The brain of a young child is truly amazing – the more experiences we provide, the better it develops. That, in a nutshell, is the fancy-sounding theory of neuroplasticity. But there’s a key point of this brain development theory we need to remember as parents – the quality of experiences we offer our child during the first five years of life is critical.
Early Language Development is Crucial to Future Reading Skills
Experiences related to vocabulary development, both spoken and understood, are crucial during the early years. The quality of language development directly relates to reading skills later. By age four, the brain is 90% of the final adult size and weight, but without the functioning level of an adult brain. That’s why spoken language interactions continue to be vital in ongoing brain development. So when your three- or four-year-old is bombarding you with a constant stream of rapid-fire questions, see the exchange for what it is. You’re witnessing their remarkable brain development in real time!
Mastering Your Child’s Question & Answer Marathon
Toddlers and preschoolers ask constant questions because their brains are in the most active period of development before age five. As a parent, the key is not just answering the questions, but engaging children in thoughtful discussion and encouraging their quest for answers. Here are a few tips to maximize this opportunity for brain development:
- Respond to your child’s questions in a conversational way, rather than using every inquiry as an opportunity to tell or teach. Use thought-provoking prompts to continue the discussion ("What do you think?" "Why do you think that?" "How could we find out more?") rather than telling your child, "This is how it works."
- Use opportunities to give your child your full and patient attention as he describes his thoughts or concerns to you, rather than being quick to solve the problem.
- Let your child direct the conversation. Don’t be quick to finish sentences or fill in words.
- When your child uses incorrect grammar, model the appropriate grammar in your response instead of correcting her errors. (If your child says, "I knowed that the kitty was going to run away," you can respond "Yes, you knew that the kitty would run.")
- Expand on and extend what your child has said. For example, your child says "I saw a kitty." And you respond, "Yes, that white and black kitty just ran up the tall tree." Or you can ask, "What is the kitty doing now?"
- Model new vocabulary and new sentence structures. Your child says, "There's a red truck" and you respond, "The red truck is stopping in front of that tall building because the driver needs to make a delivery."
- Ask open-ended questions. "What did you like about that story?" "Why do you think so many birds are out today?"
- You can also ask curiosity questions like "Where do you think this cheese came from?"
The length of these conversations with children matters, as does the quality of the conversations. Look for ways to extend the conversation and keep your child talking. Remember, great conversationalists today have the best chance of becoming the strongest readers in the long run!
Wolfe, P. & Nevills, P. (2004). Building the Reading Brain, PreK – 3. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.