Episode 58: Q&A – How to promote language development using books?

Episode 58 

On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I share six principles that foster language development and how books can help parents of multilingual children achieve these principles.

Episode #58- Transcript

Hello and welcome to another Question and Answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast.  Thanks as always for tuning in!

Are you subscribed to the monthly newsletter?  If not, I’d love to have you join.  You can do so by going to bilingualavenue.com/newsletter

Alright, we have another great question for today and I’m really excited about today’s answer.  This is a great topic and one that I think will be very beneficial to many of you.  Let me read you the email that came in from our listener Judith.

Hi Marianna,

I love listening to your show during my commute to work.  Here’s what I am struggling with.  Both my husband and I work full time and to be honest, we get to spend very little during the week with our two kids.  One thing we do get to do every night is that my husband and I take turns reading to each of our girls.  It’s my favorite part of the day. 

I have heard that reading books nurtures language development and maybe this is a stupid question but I want to know exactly how they do that.  Maybe I am embarrassing myself by asking the obvious but I get so little time with the girls that I don’t want to waste any of my time.  So what should I keep in mind when selecting books to incorporate into our reading routine? I want to maximize our reading time together and in a way make up for the time I am not spending with my girls! Take care, Judith

Judith, thank you so much for your question and for allowing me to share it with the Bilingual Avenue community.  I really appreciate your honesty and it is obvious that you want to make the time with your girls count! We have a lot on our plate as parents so it’s only natural to want skip the fluff and get to the substance.

Your question is actually a great question and a big question.   Reading to your kids is indeed a wonderful habit to start and carry out with your children.  What I’d like to do today, is share with you a great research article titled “How Reading Books Fosters Language Development around the World.” I will have the link on the show notes page in case you would like to take a look at the actual research.  It’s a relatively short article so if you do find yourself with some time you may enjoy looking through it.

This particular article outlined six principles that can promote language learning.  I’m going to go through the six different principles and talk about how books can support language development.

The first principle is that children need to hear many words often!

As parents, your daily interactions will provide your child with the foundation for their vocabulary.  Where books come in is that they can help you expand that vocabulary.  A book can include words you may not regularly use in your everyday vocabulary so books can fill in that gap. By reading different books on different topics you are immediately providing your child with new words.  Think about that when you are making a book selection.  Try to add books to your library that cover a wide range of topics so they can then become your friend when working on vocabulary with your kids.  This will help you add some words to your child’s vocabulary that you do not typically use yourself.

The second principle is that children learn words when they are interested!

Just earlier this week, on episode 57 Dr. Laura spent some time discussing how kids in general learn best when parents follow their children’s leads when playing and talking.   Well this applies to reading as well.  When you are working on age appropriate books, you are likely working with texts that are interesting to your children.  If your child is at the age where they want the same book read over and over, we are certainly at that stage now at home, that’s ok.  In fact it’s actually a great sign!  It’s a sign that you have picked a book that is interesting to your children and they will likely be receptive to picking up the vocabulary in that text with relative ease. Don’t shy away from reading the same book over and over.

The third principle is that children learn best when adults are responsive to them!

This is probably something most of you listening to the podcast already know really well.  If you are a parent or an educator you know that children do indeed learn best when the adults in their lives are responsive to them.  Chances are you are already doing this but just in case you want to be more cognizant of how to do it, here are some things to keep in mind specifically when you are reading books.

When your child notices something on a page that you are reading or that they are reading to you, follow up by making a related comment or question to whatever caught their eye.  Try to express a positive attitude when something seems to trigger their interest.  Use this interest as an opportunity to add more vocabulary of your own in your response to what your child is saying.  They may not be able to repeat your complex language patterns just yet but their brain is still absorbing what you are saying so keep adding those words where you can while being responsive to your child’s interest.

So for example, your child may notice that the character in the story is wearing pants and a t-shirt.  Let’s just pretend for a minute. When you answer back to your child, you may for example add color.  You are right the boy in the story is wearing a blue shirt and red pants.  So again if you have a little one who is learning colors by you adding more words into your response your child is increasing their exposure to vocabulary.  As the children get older, then your answers can become more sophisticated.  But the key here is to be responsive to what they are saying and add more and more words to your communication with your child.

The fourth principle is that words are learned when meanings are made clear!

Books can be powerful to teach new words but you can’t just read them in the book and assume that your child has magically picked them up! Your children will need to understand and internalize what the words actually mean so this is where you come in!

When you come across a new word that your child does not yet have as part of their vocabulary, explain what the word means.  You can do that by pointing at the picture in the book.  Don’t hesitate to pause and use the illustrations to explain what a word means.  You can act it out if it is an action, use a different tone of your voice if that lends itself to better convey the meaning or try to explain it with context clues if you have older children. Back in episode 53, you met Jenny Kung who chatted with us about how useful visuals can be so this can also be a great tool for you to use when trying to teach your child what a particular word means.  Again, if you want more information on how to leverage visuals, visit episode 53 and you can do that by going to bilingualavenue.com/episode53.  We had a great discussion and Jenny shared a lot of ideas that you can implement at home.

One last suggestion of how you can use book to convey meanings is to leverage repetitive books.  Many texts especially for your really little ones repeat the same words over and over through the pages.  If you come across one with a word that your child doesn’t yet know or is struggling to understand, consider picking it up because they really can come in quite handy.  The repetitive words then become catchy and before you know it they are part of your child’s vocabulary.

The fifth principle is vocabulary and grammar are learned together!

When teaching vocabulary to your kids, it is important to use grammar correctly so that your kiddos can learn language efficiently. Books can usually be a great way to expose your children to new vocabulary with good grammatical structure.

So there are two things I want you to keep in mind here.  The first thing is that it is ok to simplify language so that our children can understand what we are saying.  But really try not to use incorrect grammar to simplify things.  For example, don’t skip a verb or an article so that it is easier for your child to repeat what you are saying.  They will repeat what they can and slowly but surely they will also pick up the grammar if you continue to expose them to it.  So try to avoid that baby talk.  You can still speak in a tone that is pleasing to your child but make sure you are using correct grammar.

The second thing to keep in mind when using books to teach vocabulary and grammar is to avoid books that use of course incorrect grammar.  For example, a book series my students loved in the classroom was the Junie B. Jones series. Junie B. is a 5 year old in Kindergarten and the books are about her adventures.  At first, I loved these stories along with my kids.  They were funny and relatable for my students.  The problem I quickly discovered is that Junie B. uses incorrect grammar all the time! I understand why the author chose to do it, the story is about a five year old who may very well make mistakes when she is talking but unfortunately it is just not a good role model for kids.  If you can, focus on books instead that have correct grammatical structure because they will have an impact on your child’s pattern.

The sixth and last principle is to keep it positive!

This is actually a piece of advice many of the guests on the podcast share with the audience so I know it is familiar to you.  We know that positive environment is important for the development of our little ones. Part of that positive environment is having positive conversations.  When you are reading a book with your children you are both focusing on the same text together which is just a perfect gateway to stating a positive conversation with your child.   Take advantage of that opportunity and those special moments that you share together.

So that takes us through the six principles that can foster language development.  Here is a quick recap:

  1. Children need to hear many words often
  2. Children learn words when they are interested
  3. Children learn best when adults are responsive to them
  4. Words are learned when meanings are made clear
  5. Vocabulary and grammar are learned together
  6. Keep it positive

Alright, I know I just shared a lot of information with you.  You can always listen to the episode again to make sure you grasp all the different concepts here but not only so you can reflect on how to incorporate these principles into your everyday routines and specifically when you are reading books to your children. If you think any of the insights that I shared with you may be helpful, you can check out the transcript on the website which includes everything I just discussed.  You can see the transcript at bilingualavenue.com/episode58

Alright Judith, I hope that answers your question.  I love that you are trying to be really purposeful with the time together with your children.  Now you have a few principles here that you can keep in the back of your mind as you reading to your girls and hopefully find more and more ways to help them foster their language development.

For everyone else, that’s it for today’s episode.  I hope you found it helpful.  Remember that I’d love to hear from you.  Feel free to touch base at bilingualavenue.com/contact.  Whether you have a question or something to say about the podcast, I always love to receive emails from listeners.  Thanks for tuning in!

May you have fun travels on your language journey.  Hope to see you again on the avenue.


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  1. Pingback: Q&A: Is it too late to teach my children my native language?

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