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Interactive Language & Open-Ended Questions

Dear Elizabeth,
My daughter is just a year away from going to kindergarten. What can I do at home now to help her become better prepared for school?
Jamilah Winn
East Point, GA
Elizabeth's Tips
Elizabeth Sanchez
Elizabeth Sanchez
  • A rich language environment lays the foundation for success
  • Create opportunities to talk & listen to your child
  • Give your child time to express thoughts & feelings
Expert Advice
Laura Díaz
Laura Díaz
Early childhood educator
What Is Interactive Language?
Interactive language means to provide opportunities for children to communicate, listen, and allowing them to experiment with the uses and forms of language, and to respond. In other words, interactive language is having a conversation with a child. Providing a reason for children to communicate (an experience, a question, a prompt), letting children communicate in their own way, listening to what they are trying to say, and responding in a way that is satisfying to the child, keeps the interaction going, models good language.

When Language Is Not Interactive
As opposed to interactive language (back and forth conversations), language that is used to control children, give them directions, or solicit information from them without encouraging complex thoughts, contributes little to their literacy development (for example, “Put this in your cubby.” “Eat your lunch before it gets cold.” “What color is this?”).

If that’s the only way we communicate with children, we also don’t get a chance to build close relationships with children, to get to know them, to let them trust us. In other words, in addition to not helping them build their vocabulary and thinking skills so they can be successful in reading later, we are also not helping them build strong socio-emotional skills. Both children and adults miss out on opportunities to enjoy each other’s company.

How to Build Children’s Language Skills
Many busy parents and teachers of toddlers or young preschoolers may wish they had more one on one time with children or time to “teach” new things but a great way to build language skills can be done by just talking with your child during a daily routine.

For example, while changing a baby, we can talk about how the diaper feels, smells, is the wipe cold, body parts, body temperature. With a baby we can say, “Let’s put on a nice clean diaper. This new diaper feels good! Let’s put socks on your feet. Here are baby’s feet!” Or while eating, we can say, “Yum! Carrots! You like your sweet carrots! Carrots.”

Or while trying to dress a toddler, you can sing, “Head and shoulders, knees and toes,” and then play a game matching the clothes to the body part. “Where do your socks go? Yes, on your feet! And your hat? That’s right! A hat goes on your head! Is this mommy’s hat? Let’s see if it fits on mommy’s head. No, too silly. This is J.J.’s hat!” Before your squiggly toddler knows it, she’s dressed, has practiced some body parts and has practiced possessives.

How to Engage Kids in Interactive Language
The best way to help children increase their vocabularies and learn other language skills is to provide opportunities for them to hear different forms of language. We do this by 1) modeling language, 2) having extended conversations and 3) reading aloud. While most children learn the language they hear easily, some children need a little more support.

Serve as a good language model: Use complete sentences and good grammar when you talk. Say it like they would if they could. If you think a baby is crying because he’s hungry, then say, “You’re hungry. Let’s get some milk.” When he’s looking more relaxed, you can say, “You’re happy now that your tummy is full!”

Practice the OWL technique: Observe, Wait, and Listen before talking. Be patient and wait for the child to respond. Even I sometimes find that I’m counting to 10 or more to keep from jumping in and finishing my son’s sentences! Pay close attention to what a child is trying to tell you or show you. Ask questions. Then listen attentively to what the child says so you can answer and model language appropriately. Avoid “test-like” questions too, and remember the importance of asking open-ended questions.
Child Care Provider Comments
Gregory Keer
Gregory Keer
Father of three
We spend a lot of time asking our kids questions. We show them that we respect what they have to say and that we respect their opinion, which encourages them to speak more. The speed of our lives has taught them to be verbal, has taught them that they need to express themselves. I am proud that we connect and communicate the way that we do. I don’t feel that our kids leave anything out or anything is left unsaid.
Silvia Fischer
Silvia Fischer
Grandmother of 20-month-old
We as adults – me included – tend to want to jump in and give the answers when we see a child thinking. A family friend recently reminded me of this when I tried to jump in and answer for my grandson. It’s better to show respect and take time with our kids and show them that we care about their ideas and feelings. If we look at them and listen and wait for their answers, that’s show them how important they are, and then also encourages them to speak.

My husband and I took recently took our grandson to a museum and it was amazing all the new things he wanted to look at and know about. It was an easy way to naturally encourage a conversation because he was excited about it. Then I’ll read him a book or play a game that’s about a topic I know he likes right now. For example, yesterday I played a dinosaur game with him and he loved it and we talked the whole time.
Marsol Ward
Marsol Ward
Assistant preschool director
When you take the time to use interactive language, it just enhances their knowledge and the kids really want to learn to use more words. It helps their language skills. Their vocabulary expands so they are using more words and more complex words. Instead of just “please” and “thank you,” they begin to say, “Can I please have some of that?" When they learn more about the world around them, it engages them to want to know why these words are like this, but then it also means something else.

Matching Card Game Featured Activity:
Matching Card Game
Interactive Language & Open-Ended Questions Featured Video:
Interactive Language & Open-Ended Questions
Topic: Social & Emotional Development
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