Speech and Language Skills: The Early Years

One of the crucial areas of parenting is helping your children develop speech and language skills. How can parents help their young children communicate?

Children can develop excellent speech and language skills, but they do not do so on their own. Parents play a necessary role in helping their children develop the ability to express themselves appropriately through speech. What can you do, as a parent, to help your child progress in this important developmental area?

First, here is a little of the science behind speech and language development:

In the temporal lobe of the brain is a group of cells known as Wernicke’s area. This area allows us to understand and formulate speech. In the frontal lobe of the brain, specifically in the motor cortex, is a group of nerve cells known as Broca’s area. This area gives us the motor ability to speak. The two areas are joined together by a bundle of nerve fibers called the arcuate fasciculus.

We understand language coming in (receptive language) and then form what we want to say (expressive language) in Wernicke’s area, then that is sent through the arcuate fasciculus to Broca’s area, which tells our mouth how to move in order to speak what we want (speech).

You don’t have to know those terms to help. But it is good to know that, as your child’s brain expands and develops over time, so does speech and language.

Researchers have identified two periods during child development when the brain grows and changes the most: from birth to 3 years of age, and during adolescence. These are critically important times for parents to facilitate environments of learning, nurturing and guidance.

Here are some tips on how you can nurture your child’s development.

Researchers have identified two periods during child development when the brain grows and changes the most: from birth to 3 years of age, and during adolescence. These are critically important times for parents to facilitate environments of learning, nurturing and guidance.Birth to 3 years of age: What you can do

The brains of young children have more plasticity at this stage than they will ever have. In other words, they are the most impressionable during this time. This can be very good when parents provide a positive environment, but it can be devastating if parents provide a negative, deprived and neglectful environment.

Just as parents’ reading to their children every night will have a positive effect on development, so parents’ allowing their children to watch an excessive amount of television will have a negative effect.

Knowing this about the early years of a child, it is no wonder that Jesus Christ told His followers that they are to be like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of God. God wants His people to be teachable, humble and impressionable to His influence (Matthew 18:3; Mark 10:15).

Here are three things parents can do to help their children develop during this critical time:

1. Supervise and regulate “screen time.” Children at this age who are exposed to excessive “screen time” (activities involving a television, computer or other electronic screen) that is not age-appropriate will have an unneeded obstacle in their development. Children must learn language in contexts they can understand. They benefit the most from hands-on interaction with their world, such as touching, feeling, shaking, stacking and problem-solving activities with their family. During critical brain-development stages, television and other electronic devices should be limited to less than two hours per day. (For more ideas on how to facilitate greater learning during and after “screen time,” read this resource: “Television and the Under 3 Crowd.”)

Though educational television shows and educational apps can be beneficial in small doses, the main source of interaction should come from people (especially parents) and tangible experiences.

2. Play and talk with your child! Model everything. Get out the toys, storybooks and household objects and spend time with your child. As we saw above, “face time” with a parent, sibling, friend or relative is a much more positive influence than “screen time.” As your child is learning to speak, go through the house verbally labeling everything you see with your child. When your child starts forming words, model the word slowly with exaggerated mouth movements so he or she can see the motor patterns needed to make the words.

For activities, use the “I do, we do, you do” method.

  • Model what you want the child to do.
  • Do the activity with the child and then allow your child to try it on his or her own.
  • Let your child play with and explore the colors, shapes, objects, actions, describing words, tastes, sounds, etc. of his or her environment with your supervision and guidance. Have fun!

Here are two helpful resources on ways to teach your children during playtime: “Playing With Little Ones” and “Play and Development in Young Children.”

3. Make time to read with your child as much as possible. Even as late as the middle school years, teachers continue to plead with parents to read to their children. Reading helps develop children’s understanding and processing of language, as well as their formulation of thoughts and ideas when they ask questions about things you read to them. While reading, point out different concepts and go from identification questions for interaction (“what is that on the page?” or “where’s the car?”) to more open-ended questions when older (“what’s he going to do?”).

Reading to young children does not have to include words on a page. Picture books are good choices to develop language and understanding. Describe the pictures and ask your child to point to different objects. Young children’s receptive language develops sooner than their expressive language, meaning they can understand spoken words sooner than they can speak.  


Speech and language are critical for young children to build a foundation on which to build their lives. When following the instruction of Scripture to teach your children God’s laws diligently at all times (Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19), you are literally doing more for your child’s overall development than you could ever imagine.

This is the first of a two part series on Helping Your Children Develop Speech and Language Skills.  For part 2 in this series, see the article on “The Adolescent Years.”

For biblical guidance to help you become a better parent, read our articles on “Practical Tips for Positive Parenting.”

About the Author

Eddie and Shannon Foster

Eddie and Shannon Foster

Eddie (a school speech-language pathologist) and Shannon (a former school counselor) Foster are members of the Cincinnati/Dayton, Ohio, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association.

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