Creating a learning rich environment to facilitate language development in adopted preschoolers
Bringing your newly adopted child home after an often difficult and lengthy adoption process can be both exciting and intimidating for parents. On the one hand there is relief; the child you were waiting for so long is finally yours. On the other hand, this is frequently a starting point of many new worries, especially if adoptive parents do not share a common language with their newly adopted child. What is more, a significant number of adopted children over three years of age are drastically delayed in their native language development. This is often due to the harsh realities of institutional care, which is characterized by neglect, lack of stimulation, inadequate learning setting and many other factors which may negatively impact language development. Coupled with this, is adopted child’s trauma of being uprooted from all that is familiar. As a result, the new parents may find themselves facing a child who simply refuses to speak in any language. This reluctance to speak can last anywhere from a few days to a few months.
If you find yourself in this situation, don’t despair. There are a few relatively simple strategies to facilitate a child’s language development, whether you are attempting to reinforce child’s Russian or teaching the child English. All that is required are some patience and perseverance. For starters, set up a learning environment in the play room. Purchase inexpensive language rich toys that are fun and educational at the same time. For example, many wooden peg puzzles have sounds (e.g. Melissa and Doug brand) and are great for teaching some essential language ranging from foods and animals to transportation and clothes. Additionally, portable “Create-A-Scene Magnetic Play Sets” (e.g. Smethport brand) are great for imaginative language rich play during which children can make endless combination of fun scenes and comment on their creations.
With numerous different play sets to choose from, including fairy tales and nursery rhymes, its a great way to facilitate language through child centered, commentary laden play (a child creates scenes and an adult comments on them while setting up multiple opportunities for the child to imitate and respond). Other toys great for language development are early games such as Bingo. Bingo games can be purchased, found free online (e.g. http://bogglesworldesl.com/) or even made using special websites (e.g. dltk-kids). They are great for developing many basic skills such as knowledge about body parts, recognizing everyday sounds, learning rhyming words, learning sight words or matching vowels during fun interactive play that targets language comprehension and expression. Furthermore, simple play sets such as doll houses, car garages, or enchanted castles can serve as great tools for language development. They can be used for teaching and eliciting new language forms through repetition, for following multistep directions (“put daddy in the kitchen, mommy on the porch, and the baby in the bathtub”) as well as for developing your child’s imagination and cognitive skills through play.
Of course we mustn’t forget books. Book reading can be an art form. It can teach much or it can teach very little as we have learned from a seminal study by Shirley Brice Heath entitled “What no bed time story means”, which explored patterns of book reading to preschoolers in a cluster of mainstream school-oriented neighborhoods of a city in the southeastern region in the United States. In a nutshell, the study postulated that bedtime stories are a crucial part of a child’s early education and the way they are read to children can determine their success in school. When purchasing books (checking out from the library or printing/reading online see useful websites) for preschoolers one needs to take into the consideration both the illustrations and the content. While board books are appropriate for toddlers, older children (2.6+) can handle paper pages and will be particularly interested in ‘lift the flap’ or ‘pop up’ illustrations. Books for preschoolers must contain “learnability”- possess repetition, focus on basic concepts (e.g. up/down, big/small, good/bad etc), use rhyming text in order to develop the child’s comprehension and vocabulary as well as to prepare them for independent book reading in the future. When reading books with your preschool child your focus should be not just on asking the child to simply identify the pictures in the book. You should also ask concrete “wh” questions (i.e. what, where, when) as well as via more abstract ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. These techniques will help you improve your child’s comprehension development.
Good story reading involves comparing and contrasting (e.g. objects/people/animals) making predictions and inferences about what going to happen in the story line, asking the child to problem solve the situation for the character (e.g. what do you think he must do to…?), state his/her likes and dislikes about the story characters as well as describe (narrate back) their view of events taking place in the story. Additionally, listening as well as singing and dancing along with simple children’s songs develops comprehension of words through actions and expression of language through vocalizations. This is especially valuable because the activity places low demand (singing along is less demanding than directly imitating adults) on a child who is already significantly ‘stressed’ due to his inability/decreased ability to speak. All toys/activities can be used to facilitate speech and language; one just must be creative in their uses. Parents don’t need to purchase costly toys in order to facilitate language development (all abovementioned toys and manipulatives can be found for a fraction of its retail price on different sites online as well as in discount stores such as Amazing Savings, Daffy’s and many others). However, appropriate selection and use of toys can make a difference in the rate of language adaptation and use. As always, parents are advised to consult with related professionals (speech and language therapists, psychologists, etc) if they have any concerns regarding their child’s developing communication skills. Early detection and treatment are critical to the process of successful speech and language development.
Heath, S. B (1982) What no bedtime story means: Narrative skills at home and school. Language in Society, vol. 11 pp. 49-76. Some
Tatyana Elleseff MA CCC-SLP is a bilingual speech language pathologist with a private practice in Somerset, NJ and multiple hospital and agency affiliations in Central New Jersey. She is a New York University graduate with Bilingual Certification from Columbia University. Additionally she holds dual licensure from the states of New York and New Jersey as well as a Certificate of Clinical Competence from ASHA (American Speech Language and Hearing Association). She specializes in providing a variety of comprehensive speech and language services to bilingual pediatric clients including internationally adopted children from various countries around the world. For more information about her services or to schedule a consultation call 917-916-7487 or visit her website: www.smartspeechtherapy.com