“Does he ever stop talking?”
That’s a common question I’ve fielded, directed at one of my boys in particular (the guilty shall remain nameless, but spend a little time with us and you’ll figure it out). Though to be fair, particularly in his preschool years, his entertaining and often hilarious conversations were usually encouraged by whoever was posing the question.
In his slightly raspy preschool voice, and through those angelic little lips came words like “nocturnal” and “metamorphosis”. He never used the word “flowers” when a more specific moniker like “peonies” would fit. If he heard a word, he owned it and wielded it profusely.
He was a sponge for words and ideas and still is today.
When most people think about literacy, they immediately picture children reading and writing, but one of the most critical components of literacy begins before the child can pull a word from the page, and continues long after. It is oral language. At the crux of literacy is the ability to convey and receive meaning through words, and that process begins with the spoken word.
Children who are engaged in meaningful language experiences build up a vocabulary bank that will help them immensely as they decode words and work to comprehend text.
Studies (like this one for example) show us that preschool exposure to “sophisticated vocabulary” in the form of teacher talk can be predictive of a child’s vocabulary and comprehension skills into fourth grade.
Vocabulary and comprehension also have an interesting reciprocal relationship (as cited here). A child who has a larger vocabulary is better able to understand more of the context surrounding those words, making it easier to comprehend and learn from the material. Likewise, a child who is better able to comprehend passages is more likely to acquire new vocabulary words from that same context.
It’s clear that reading is so much more than decoding. The meaning is wrapped up in vocabulary and comprehension.
Consider this: With several years of Spanish under my belt, I can read Spanish almost fluently. The decoding process in that language is much more straightforward. But my Spanish vocabulary is weak and rusty. I can read a passage perfectly, but still struggle to understand what it means.
This is the case with our young readers as well. Without vocabulary skills, reading and writing become labored and meaningless.
And what is literacy without meaning?
We know that building vocabulary is a critical step toward literacy and toward learning in general. So how do we grow the vocabulary banks of the children we love and teach?
Thankfully, two of the best vocabulary builders are simple, enjoyable, accessible, and fit easily into every single day.
In her book, The Importance of Being Little (which I love: get it with this affiliate link), Erika Christakis states,
Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have.”
It’s that simple. Our conversations are the richest source of early learning. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to how we talk when we teach. As I’ve noted in the past, classrooms where teacher talk is mainly used to give directions or instruction, are missing a critical piece. Intentional, rich discussions with children are where ideas and language explode. Conversations in homes and in classrooms should be an ongoing, back and forth dance.
In my reflections on the recent consensus statement on what is known about early learning (here and here) I noted that when the top researchers in the field of early childhood education sum up which components contribute to quality programs, the one key ingredient they call out is consistent, responsive, back and forth interactions. Other components, like curricula, professional development, and engaging and organized classrooms are downgraded slightly in comparison and labeled as “good bets” for supporting that one, key ingredient.
These interactions take on many forms, not least of which is language rich conversations.
Talking about ideas and experiences, introducing and giving context to new words and concepts, these all take place in authentic, responsive, engaging conversations.
But conversations alone will only get us so far. As was pointed out in the podcast discussion below, as well as in a variety of studies and resources, the language we use when we talk with children, is different than the language used in books. Most children’s books are a step up in terms of vocabulary, with descriptive words and phrases outside of our day-to-day language. Phrases like “slithered and slunk” and “rid the world of injustice” as well as words like “swift”, “clamor”, and “eclectic” aren’t likely to be found in our daily conversations with preschoolers, but are not uncommon in a high-quality collection of picture books.
When we read with children — and pause for authentic discussion — children are exposed to a host of new and advanced vocabulary words within an engaging and meaningful context.
As I’ve mentioned before, “While simply hearing the story has its benefits, really building literacy, comprehension, and vocabulary requires conversation off the page.” Dialogic reading is a powerful practice. (You can find an example here.) It’s the incredible combination of both conversation and reading packed into one supercharged language and literacy activity. In addition to all the literacy benefits, these discussions keep kids engaged and are just plain exciting and fun (for the grownups too!).
These are two practices that are perhaps the most important for promoting early learning, and quite honestly, they also happen to be two of my very favorites to be a part of!
I was recently invited to join with Rae Pica, Susan B. Neuman, and Tanya Christ to discuss how and why we help young children grow their vocabulary. It was an absolute pleasure to be a part of this panel. I think you’ll enjoy this quick conversation as much as I did!
More on Vocabulary and Language from Not Just Cute:
Reading Aloud is More Than Just Reading (And an Introduction to Brontorina) (Dialogic Reading Example)