We’ve all attended talks or sat through meetings where the person speaking sends us to sleep. Conversely, we’ve all doubtlessly listened to speakers who have us hanging on their every word.
Being able to speak well is one of life’s most useful skills. There are many people who do not necessarily have high academic qualifications, but who excel because they can express their thoughts and ideas clearly, in ways that makes others sit up and listen. These people have learnt how to explain, persuade and engage others. They recognise the power of the spoken word.
Sadly, in many school systems, developing the ability to speak well is often considered a less important skill than writing compositions or answering comprehension questions. Yet on an average day, how often do we need to use verbal communication skills as compared with how often we need to do a piece of creative writing?
As a parent, it helps for us to have an understanding of how oral communication skills are developed so that we can endeavour to provide opportunities for our children to become more effective communicators.
Stages of oral language development
Typically, children utter their first words between 12-18 months old, and by 4-4 1/2 years old, they are using complex sentences. Between the ages of 7-11 years old, children are developing the complex skills of using oral language to predict, reason, explain and draw conclusions. They are usually able to use long and complex sentences by this stage, and can initiate their own conversations. This ability to learn language is one of the most natural and impressive accomplishments.
The importance of interaction
Children are born to speak, and through exposure, they learn to navigate the rules and nuances of language through their interactions with the people around them quite naturally. Parents, teachers and caregivers provide the most important models for children, so it is important that whoever is looking after your child on a regular basis spends time interacting with them verbally. The quality of interaction is important, so try to make sure you provide a good language role model for your child. Children are great imitators, so speaking clearly, and accurately, and using a wide vocabulary will help your child learn how to do the same.
Environment and approach
Provide your child with a language-rich and supportive home environment where he can express himself without criticism or judgement. Resist the urge to constantly correct your child’s speech and help your child to understand that making mistakes is a necessary and expected part of learning. Real communication is a two-way exchange, and it’s important to distance yourself from the traditional “I say and you do” approach to allow children to their thoughts and ideas in their own way.
It’s also crucial to make time to listen to your child, and consider both his and your viewpoints.
Discuss current events, books, and movies, and encourage your child to explain and defend his opinions whilst at the same time listening to yours. Try not to interrupt or finish his sentences, and try to give him your full attention while he is talking. As he is still learning to express himself through words, it may take him a little longer than you, but interrupting him or not giving him your sincere attention will impede his fluency and confidence – making him less willing to engage in conversation.
The value of life experiences
Take every opportunity to give your child interesting life experiences as this will help broaden his vocabulary and, more importantly, will do so in context. For example, if you go fishing together and talk about different ways that you could catch a fish, he will be exposed to all sorts of new words: bait, tackle, reel and sinker will become a natural extension of his vocabulary.
Discourage your child from relying on over-used vocabulary – for example, if your child tells you that the TV programme he watched last night was ‘good’, ask him what he means by ‘good’. Does he mean funny, entertaining, interesting or informative? Using more precise vocabulary is important for accurate and unambiguous communication.
Talking about present and past experiences is another way for your child to develop strong oral communication skills. Have him reflect on these experiences, describe his feelings and compare and contrast them with other experiences he has had.
Have fun imagining and describing situations based on both real life and fantasy. Make up stories and rhymes together, sing songs play word games, enjoy role play. Have fun with language and communication.
A question of Bi-lingualism
In Singapore, children need to be able to communicate proficiently in at least two languages, and many parents worry that their child will become confused if two languages are used simultaneously at home. Start off the second language with simple songs, rhymes and stories. Teach your child how to name some common objects in the second language and how to understand and give simple instructions.
Generally speaking, it is best to keep the two languages separate. Combining the two within one sentence, for example saying, “Did you makan yet?” can indeed be confusing to a child. Perhaps one of the most successful ways to help your child become verbally proficient in two languages is if each parent communicates in only one language. In that way, the child will grow up understanding that there are different ways to communicate. Children who are exposed to languages in this way from young generally have few problems switching from one language to the other.
To quote the famous developmental psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, “The child begins to perceive the world not only through his eyes but also through his speech.”
Make sure your child has plenty of opportunities for his voice to be heard.
Lorna Whiston Schools, a Singapore Quality Class organisation, has been the leading provider of English Language programmes for the past 37 years. We offer a range of English Enrichment, Creative Writing and Speech and Drama programmes to children aged 18 months to 16 years old.
Our teachers are all fully qualified, with graduate and post-graduate qualifications from their home countries. We approach language learning through interactive teaching methods that develop strong oral communication skills in students of all ages. For more information, please visit us at www.lornawhiston.com.sg
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