Newswise — MANHATTAN, Kansas — Learning communication skills begins the day a baby is born.

"At all stages of early communication development, children can understand more language than they can produce so it's important they are hearing speech and language," said Debra Burnett, assistant professor and licensed speech-language pathologist at Kansas State University.

Communication involves language, listening and conversation. A child learns all three skills from personal interaction, said Burnett, whose research and teaching focus on child language development and disorders.

To bolster all three Burnett suggests a parent try to set aside time during each day when communicating with his child is the only thing he is doing, Burnett said. No multitasking. No electronics.

"Face to face communication is important for both you and your child. It is a time when you have each other's full attention," she said.

She also recommends reading together.

"Books are a great tool for sharing language," the professor said. "Start early by looking at books and labeling pictures and move on to simple, repetitive stories that a child can learn and predict."

"Shared book reading should be very interactive," she said. "The child should not just sit quietly and listen."

Use your words, DadVocabulary is a predictor of later reading and academic skills, Burnett said.

"Research dating back to the mid-1990s has shown us that children who heard more meaningful vocabulary and more praise in the first year used many more vocabulary words by age 3," she said. "The children who heard more than 2,000 words an hour on average from their parents had a vocabulary of about 1,100 words at age 3, while children who heard just over 600 words per hour had a vocabulary of about 500 words."

What should a parent talk about?"What's coming out of your mouth should be connected with what is happening in the child's environment and experience," Burnett said, suggesting daily routines such as feeding and bath time, trips to the store, key objects and actions.

Toddlers use simple phrases. Provide clear, simple language to listen to. A toddler will imitate key words and learn to make longer sentences.

Preschoolers use simple sentences, always building on what they are learning and doing.

However, language isn't always words.

Infants make noises and play with vowel and consonant sounds. Imitate the noises and pause to allow your child to respond, she suggests.

Listening is learnedTo help a child build good listening skills, Burnett's suggestions:

• Use good speech that is clear and simple. A child will model that speech and be encouraged to listen if he understands. For example, with an infant to 1-year-old, keep it simple and keep it interactive. Make directions easy to follow — one step, "in here and now." When older, give two-step directions that can be outside here and now. Such as "Take your tractor to your sister in the living room."

• Provide information. For example, a preschooler is having rich experiences as he explores the world. If you are the source of information for this exploration, he is going to listen to you.

• Stay positive, praise and respond to the child's sounds and gestures. She will listen to you because you are the bearer of good things. Even in directives such as safety rules, be positive. Instead of saying, "Don't run away from me," say, "Hold my hand and stay with me." Tell the child what she should do instead of what she can't do.

Making conversationsA child learns that communications is a two-way street when a parent pays attention to her expressions or babbles or words and reacts.

Infants are learning how to communicate with you. So respond to all attempts with eye contact, smiles and imitation back to them, Burnett advised.

Toddlers are learning boundaries and need praise for what they are doing right as they "talk." Imitate their language and expand on it. Reply.

When a child starts a conversation, give him your full attention.

"If you have concerns about your child's speech or language, trust your instincts," Burnett said.

Ear infections can affect a child's ability to hear and listen because of fluid in the ear. Nearly 75 percent of children have an ear infection before age 3. Almost 50 percent of those have three or more.

She recommends county Tiny K infant toddler services that provides evaluation and, if needed, treatment. Resources are listed at

She also recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention parent site,, for information and videos for learning and practicing communication skills, and the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association site,, which offers more activities that encourage speech and language development from birth to age 6.

Week of the Young Child, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children April 12-18, focuses on the foundation for a child's success in school and later life.

Through research, scholarship, teaching and outreach, the faculty in the College of Human Ecology continually seeks ways to nurture healthy children and families. Burnett works with the School of Family Studies and Human Services whose research facilities include the Speech and Hearing Center, a state-of-the-art facility that provides clinical services to students, residents of Manhattan and surrounding community, and provides supervised clinical experience for graduate students.

(Part 6 in the series on Raising a Healthy Child will focus on helping a child develop healthy eating habits.)