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First Words

When Beth Frascatore's grandson asked, "Where's the moat?" she was startled. "Has his mom been reading to him about castles?" she wondered. It was an unusual word for a child who'd just turned 3.

Then she realized what Connor meant. "Oh, the remote," she said to him. "The remote is on the nightstand."

Frascatore did effortlessly what she learned in her years as an elementary-school speech-language pathologist. She didn't tell Connor he was wrong; instead, she repeated the idea, emphasizing the right word.

Fortunately, you don't need the benefit of a speech-language degree to help your child master speech. A fundamental understanding of the process  -- and a dash of parental intuition  -- are all that's required to ignite excitement for his growing ability to communicate.

Of course, learning to speak is more than saying the first word. It's learning to make an "f" sound, to put "don't" in the right place, to use the future tense. Up until age 5, children pick up these lessons at a furious pace. They learn in set stages  -- though not all kids get there at the same time  -- and the sequence is more important than the actual age at which each stage happens. There's little you can do to hold your child up, but much you can do to make his voyage fun and easy for both of you.

Beth Whitehouse was part of a 1997 Pulitzer prize-winning team at Newsday, where she is an editor. She is the mother of Tristan, 3.