Communication skills are so important to children. Without language and speech, they can't let others know what they want and need, and what's important to them. But there's another reason why communicating is so critical to a growing child's development. There's more and more evidence suggesting that having a good command of language goes hand-in-hand with the ability to imagine and think up new ideas.
As caregivers and teachers, we play an important role in helping children learn to communicate with others, and, eventually, to read and write. In this unit, we're going to look at traditional ways to help children learn language as well as interesting new ideas about laying foundations for later success in reading and writing, an area of study called emergent literacy.
Real Language for Communication
Real language is the interaction that takes place when people try to communicate with each other, to let others know what they're thinking and feeling. By using a special form of language, adults help babies learn a sense of mutual trust and the importance of taking conversational turns. Babies also learn that paying attention to the other person enables them to respond to what's been said. A caregiver might use very high pitch and vary the range of pitch from high to low. She also should speak slowly, distinctly, and repeat words and phrases.
Just because babies don't use formal language doesn't mean that they don't understand exactly what we're saying. Children understand a lot of what's said long before they can reply in words. Talking about babies in front of them and assuming they don't understand conveys a sense of disrespect to them. We wouldn't treat adults or older children like that and we shouldn't do it to infants, either.
Conversing with Children
The most vital thing to stress about language development is the value of conducting a true conversation with children. This means listening with sincere interest, responding in a way that will enhance and continue conversation, and allowing children time to formulate their ideas and answers. Waiting for replies is one of the most important things we can do to encourage language growth. Slow down and take the time to listen to what children have to say.
Look for opportunities to give children something real to talk about. Children's talk should be based on real, lived-through experiences. For example, asking children to discuss ways they could get water over to a sandbox extends their problem-solving abilities while keeping the subject both real and relevant to them. They can make it more real by trying out their ideas to see if they actually work.
Encourage conversation between children by urging them to ask questions of each other and engage in interesting conversations among themselves. It's through these encounters that children learn that talk is important and satisfying. Encourage conversation and dialogue between teachers and children. The skills involved in discussion and conversation are vital so be sure to give children opportunities to practice these skills as well. Ask open-ended questions, questions that require more than a yes or no answer, questions to which you don't already know the answer.
A few words about bilingualism. There is no finer way to honor a child's ethnic or cultural background than by welcoming and encouraging her to use her native language or dialect at school. It's important to make the child feel welcome and facilitate her learning by using language she can understand. However, in order to get along in our society, children must be able to speak English well. But speaking English doesn't mean you have to give up speaking another language. In today's world, speaking more than one language is an asset so it makes sense to preserve this skill. Even when we don't speak the child's language, we can at least learn a few essential words and phrases - including the correct pronunciation of the child's and family's names.
The whole point of speaking and communicating with one another is to bring us closer together and include others in our world. Start by welcoming the new child warmly and showing an appreciation for his background. It is particularly important to welcome the child's family as well, and let them know that you will honor their home culture and heritage at school.
The most important thing for children to learn about school is that it is a place where they feel warm and comfortable, a place where they want to come. Including songs and stories in the children's native language, using multi-ethnic pictures and observing cultural customs not only honor the family by using the language and customs of the home at school, it also does much to foster children's language and communication skills.
Speaking is only one form of communicating. Reading and writing are also an essential part of the language process. The preschool years play a vital role in laying the foundation of skills on which future literacy is built. Emergent literacy means that, in order to learn the arts of reading and writing, young children must first acquire many foundation concepts and strategies that will help literacy emerge. This foundation is just as important as the final strategies needed for actual reading and writing.
An emergent literacy program includes setting up the environment and activities to inspire an appreciation for words, storytelling and communication in all their forms. There is much more to literacy than books. We can also convey to children how satisfying and useful the written word is throughout the entire day. We can do this by:
writing down children's stories at group time or taking their dictation as they paint,
helping children dictate and decorate letters to each other or their parents, and
adding written materials such as signs, phone books and menus to their pretend play.
Emergent literacy learning is interactive and participatory. The children guide and help direct what they want to say, deciding with the teacher what's important to them, what they want to talk about and what they want to learn. The message we're trying to communicate is that learning can have richly satisfying results and is an individualized internal process, not something that cannot be imposed from the outside. That's why it's important to provide children with plenty of opportunities for experimentation with reading and writing - drawing, scribbling, pretending to read or repeating nursery rhymes - without pressure from anyone to do it "right."
One of the most important things we can do assist our children in their emerging literacy skills is to advise and encourage parents and family members to regularly read out loud to their children. Center time is important, but home is where so much of real and lasting learning takes place.