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Promoting good oral language and communication skills is perhaps the most important thing parents, caregivers and educators can do to prepare children to enter kindergarten.

Having just completed my 17th year of teaching at Oak Grove Primary School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with over 800 students in kindergarten and first grade, I see children daily who have been exposed to models of good oral language.

Sadly, I also see many who have not had these models and enter kindergarten at a disadvantage.

Just like any other skill, learning to talk requires frequent practice. That’s why it’s essential that family members and others who interact with a child on a daily basis do all that is possible to encourage oral language. These everyday moments spent with your child are valuable opportunities for increasing these skills.

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By age 3, a child with typically developing language skills should be comfortable verbally answering common questions and shouldn’t be accustomed to communicating only with a head nod or gesture.

”Just like any other skill, learning to talk requires frequent practice.”

Since children learn oral language by following the model of adults they hear speaking around them, they will often repeat incorrect grammar or mispronounced words. That is why it’s important to reinforce good speaking habits by setting an example with the use of expression, vocabulary and correct grammar.

In Promoting Oral Language Development in Young Children, Audrey Prince details several strategies.

First, she stresses the importance of talking to the child. There are many ways to initiate a conversation. The easiest is to ask questions about the activities of the day.

Parents, caregivers and educators need to to ask questions that require more than just a one-word answer, to give children the opportunity to respond with a phrase or group of phrases. They can expand the conversations by asking children to elaborate on answers. Talking to children not only develops conversation skills, it also teaches important vocabulary that can be used in daily life.

Second, Prince emphasizes the importance of getting close and showing children that adults are truly listening by responding to what was said.

Being in close proximity to the children is beneficial so they can see facial expressions and establish eye contact. If children see adults reacting and showing interest in what was said, they will be more likely to continue communicating in this way.

Oral language involves more than just speaking. As a “looping” teacher who stays with the same group of students for two school years, kindergarten and first grade, I have seen firsthand how much children learn and grow in oral language development during the beginning of their educational journey. Listening comprehension, vocabulary and phonological knowledge are essential components in this development.

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Listening skills can be improved over time by providing children with lots of opportunities to practice. It is important that adults model good listening, ensure they have children’s attention, lower their voices, speak slowly and be very clear in what is being communicated.

The more words a child has in his vocabulary, the more he is able to comprehend what he is reading or hearing. Children begin hearing and understanding words long before they actually verbalize them. Exposure to a variety of words and helping children understand what they mean can play a vital role in vocabulary growth.

Phonological awareness can be developed by reading books, teaching rhymes, poems and songs, doing activities that help build sound skills, practicing the alphabet by pointing out letters and talking about sounds or using technology that emphasizes the development of phonemic and phonological awareness.

Educational apps available for smart phones and tablets such as iSpy Phonics can help children learn about the connection between written and spoken language.*

Preschool children who have speech or language disorders may have difficulty learning to read and write when they enter school.

Other physical and medical conditions, developmental disorders, poverty, lack of literacy in the home environment and language or literacy disabilities in a child’s family history can also be contributing factors.

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If a child continues using baby talk past an appropriate age, lacks interest in nursery rhymes or shared book reading, has difficulty understanding simple directions or has difficulty learning or remembering names of letters, he may be at risk.

Speech-language pathologists can play an important role in helping to identify these children and provide intervention.

Although early intervention is beneficial, it is important to remember that children develop at different rates, and even older children with these and other impairments can gain skills needed to read and write. Parents and other professionals who interact with the child can work to fill in the gaps for those who have missed these earlier opportunities.

Laying a firm foundation for literacy through early language skills is a cause that I have become passionate about over the years as I have pursued National Board certification and looked for ways to improve my craft.

Parents and educators who help children develop oral language skills can ensure they will achieve success in school and beyond.

*Coming soon: More from Walsh about language apps that work.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Devin Walsh is a kindergarten to first-grade “looping” teacher at Oak Grove Primary School in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She recently completed a biennial loop with a group of first graders and joins a group of incoming kindergarteners this fall, which also marks her 18th year of teaching.

*Coming soon: More from Walsh about the language apps that work.

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