Submitted by Iowa State Extension and Outreach, Muscatine County

Reading and talking to children, even infants and toddlers, is a good way to increase their language skills, says Barbara Dunn Swanson, a human sciences specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Children begin learning very early in their lives. Infants and toddlers are busy analyzing their world. They’re figuring out how they are separate from everything they see. They’re beginning to identify objects and routines and who they can depend on for their everyday care. They also are beginning to understand that movements and sounds are used to communicate with others, said Swanson, who specializes in family life issues.

Oral language development begins with social interaction with others, Swanson said. “Infants and toddlers learn language as we talk, from nursery rhymes, telling stories, and singing songs. We can have two-way conversations with infants by imitating the sounds they make and taking turns ‘speaking.’”

Make eye contact with the child and use gestures and other nonverbal communication, Swanson said. “Talk about what you are doing like a play-by-play sportscaster. Describe what you and others are doing, as well as daily routines.”

Reading shows children that written words have meaning. It also promotes listening and speaking, which are part of oral language development. Reading to children introduces new words and helps them develop a larger, more complex vocabulary.

This is important because, by the age of three, children should be learning at least 2,500 new words each year. Reading and talking about a variety of topics will help children understand more about their world, Swanson said.

Swanson offers the following tips for sharing books with infants and toddlers:
• Read as long as the child is interested.
• Talk or sing about the pictures.
• Let the child turn the pages if he or she can.
• Skipping pages is acceptable until the child knows the book better than you do.
• Run your finger along the words as you read.
• Use your voice to create interest in the characters.
• Relate your own family or community to what is happening the story.
• Let the child tell the story and have fun.

“The gifts of presence, time, words, print and intention are important as we share language and literacy with infants and toddlers. Intention turns a routine activity into a pleasant play time that also is educational,” Swanson said.