Support Your Preschooler’s Language Development - Part 2 - Listening

24 January 2018

preschool language development stages listening

In the early stages of a young child’s language development, language and thought grow somewhat independently. As evidence of this, consider how preschoolers can learn and say words and phrases that have no meaning for them. For example, many 3-year-olds can sing popular songs, yet they don’t really understand what the words mean. Or how 4’s can sing the alphabet song, but without real comprehension of the letters, how to use them or their meaning. The ability to actively listen-- to receive, process, and understand information-- is key to your child’s growing word comprehension as well as their overall language development. And very young children must learn how to be active listeners, it’s not something that happens naturally. So we, adults, must teach them.

Here are some facts and tips about preschooler’s listening:

  • Listening is easier for preschoolers when adults use concrete, simple language. Young children may act as if they understand abstract concepts that adults often use. But because preschoolers think in simple, basic ways, they often have difficulty comprehending adult language that is abstract or complex. For example, telling a preschooler to “Be good” is an abstraction. And your idea of “being good” might not always coincide with your preschooler’s idea of it. Instead, a more concrete example would be, “Remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to your grandparents when you visit them today.” Or, “Remember, we don’t hit other children or take their toys.” The key is to be specific, using words your preschooler easily understands, can relate to and can apply to their world.
  • Repeating information does not help a young child learn to listen. One thing I learned fast in my early childhood teaching career was that if children knew I would give instructions many times, they wouldn’t listen to me the first time. Turns out, this happened to me as a parent, too. I learned along the way to say, “I’m only going to tell you once … ” and then actually mean it. Say things once and be clear that now’s the time to pay attention. Your child will know it’s their chance and their responsibility to listen-- which is an important skill to have for primary school.
  • “Listening” looks can be deceiving. Preschoolers are often masters at looking like they are hearing you, but they’re really are not actively processing what you are saying to them. Active listening requires both receiving and then processing information. As a preschool teacher, I found it very helpful to have a child repeat back to me-- in their words-- what I just said. I would be amazed sometimes at the big difference between what I was saying and what they were hearing. For example, when I said we had a limit of three blocks per child in the block area, an eager block builder said she didn’t hear me say anything about the limit.
  • Listening skills can be practiced. Being an active listener is important to preschoolers as well as adults. Adults, you have a part in this as well and need to listen to your children. And children need to learn to listen to one another as carefully as they do adults. So, both preschool children and their caring adults must practice being active listeners to help develop children’s language skills.  

Here are eight everyday things you can do to help improve your preschooler’s listening skills as they move towards literacy:

  1. Model active listening skills by looking at and engaging with your child when she talks to you. Repeat back what your little one is saying to ensure that you understand. Try to give them your complete attention. Get involved with what you hear them say, both mentally, physically and emotionally.
  2. Ask your child to repeat what you said after you tell him something. This gives your preschooler a chance to process what he was told and allows you make sure he is listening to you. Through years of teaching preschoolers I’ve found that asking your little one to “Tell me in your words what I just said,” is the simple and best way of checking if your preschooler is actively listening and understands what is being said.
  3. Have conversations with your preschooler about topics that interest her. This gives your child a chance to engage in a real conversation, practicing both speaking and listening. The conversation has a purpose for your preschooler since it relates to a topic she enjoys. Our Chatty-do activities provide more opportunities to start interesting conversations with your little one.
  4. Practice following directions with games. Give your child a direction, and have him follow it. Make the directions entertaining so the activity is enjoyable. For example, “Make a funny face, spin in a circle, then walk like a duck.” Our Skilly-do activities, Colors in Action and Whacky Tappy Balloon Game are easy ways to have fun actively listening, too.
  5. Read stories to your child, asking her what happens next. Asking for  a prediction requires her to listen to a story’s details to make a logical guess. After reading the story, you can ask your preschooler to retell the story in her own words. Another option is to have your preschooler act out the story with toys or puppets as you read it. This encourages your child to listen to the words and understand what the words mean. Check out our Skilly-do Book Reviews for good preschool reads. Then make your own Envelope Puppets, Juice Box Puppets, or Two-faced Puppets to get even more creative with storytelling and practicing predictions.
  6. Get audiobooks of your children’s favorite reads. Go to your local library for CD’s or download an audiobook from a digital service like Amazon’s Audible. This will give your little one the opportunity to follow along with the story and its words as they are spoken out loud.
  7. Tell a story together as a group. Here's how it goes: One person starts the story, adding a few sentences. Each person adds a few more sentences to the story. Participants have to listen to what everyone else says in order to add something to the story that makes sense.
  8. Cook with your child. Read the recipe to your little one, having him listen to and follow each step in order to complete the recipe correctly. Our Skilly-do Eat It! Collection has yummy and healthy recipes appropriate for your preschool cooks.

Need more ideas to get your child’s ears to perk up? My blog, Music Matters - The Importance of Music in a Preschooler's Life, has more musical and movement-friendly ideas to develop your little one’s active listening. What things do you find helpful in teaching your little one to listen? Feel free to reach out and give us your feedback here.

Next up, in Part 3  this series I'll share ways to support your child's emerging literacy. And in case you missed it, here's Part 1 of my Support Your Preschooler’s Language Development series - Speaking.


+Inspiration/credit goes to Jules Bastien-Lepage’s 1879 painting, "Jeanne d'Arc." Depicted here as she experienced her first vision at the age of 13, Joan of Arc is said to have heard Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret calling her to defend her homeland.