As we are all practicing social distancing to help slow the growth of COVID-19, many of us are facing the challenge of working from home while also caring for our children. The safety and health of our community are of utmost importance during these days. With children home from school, we all want to keep our kids engaged and stimulated so they’re ready for school when it starts up again. While parents may find it a bit daunting to teach topics like reading, math or science on their own, there is also a rich opportunity for helping children grow their language skills. These skills are tied to successful academic outcomes, and they are something that we all know: how to speak and listen.
Language skills are typically not taught. Children learn new words by being exposed to new things, by learning about the world, and by interacting with others – their peers and adults. Therefore anything you can do to expose your child to new things, get them talking, and get them listening will help. In particular, conversational turn-taking (the normal back and forth) is critical for language development. So engaging in tasks together and talking about them can be a great platform for this.
Here are a few simple ways that you can help your elementary-aged children grow their vocabulary while enjoying time together.
1. Have your child choose an area of interest and explore it together. There are many great web resources to do this. This is also a great time to teach kids how to look for reliable and trustworthy web resources - .org, .edu, and .gov websites often have great information that is developed by experts in different fields. You can download an app to access e-books or audio books from your local library for free.
Critically, you should explore these things together and encourage your children to talk with you about what they are learning. As you are exploring together, discuss words and their meanings. Don’t shy away from reading long and scientific words to your kids or helping them as they confront and decode these words. They need to hear and read words many times before they become accessible, so make sure to review the topics repeatedly. Depending on your child’s interest level, have them create a presentation to share with your family – or even family connected via video chat!
2. Do household tasks together. Cooking, cleaning, and simple repairs are a great way to spend time together and offer lots of opportunities for learning new words and for turn-taking. Teach your child (safely!) how to sauté; introduce the names of different tools and what they do; guide them through the different plants in your house and their unique care needs. Not only will your child learn many new words, they may also learn some new skills.
3. Check out some of the many cultural and scientific resources currently available to kids at home. Many museums, zoos, and libraries are hosting tours and talks for kids to tap into. These are great opportunities for exposure to new concepts and words – as well as lots of fun! Author Mo Willems is hosting daily drawing sessions to practice drawing many of the characters in his books. This is a great tie-in to doing some reading at home – you may not even have to ask your child to do it!
4. Read a chapter book out loud. Books contain lots of words and sentence structures that don’t come up in everyday conversation. Even if your child isn’t reading them, listening to books can be a great way to learn these words and structures. Your child may not be ready to read a chapter book yet (or even if they are) but they may be ready for the stories. Pick a favorite chapter book from your childhood –Anne of Green Gables, the Chronicles of Narnia, whatever you were into—and read a chapter aloud each night. If you don’t have any ideas, your child’s school librarian may be able to recommend something, and most public libraries in the corridor will allow you to download eBooks.
5. Read and recite poetry or perform a play as a family. These types of texts allow for children to interact with words in a different way than traditional fiction or non-fiction. Be sure to go over any unfamiliar words and their meanings so your child knows how to recite or perform them. Then, enjoy the final product together!
6. Conduct an interview with a family member or friend over video chat. This is a great opportunity to strengthen social connections while also learning about a certain field of study or a historical time. Depending on your child’s relationships and interest level, they could choose to document the stories of a grandparent or perhaps a family friend with a career choice that is of interest. Encourage your child to ask questions about the meanings of unfamiliar words as they arise, including how to spell them so they can read them again at a later time.
7. As always – read often and widely! This can be done together or independently, or a combination of both. As often as possible let your child choose the text to keep it fun and engaging. Finding favorite audiobooks available through library webpages is another great option.
Most importantly, stay safe and healthy. Many parents are worried about their children’s academic progress during this long hiatus, but kids are smart, the brain is plastic, and we’ll all bounce back from this. So don’t get stressed out! Everyone is doing the best they can during these challenging times—spending a few cozy moments with your child snuggling up and sharing an activity might be just what is needed.
-Alex Fell and Dr. Bob McMurray
P.S. Below is a list of a few of the many resources currently available to folks online. These can be used as a way to extend the development of your children's oral language skills, as well as to bolster reading and writing. Most importantly, we hope you enjoy them!
Libby Audiobooks and ebooks (use with your local library card information): overdrive.com/apps/libby
Picture books read online: storylineonline.net
Save with Stories on Instagram: instagram.com/savewithstories
Commonsense Media Guide for finding educational apps and programming for kids: commonsensemedia.org
PBS Kids: pbskids.org
Online Activities and Programs
Author Mo Willems does daily drawing sessions here: kennedy-center.org/education/mo-willems
Home safari with the Cincinnati Zoo: cincinnatizoo.org/home-safari-resources
Kahn Academy for lessons in different subjects: khanacademy.com
Smithsonian Museum's online tours and learning: www.si.edu
TedEd online activities, lessons, and programs from TedTalks: ed.ted.com/