Language Nutrition: The importance of feeding children’s appetite for language
What is language nutrition and how can parents support it in their children?
In the article, “The Power of Language Nutrition for Children’s Brain Development, Health, and Future Academic Achievement,” Dr. Zauche and colleagues argue that a primary goal of early childhood is learning language. Language acts as a way for children to interact with others while developing reading, memory, and attention skills—all of which are important for success in school. Prior research has shown that language learning begins at the earliest weeks of infancy and continues across the lifetime, but it is the earliest period of childhood that is crucial for building a foundation for language learning.
What is Language Nutrition?
The present article discusses how to promote language learning during early childhood through language nutrition—the amount and quality of language a child hears on a daily basis. Language nutrition may be broken down into further subparts, including the following: the number of a words a child is exposed to, the intonation of speech (the use of high- and low-pitched words in a sentence), and the child’s home (first) language. Indeed, studies have shown the more words spoken to a child, the better the child’s reading and writing skills, understanding of speech, and vocabulary size.
How does language nutrition influence a child’s language development?
Essentially, just like children need special nutrition to grow healthy and strong, children need to special language input to develop language skills.
The language nutrition each child receives varies due to many factors including parental income, work experience, and education. This means by the time children start school there is a wide range in the amount of language nutrition each child has been exposed to. Consequently, there is a range of school-readiness among young children too. Research has shown that a child’s language skills at age 3 predicts their language skills in 3rd grade, demonstrating the importance of early language nutrition for academic achievement. Furthermore, success in school and literacy skills are known to improve health outcomes.
How can language nutrition be supported?
Considering the research above, the authors reviewed a variety of strategies that can be used by families to help increase language nutrition. One program, Enhanced Milieu Teaching (EMT), is used by the Early Intervention Research group! EMT teaches parents to model language and prompt conversation by focusing on the child’s interests. This creates natural opportunities for parents and caregivers to use EMT strategies throughout their entire day. Although this is just one of the strategies discussed, the authors came to two general conclusions:
- Parents and caregivers are the most important source of their children’s language nutrition because they are the primary source of language in their child’s early years. Therefore, encouraging parents to talk to their children is extremely important. Pediatricians and teachers can play a key role by educating parents on the importance of language nutrition.
- Toys and books are the not essential for a child’s healthy language development. These tools can be helpful by providing a topic of conversation and means for discussion between parents and children. Yet, the best way to increase a child’s language nutrition remains treating children as conversational partners. By engaging in conversation and taking turns speaking, children are encouraged to use language socially and exposed to a range of vocabulary words.
These conclusions provide an important reminder. Although toys and books are wonderful tools for parents to use while interacting with their children, their value comes from the conversations they create, not the toys or books themselves. Thus, parents should not be discouraged by the cost of owning the “right” toys or books. Instead, they should focus on talking to their children and providing them with the proper language nutrition they need.
Zauche, L. H., Mahoney, A. E. D., Thul, T. A., Zauche, M. S., Weldon, A. B., & Stapel-Wax, J. L. (2017). The Power of Language Nutrition for Children’s Brain Development, Health, and Future Academic Achievement. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, 31(4), 493-503.