Maybe it’s because I spent the better part of the Thanksgiving weekend chatting with family members and friends, but I have really had speech and language on the brain lately. Truth be told, I am quite the talker. I remember long car rides with my cousin, the two of us blabbing away non-stop in the backseat, much to the dismay of our parents. Then there was the time in fifth grade when, after being allowed to choose our own seats, my best friend and I were forbidden to ever sit next to each other again because we had done nothing but talk all day long. Yes, I have, as my mom would say, “The Gift of Gab”. But who gave me this gift? How did I develop from a wordless infant into an adult who cannot sit wordless for more than thirty seconds at a time?
As an early childhood educator (and, admittedly, a total nerd when it comes to this type of thing), I have the privilege of watching students in our classrooms undergo this exact transformation on a regular basis. In the past few months, I have witnessed incredible speech- and language-related milestones in all of our age groups. What follows is just a sampling of what I have seen and experienced:
- a toddler, who I have never known to say more than one or two words at a time, walked up to me one day, and noticing that I didn’t have my ever-present pen behind my ear said, “Julie, where’s your pen?”;
- when coloring with a group of preschoolers, one asked me if I wanted to hold my paper horizontally or vertically;
- another preschooler, who has some difficulties with speech, positively beamed with pride when he successfully conversed with a classmate; and (my personal favorite)
- an infant called me by my name for the first time.
So, how do children develop language skills? And, more importantly, how do we as educators (and parents) help our children understand language and communicate effectively? One way is by communicating effectively ourselves. Children have a natural tendency to imitate, and love to repeat what they hear (for better or for worse). We can help children learn about language simply by talking to and with them, engaging them in conversation, and modeling appropriate communication. Also, we should never underestimate what children are capable of learning. As is illustrated in the “horizontally or vertically” example above, children can build rich vocabularies simply by being exposed to a variety of words. In fact, when I taught first grade, I had a separate Word Wall just for what we called “Important Words” – words that were at a higher level than what might normally be taught to a group of six-year-olds. And you better believe that they were very proud to incorporate those words into their conversations. Finally, just by taking the time to honor children and what they have to say, we send the message that they are important, and that they can communicate effectively. Although it can be tempting to finish students’ sentences for them, rather than wait for them to find the words, a little bit of patience can really go a long way.
Of course, language development is an extremely complex topic, and I honestly could write about it all day long, but I hope that the above information provides some insight into how children learn this complicated skill, as well as what our teachers are doing to help cultivate it. If you are interested in learning more, or if you would like some more tips about what you can do at home, here are some helpful resources:
Rhode Island Early Learning Standards:http://www.ride.ri.gov/els/pdfs/ENGLISH%20KIT/ 03_cards_2011.pdf