The child begins to perceive the world not only through his eyes but also through his speech. ~ Lev Vygotsky
Language is a way we come to understand ourselves, through our connections and communications with others. Human babies can decipher sounds to understand and communicate in a particular language before the age of two; and by the time they enter Kindergarten, children of professional families know approximately 4,000 words.
Language is the foundation for literacy. The ability to hear individual sounds in spoken words and manipulate those sounds (think nursery rhymes and Raffi songs) is a precursor to breaking the code of written language, or what we know as reading. Then, once the mechanics of reading are established, the focus of literacy instruction shifts to comprehension. The strategies we teach for comprehension such as using picture clues, making connections, and visualizing are methods whose effectiveness is dependent on the reader’s bank of vocabulary and prior knowledge. It is through life experiences and the language used to build understanding that students truly develop content knowledge as well as the skills of perspective-taking and analyzing necessary for deep comprehension.
As educators, it is important to know that children don’t come to school with the same levels of exposure to language. Both, opportunities to engage with language at home and previous exposure to language in a school setting vary with each child. Unfortunately, these variations can lead to gaps in understanding and achievement in school. Children with low exposure can enter Kindergarten with fewer than 1,200 words (compared to a classmate with 4,000 words).
What can we do as educators and parents to be sure all children have a solid language foundation? Harvard professor, Catherine Snow, shares how to use language to build literacy skills in Pre-K through middle school age students, and describes two major roles adults play in helping children develop knowledge through language.
Adult as Responder
By three-months-old, babies are cooing and smiling to interact with others; and children between the ages of two and five ask 50 to 150 questions per hour. Whether a babbling six-month-old or a pubescent 12-year-old, children need their right to question and wonder confirmed by the adults in their lives. Responding to questions, and attempts to communicate such as babbling, nurtures curiosity and promotes a love of learning, while modeling language and providing important vocabulary and knowledge. As adults, it is not our responsibility to know all of the answers to questions children pose, but to engage interactively and encourage continued communication.
Adult as Questioner
While the number of words a child hears from adults is important, the type of interaction is equally important. Beyond vocabulary development, talking is how people learn to make sense of the world; develop personal identities and connect to history. So, it is important that we as adults not only expose children to a variety of environments, topics, and experiences, but that we ask children open-ended questions that generate rich discussions. Asking questions with discussable answers builds a much stronger vocabulary and bank of knowledge than simply labeling items or giving directions.
Good Opportunities to Talk to Children
Many times the richest and most powerful teachable moments surface during casual conversations with children. When adults are skilled questioners, we can facilitate conversations about interesting topics through the use of open-ended questions with discussable answers. Think about the difference between asking a child, “What is that?” and “What do you think would happen if…? .” In the first case, the child might offer a short response such as “a tree”. In the second scenario, the request is for a story that can be extended with other questions about how and why, leading to potential connections between the adult and child.
Interactive or dialogic reading allows the adult to ask questions that develop inferencing skills, vocabulary, and connections – all of which build background knowledge and improve comprehension. It is a practice that has the reader pause to ask open-ended questions that spark conversation such as, “Why do you think …?, What did she mean when she said…?, How does this remind you of…?, When have we heard something similar?”
Read alouds can happen in a classroom as part of a planned themed unit, with a caregiver in the library after school, or with a parent at night before bed. There are no age limits for a read aloud. When reading to infants or toddlers who are in the early stages of language development and may respond to your questions with babble, acknowledge the communication they do offer (babbling or otherwise), and model the answers you are thinking to your own question (ie. “I think the bunny was excited!”). The following is a demonstration of dialogic questioning using an online picture book.
Guided Play and Discussion
Time for unstructured, child-directed free play and social interaction is a critical element of learning. Children need time to practice independence, problem-solving, exploration and discovery. However, as teachers and parents, play and discussion are the tools we should also use to intentionally build specific knowledge and skills; this is guided play and discussion. Whether your intention is to teach spatial language at the sand and water table or storytelling at dinnertime, incorporating those objectives into play and discussion provides opportunities for children to learn in meaningful and interesting ways.
Words matter because they communicate ideas, feelings, and information. The deeper and richer a child’s vocabulary and knowledge, the better they are able to make connections and learn more. As teachers and parents, we can support the building of language by listening to the wonders of children, providing interesting topics, and facilitating conversations that expand thinking.
Start by Talking: What Education Leaders Should Know About How to Build Strong Reading Skills by Leah Shafer
Developing Language, Knowledge, and Vocabulary via Dialogic Reading Methods by Susan Ebbers
Use Open-ended Questions to Improve Kids’ Language Skills by Lisa Wilkin, M.Ed.
Steps to Help Foster a Preschooler’s Spatial Reasoning Skills by Deborah Farmer Kris
How to Raise a Voracious Reader: Promoting literacy with dinnertime storytelling, family conversation, and books about food by Bari Walsh