Nurturing Learning in One-Year-Olds: Language and Literacy

The most obvious of all of the many remarkable changes between a child's first and second birthday is that they begin talking. As exciting as those first words are, though, they are only a slice of the language gains that one-year-olds make.

Watching language blossom during the second year of a child’s life is truly amazing! There are so many remarkable changes between children’s first and second birthdays, and the most obvious of all is that they begin talking. As exciting as those first words are, though, they are only a slice of the language gains that one-year-olds (ones) make. In this Nurturing Learning, we’ll look at several of the ways ones change and grow in their understanding and use of language.

Talking!

What children are doing:

Most children begin saying their first recognizable words sometime around their first birthday. For the first few months, they slowly add new words to their vocabulary, words that tend to be most relevant in their day to day experience. Then, sometime in the second half of their second year, it seems like a switch is turned on and they go through a period of rapid word-learning. In fact, it’s common for children to learn and use an average of 10-20 new words a week, earning this phase the label “naming explosion!” Most of these new words are labels for objects, and ones show obvious pride when they can say the names for things.

What caregivers can provide:

The most important thing that can be provided for ones as they build their budding language skills is lots and lots of spoken language from adults. Other than a talkative caregiver, it’s also helpful to provide an environment in which there are plenty of interesting things to talk about with the children.

  • Inviting, age-appropriate toys and materials that capture ones’ attention.
  • Sturdy board books that include familiar objects and actions that they can name and talk about.
  • Photos and other child-centered displays on the walls at the children’s level (photos of the children’s families, among others).
  • Repetition of simple rhymes, songs, and finger plays that children can join in.

What caregivers can say and do:

Face-to-face talking with toddlers, where the children can clearly hear and see the adult and where the caregiver can provide immediate feedback and encouragement to their speech efforts, is by far the most effective means of helping to support ones’ language learning.

  • Adults can talk with children during routines, describing what the adult is doing, responding to both the one-year-olds’ verbal and their nonverbal attempts to communicate.
  • Talk with children while they are playing with toys, interacting with art or sensory materials, climbing on the playground, etc.
  • Remember that children always understand far more language than they can produce. Expose them to lots of rich language and conversation so that they can absorb it, understand it, and eventually produce it themselves.

Learning Conversation Skills

What children are doing:

 Long before they speak their first words, babies become familiar with the back-and-forth nature of conversation. Most parents and caregivers naturally engage with babies in a way that involves turn-taking – the adult speaks, then waits for the baby to do something, and then responds as though the baby answered back (even if all she did was blink!). Now, during children’s second year, they are keen to add their own language to the conversation. Children are often very motivated to communicate, and can become frustrated when adults don’t understand what they are trying to say. But most of the time, they enjoy their newfound ability to use words to interact with their caring adults. The more caregivers engage with them in enjoyable conversation, the more language the one-year-olds hear, the more practice they get, and the more language skills they gain.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Opportunities for relaxed, one-on-one conversation throughout the day.
  • Opportunities to share a book with three or fewer children. Looking at a book with one child allows caregivers to notice and respond to the child’s actions and words and to have more of an interactive, conversational experience. With each child that is added to the group, less one-on-one experience can happen.
  • Songs or movement activities that involve call-and-response or imitation (the adult does an action and the children copy it).

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Recognize when a toddler is initiating a conversation, even when it’s not verbal (for example, a child holds up his empty cup to the caregiver), and respond in a way that will invite more interaction ( “I see your cup, Jack. What do you need?”).
  • Pay attention to how much language toward children is directive (telling a child to do or not do something). Try to keep this directional language to a minimum and increase the amount of conversational language.
  • Consider teaching young ones some simple sign language to use when they become frustrated with not being understood verbally.

Becoming Familiar with Books

What children are doing:

 If books have been a regular part of one-yearolds’ experiences, they will gradually change from interacting with books as just another toy to showing more and more interest in the pictures that are inside the book. As they gain experience with shared book reading with adults, they will begin imitating book reading behavior: turning the pages and holding the book upright. When the same books are made available to them repeatedly, over time they will develop a preference for certain books, and even for particular pages or pictures within a book. As their vocabulary and memory skills grow, they remember words of familiar books and anticipate what’s coming next.

What caregivers can provide: 

  • A collection of sturdy, age-appropriate books that ones can have access to throughout the day.
  • Time each day for shared book reading with a caregiver or adult volunteer.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Pay attention to individual children’s preferences for specific books or pictures. Use that knowledge to engage them in conversation.
  • Although books can be stored in a basket or on a shelf, ones are very likely to carry books with them to other parts of the room. Expecting ones to keep books in one area of the room will only cause frustration for everyone. Be flexible about where children can look at books on their own and be spontaneous about taking an opportunity to read aloud when a child shows an interest in a particular book.
  • Model how to treat books. Talk about taking good care of books and about enjoying reading.

Drawing Meaning from Pictures

What children are doing:

By the time children are a year old, they are just beginning to grasp that a photo or illustration of an object represents a real object. They are also trying to make sense of how the representation and the “real thing” are the same and how they are different. And, to make it even more challenging, they are trying to understand the labels used for categories of objects when there are obvious differences among the things that go in that category (dogs can look very different from each other!). There are times when, as a toddler is looking at a picture, adults can almost see the mental wheels turning as the child tries to make the connection between the picture, the real world, and the words used to talk about it.

What caregivers can provide:

  • Photo collections of familiar objects or places, family members (including pets), and events that children have experienced.
  • Picture labels on storage containers of toys and materials.
  • Books that depict actions, events, or emotions that one-year-olds can recognize and connect to their own experiences.

What caregivers can say and do:

  • Encourage ones to make the connections between picture representations and real life as books and pictures are shared (“That’s the baby’s blanket, isn’t it? Where’s your blanket?”).
  • Take photos of the children and the activities they do and create displays or photo albums that caregivers and ones can talk about together.

Keep in mind

It’s important to remember that every child has his or her own timeline for language learning, for several reasons. Differences in temperament, for example, can affect the way ones may begin using language. The cautious child tends to experiment less with sounds and words, trying fewer variations and preferring to observe and wait until he feels more sure of himself. The risk-taker, on the other hand, experiments with lots of different sounds and words while learning the conventional or correct pronunciation, not really minding that he makes mistakes.

So what’s normal? The range for language learning is wide. For example, the appearance of first words ranges from 8 months to as late as 18 months. Early talkers don’t have any overall advantage, though – they seem to simply be highly motivated to talk, saying words as soon as they learn their meanings. And most late talkers have caught up to their age mates in a year or so. However, late babbling and talking isn’t something to be ignored – it can be an early sign of hearing problems or other developmental delays. So if there is a concern, don’t hesitate to seek a professional opinion. The earlier problems are discovered, the earlier children can receive the support they need.

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Nurturing Learning in One-Year-Olds: Language and Literacy

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