By Leone Jenkinson


What is language?

If asked this question, you may come up with a definition that involves some of the following… it is a code made up of rules that include what words mean, how to make words, and how to put the words together in ways to make sense… language is a structured way to communicate in written or oral form… it’s a complex system that involves semantics, syntax, orthography, phonology, morphology. Language is all these things, and more.

Speaking the first word is a major step for any child, and parents look forward to it with enormous eagerness! How large is your lexicon? You probably have an active vocabulary of 35 000 – 50 000, and a passive vocabulary of about 100 000. Linguistically poor first graders know 5 000 words, whereas linguistically rich first graders know 20 000 words. (Moats, 2001)

The million dollar question is: How do we grow the active and passive vocabularies of our children from that first word, to 100 000 words? We do it one word at a time, through continuous, interactive, rich language on a daily basis from birth to adulthood.


Why is language development important?

  • Thinking/internal dialogue requires language. You cannot formulate a thought without words.
  • Maths is a language. Consider the language involved in Maths: calculate, estimate, sum of, product, denominator, acute, average, percentage, halve, ratio, factor.
  • Logical reasoning requires language.
  • Success at school, university and in life requires language. Language is the basis of learning.
  • Expressing what you want, like, think, don’t want, agree with, disagree with, question, want to know, are confused about, fear, etc all requires language.
  • Spiritual, emotional and artistic expression requires language.
  • Language is foundational to a child’s school readiness and achievement


What makes the role of parents in Language Development so crucial?

  • Parents lay the foundation upon which it all rests.
  • It begins at birth – informally, naturally and organically – and continues into adulthood. You don’t need a PHD in linguistics to make a big and lasting impact.
  • Parents spend considerably more time with their children than teachers do.
  • If you, the Parents, are able to lay a solid language foundation at a young age, it will impact virtually every aspect of their lives, not just how well they do at school:
    • every oral they prepare for
    • every test they write
    • every book they read
    • every rule they need to master on the sport field
    • every job application
    • every love letter they write
    • every interaction with a friend
    • every negotiation they enter
    • every dream they dream


The dream team is a synergy: Language development works best when there is a synergistic relationship between parents and teachers – a relationship whereby the cooperation and interaction of both parties in the endeavour to develop good language skills in your children can bring about a greater combined effect than the sum of our individual efforts could do.

3 aspects of language

Oral Language, Reading, and Written expression.

Oral language:

Oral language can be divided into 2 categories – oral receptive language, and oral expressive language. Good oral receptive and oral expressive language set the scene for successful Reading and Written expression.

Receptive oral language is where it all starts. Long before a child has learned to read or write, he hears oral language. Oral receptive language is the introduction to language, and starts at birth. Parents speak to their newborn babies even though the babies cannot understand a single word that is being spoken. Their young ears become attuned to the sounds, rhythm and rhyme of language; and this is the beginning of phonological awareness.

Expressive oral language starts to develop as toddlers begin to mimic their parents. Initially, it is simply a repetition of sounds, but eventually the child is able to put more and more meaning to the words. Initially they simply label items – dog, mommy, teddy. When they begin to attach more meaning to the words, they are able to express themselves in a way that goes beyond mimicry.

These initial stages of exposure to a complex system of language happen at home – in your homes. It happens without any formal teaching, but is one of the most vital ingredients to language development. Immersing your child in rich, meaningful, interactive language on a daily basis is the best gift you can give your child. It is an investment in the future success of your child – the more you invest now, they larger the withdrawals they will be able to make from that “account” into the future.

Children benefit from exposure to adult speech that is varied and rich in information about the world around them. Children who enjoy this exposure, tend to have more advanced receptive and expressive language abilities, better phonological awareness, a bigger vocabulary, and better comprehension. This does not occur when language is a one-way street, like when a child is watching a television programme. It only occurs when it is a back-and-forth, engaged interaction between a parent/care-giver and a child.

Attaching meaning to the language your child hears is heavily dependent on the child’s lexicon. The bigger the lexicon, the more meaning he can derive from what he hears, and the more able he is to express himself verbally. Listening comprehension is strongly linked to reading comprehension and written expression.


Good readers have good phonological awareness, vast vocabularies, are able to decode, can read with good comprehension, and have a good understanding of phonics. Children who are read to from a young age, and who have had good exposure to rich oral language, generally find it easier to learn to read than those who have not. They understand that letters represent sounds, sounds combine to make words, words combine to make sentences, and sentences combine to make paragraphs. They are curious and engaged in the learning experience. They link new information with something they read/heard before more easily. They generally do not see school as a random jumble of unrelated fragments of information and tasks that need to be completed; but are able to make connections between everything they do and experience.

Written language:

Written language requires the “coming together” of a variety of skills – imagination, abstract and concrete concepts, sound-symbol association, internal language, vocabulary, spelling, the mechanics of writing, fine motor control, visual-motor integration, grammatical structure, punctuation, style, planning, visual attention to detail, fluency. Although writing is taught formally at school, the foundational skills training for it begins at birth, in your homes.


What are the hurdles we face?

  • Rushed lives lead to little meaningful communication
  • We have become lazy communicators, and model this to our children
  • Excessive screen time.
    • TV does not stimulate the language centres of the brain
    • Social aspects of learning cannot happen in front of a screen
    • Sensory experiences essential for learning (not just visual and auditory) – spatial, proprioceptive, motor, taste, direction, smell, tactile
    • The brain makes sense of the world by seeking patterns. Technology tends to fragment a child’s experiences, causing the mind to become distracted from the important job of sense-making.


What do we see in our classrooms?

  • Poor vocabulary – both passive and active vocabularies, which impacts all aspects of language – reading fluency and comprehension, written expression, verbal expression.
  • Struggle to follow verbal or written instructions – they feel lost and confused in the classroom
  • An inability to clearly define words or concepts
  • Poor understanding of concrete / abstract concepts.
  • Inability to categorise – involves contrasting and comparing
  • Incomplete sentences – monosyllabic words and short phrases
  • Poor grammatical structure
  • Slang and word fillers – like, sorta, kinda, thingy
  • Difficulty giving synonyms and antonyms for words
  • Poor listening skills which makes it difficult for them to follow verbal instructions, and causes them to miss out on learning
  • Attention difficulties when material is presented verbally
  • Poor muscle tone, physically lethargic children who tire easily, slumped posture, poor gross motor development leading to poor fine motor development – this impacts the mechanics of writing and their ability to sit for hours at a desk and work
  • Poor endurance and perseverance – an over-dependence on constant encouragement from teachers
  • Struggle to work independently
  • Reluctance to engage in learning – doing what they are told to do, but without any understanding of the purpose of anything that they are expected to do. The bits of information are like floating vegetables in a soup – nothing is related to anything else. This leads to incorrect, sloppy storage of the information into long term memory, and makes information retrieval very difficult.
  • The answer has become the priority, and not the process of learning/thinking/problem solving/mastering skills. We live in a culture of “Google and move on” – learning becomes fragmented and unrelated to anything else.
  • A dependence on visual stimulation
  • Poor sound-symbol association which impacts the ability to decode words
  • Poor oral and reading comprehension
  • They can read but avoid reading, making them functionally illiterate
  • Poor metacognitive skills – they cannot think about their own thinking and make the necessary adjustments and improvements
  • Struggle to draw conclusions
  • An attitude of, “You want me to think?!” They are passive in the learning experience.
  • Struggle to find the main idea of a passage, summarising, paraphrasing. They cannot sift through all the information and sift out the most important bits from the unimportant bits.
  • They “study” for a test, but do poorly in the test, because they lack understanding of what they have learnt / misinterpret the question / poor expressive language ability
  • Struggle to think independently – an overdependence on the “right” answer
  • They lack the flexibility in thinking to offer alternative solutions to problems. They rigidly stick to methods/opinions/answers that are inefficient or incorrect.
  • Difficulty doing Maths word problems, often as a result of not understanding the language or having verbal reasoning skills
  • Struggle to think in concepts
  • Struggle to defend their opinion or answer, making it difficult for them to find their own errors in order to correct them
  • Poor grasp of figurative language – analogies, metaphors, personification
  • Inability to integrate what they already know with what they are learning
  • Struggle to apply knowledge / rules /  skills / generalisations to new situations and work


What can we do as parents and teachers?

  • Foster curiosity – active exploration of the world around them
  • Don’t do everything (including thinking) for them. It might be easier and quicker, but they won’t learn basic problem solving skills.
  • Start removing the scaffolding of your support bit by bit. Allow them to work independently. They are not learning much if you continue to do all their summaries for them, assist them with every maths problem, do most of their poster projects, etc. Independence is the goal.
  • Model problem solving by thinking out loud
  • Let them take responsibility for things that are their responsibility – homework being done, books in their bags, etc. Allow them to face the consequences if they have failed to meet their responsibilities. If you don’t, your children won’t move from being passive spectators to active participants in their lives and their learning.
  • Challenge them to see connections between things. Create opportunities for them to use what they have learnt at school, in their everyday lives. The more connections they make, the more understanding they will have for what they are doing and learning. Have a world map somewhere in your house, and when you speak about a country you are going to visit or a country that has experienced a national disaster, have your child find the country on the map. Have your child use real money and work out change. Have them calculate how much fuel you use and what it costs to drive them to school every day.
  • Use good speech that your child can easily model.
  • Make it fun – you need to be engaged and enthusiastic
  • Expand the vocabulary you use. Not just a sprinkling – full immersion!
    • Children need to learn 2000-3000 new words each year in Grades 1-2.
    • Children who are “behind” in the early years have a hard time catching up.
    • Become a thesaurus for your young child (big, large, enormous, gigantic, massive OR nice, lovely, splendid, enjoyable, delightful)
  • Make eye-contact, engage, repeat what your child has said to ensure that you have understood him
  • Give your child time to find the words he needs to express himself. Cue if necessary.
  • After asking a question, give wait time to allow your child to think before answering. After you child has answered, give him a second wait time to encourage further elaboration.
  • Ask for their opinion, and don’t shoot them down when they give it.
  • Improve your questioning skills, avoiding yes/no questions.
    • Did you enjoy school today? What was the highlight of your day?
    • Do you think she is a good leader? Name 3 characteristics you consider important for leadership.
    • Did you enjoy the movie? What was your favourite scene in the movie.
  • Encourage internal language. They need time to think, so avoid over-scheduling. Again, be good role models
  • Play games – board games, games in the car – these involve loads of interactive language
  • Tell stories – fiction or true
  • Be active: Cook, bake, play sport, walk, fly a kite, build a puzzle
  • Read to your children and engage them with questions about the text. What do you think will happen next? What other words could the author have used instead of …? What do you think it was like for this character to have to do that? The benefits of reading to your child are so profound that experts recommend reading aloud to your child as soon as he is born, and continuing almost indefinitely.
  • Ask your child higher level questions. How could you improve that design? What alternative options were available to the character? How would you handle that situation differently? What are the strengths of the system? What do you believe to be the right thing to do in this situation?
  • Discuss Current affairs – from the water crisis to what the impeachment of a president involves
  • Both quality and quantity of interactions are important. Use every moment intentionally.
  • Don’t assume that your child’s language will develop automatically – for some, it does, but for most, it requires intensive repetitive exposure. Ask for specialist assistance if your child is struggling.
  • Have a variety of reading material around the home and be a good example of someone who values reading.
  • Read aloud to your child – often and enthusiastically. Here’s why it’s important…
    • It builds a lifelong interest in reading
    • Children of parents who read to them tend to become better readers and perform better in school
    • It helps with speech and language development
    • It expands vocabulary
    • It exposes children to good sentence structure
    • It stretches their attention spans
    • Children who are read to for <1 min reading per day are exposed to 8000 words/year. Children who are read to for 20 minutes a day are exposed to 1 800 000 words/year.
    • Curiosity, creativity and imagination are developed
  • Limit screen time – not just theirs, yours too – be good role models here
  • Use every opportunity, no matter how short
  • Be intentional – know what your goals are
  • Encourage reciprocity – language needs to be rich and interactive