The Six Principles of Language Development and Reading Books With Your Child

6 principles of language development and reading books with your child

Thanks to decades of research, we know better now than ever before that language and literacy skills begin developing at birth. That’s right! From the moment your beautiful child breathes their first breath and hears their first words, their brain is set to work in developing skills for understanding. 

This post contains the six research-based principles of language development. These have been adapted from the Dickinson et al. (2012) article entitled How Reading Books Fosters Language Development Around the World. The citation is located at the end of this post.


The Six Research-Based Principles of Language Development

Principle 1: Children Need to Hear Many Words Often

Language is a self-reinforcing system that is constantly evolving even your baby begins to speak. 

Yes, those gestures your baby makes are a mere attempt to express themselves.


When you honor their gestures and respond using gestures yourself, you are actively contributing to their language development even though they cannot talk!


Just as important though is exposing your child to language beginning at birth. This plays a critically massive role in their language and literacy development. 


Speech directed toward your child in an engaging and receptive way [similar to gestural communication during infancy] is essential in optimizing their vocabulary development… even if they are unable to respond with clear utterances. 


What’s more, is when you engage in child-directed speech with more and richer language, you are directly strengthening their early language processing skills. That means the quicker they understand the words being uttered the quicker they can interpret the meaning of what is being said.


When it comes to reading books with your baby or toddler, select books that have complex stories and ideas. It’s ok if there are words too big or too novel for your child to understand. What’s important is the amount of exposure you make available to your child. 


Principle 2: Children Learn Words When They Are Interested

Language learning occurs best when the conversation or book topic is based on objects or actions of immediate interest to your child. 


Shared book reading has been found to greatly impact children’s literacy competencies. When adults and children attend to the same object or event with similar interest and engagement, they are engaged in joint attention. 


Here are a few book recommendations for parents that young children love!

Principle 3: Children Learn Best When Adults are Responsive to Them

There is no question that children learn best in an environment filled with responsive and caring adults. We have learned that gesturally communicating with your infant contributes to their language development even though they cannot talk yet. 


As a matter of fact, children’s language development milestones may be associated with the level of maternal responsiveness. Children between the ages of 9 and 13 months have been found to reach developmental milestones quicker depending on how active and responsive their mother or caregiver is.


What does responsiveness mean? Researchers have found that children learn little to no new words while watching televised shows.   However, Skype conversations involving children and adults have shown to contribute to children’s word learning. That is because the adult is directly responding with the child where the communicator responds directly to the child increasing word learning.


Reading with your child is a wonderful way to set the stage for bonding and responding to your child. Not only do you have the opportunity to contribute to their language development, but you also begin fostering their self-regulation skills as well. 18-month-old children who engage in longer periods of joint attention are found to have stronger productive vocabularies at 24 months.


Find a good book or handful of books that your child loves! I’ve read to many young children and they tend to gravitate to the same books over and over again. That’s ok!


Here are a few timeless classics that young children want to read over and over again!


Principle 4: Words are Learned When Meanings Are Made Clear

It goes without saying the importance of assuring your child understands the words you are using during conversation and reading time. Help them grasp the meaning of novel words by using some of these ideas:

  • Giving a direct definition of the word in question.
  • Pointing to an example of the word
  • Using intonation or gestures to signal the word’s meaning.

Principle 5: Vocabulary and Grammar are Learning Together

Vocabulary and grammar are interconnected and develop in parallel with one another. When a child subconsciously notes the linguistic context in which words appear, they gain information about their parts of speech. The famous ‘wug’ test is a perfect example of this.


Once a word is understood, a child can detect its nuances. For example, if you were to say, “The drink is cold!” and then later state, “Do you have a cold?”, your child would be able to distinguish the syntactical differences and apply the proper semantical meaning to the word ‘cold’ in each case.

Principle 6: Keep Language Positive and Engaging

It is most beneficial to use affirmations rather than prohibitions while communicating with your child. Prohibitions such as, “Don’t touch that,” or “That’s a no-no,” are considered to be conversation closers. Rather than closing conversations, affirm your child’s interest in whatever matter they are gravitating toward. Speak in full sentences and expand on your thought process as well as theirs. When parents expand on their children’s language, it keeps the conversation open and creates a space that fosters language growth!


When it comes to storytime, it is ok that your child wants to gnaw on the corner of the book or turn the page before you are ready to move on. It’s also ok if they do not express the same excitement when it comes to viewing the illustrations on the page. Keep the conversation light and positive. Stay in the moment. Especially when you notice they are really captivated by something on the page. Open up a conversation about it using details and richer vocabulary. Trust me, they are listening and soaking it in!



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For more on language development, be sure to check out this post on how parental engagement impacts language development and tell me what you think!

How Parental Engagement Impacts Your Child's Language Development a father sits with his two sons reading a book together


I hope you have enjoyed this post. Please let me know if you have any questions down below or contact me on Instagram @beyondreadingandwriting

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Blair, C., Protzko, J., & Ursache, A. (2010) Self-regulation and early literacy. In Neuman, S. B., & Dickinson, D. K. (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (pp. 20-35). The Guilford Press.

Dickinson, D., Griffith, J., Golinkoff, R., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2012) How reading books fosters language development around the world. Child Development Research, 2012, 1-15.

Click to download reading tips and common reading terms every parent should know

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