memory, because a child needs to remember facts like names and actions characters take to understand the plot.
Q: Children’s books tend to feature bright, engaging illustrations. How can parents make the most out of those pictures to enhance the language learning process?
A: One fun thing parents can do is ask their child to make up their own story based on the illustrations—that alone will increase the child’s language skills. You can also make observations about what’s happening in the illustrations. For instance, maybe there's something in the background that’s not a part of the story. [Editor’s note: In Malty the Blue Tiger, you’ll find this in the form of a fun-loving lizard!] This helps children be more observant and use language to describe what they’re seeing.
Q: Sometimes we hear teachers and language experts talk about phonemes.
What exactly are those, and how can you help your child grasp them?
A: Phonemes are units of sound in words. For instance, the phoneme for the letter “b” is the buh sound—and when we hear that, we know that a word is, say, bat and not cat. Books, especially those that use alliterations (a series of words with the same phonemes, like the “big, blue bubble”), can support your child's phoneme development. You can also point to words as you read to help your child connect sounds to letters.
Q: Are there any other specific ways parents can read that might help their child better grasp language and new words?
A: Certainly! You can use a variety of emotions and change your volume. If a story is talking about a surprise birthday party, lower your volume when the characters are hiding before the surprise. Then, you can raise it when the characters yell, “Surprise!” You can also use different voices for various characters—say, a deep voice for Grandpa or a higher voice for a little sister. These small changes all make the story more fun and engaging for the child, and helps them better understand what’s happening. A child may not catch on to all of the vocabulary right away, but they might remember that the grandfather character has a deep voice or that the exciting part of the book happened during the surprise birthday party. You don’t always know what’s going to stick with a child, whether it’s the pictures or the voice you read the words in, but all together, those things make the story more real and memorable for them.
Q: As a speech pathologist, what do you think parents should do if they notice their child is having trouble repeating certain sounds?
A: I always tell parents that if they have any concerns, go ask for help. Check in with a pediatrician during an annual exam, or with their nursery or school teachers. Parents can visit ASHA.org, which is the website for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. It has many different resources for parents, including explanations of language developmental milestones. If you need to find a professional speech pathologist or another expert, you can enter your zip code and find a practitioner near you.
Q: Do you have any other tips for parents on how to use reading time to boost their child’s language skills?
A: As with everything, but especially for reading, it’s about doing it consistently. It doesn’t have to be done in one chunk! You can listen to an audio book during your daily commute with your child, read a short story before nap time, and then read another book at bedtime. It doesn’t have to be 30 minutes of reading all at once. The daily repetition and constant exposure is what’s so important.