It should be no surprise to most people (and I was so pleased to hear it) that enriching conversations, respect for the child’s level of skill, and great stories (and lots of them), are absolutely key to building vocabulary and laying the foundation of not only literacy, but of fostering a lifetime relationship with books. I may be coming at this topic with a bit of bias, but that’s only because when I sit in a corner of a classroom and open a book children flock to my side like bees to pollen in anticipation of a story. But it doesn’t stop there: before I finish one book, they’ve chosen another, and then another. They are developmentally primed to hunger for the empowerment of language that reading stories offers them. Repetition of a book tunes their ears to sounds and meanings of the words. If there was something they didn’t understand the first time, a second (or third, or fourth) reading gives them a chance to hear it again or maybe ask a question. Recreating objects and characters with crayons, clay, or blocks strengthens their associative abilities, and play acting increases the who-what-why comprehension of the story.
Conversation can never be underestimated when it comes to strengthening the language skills that are fundamental to reading and comprehension. Enriching exchanges (that go beyond instruction) can help a child realize he is his own person – apart from the adults in his life. But these moments with children in this age group can be hit-or-miss, particularly with a 3-year old. You need to be ready to listen when they are ready to talk. However, asking questions will encourage them to think and speak about an activity, story, or concern. Simple questions allow the child and adult the back-and-forth, or give-and-take convention of conversation. Open-ended questions, where there is more than one possible answer encourages imaginative thought. Closed-ended questions have only one correct answer and force a child to consider the facts of the story you’ve just read, or something discussed. Of these two, open-ended questions can be the most challenging for parent and teacher. Our instructor recommended that we keep a repertoire of Who, Where, How, and What Would Happen If” questions that can be useful conversational tools to have at hand. Also, making simple statements and observations about an activity can be an occasion to introduce a new word into their vocabulary: “Feel the tension on the rope you are pulling.” Or, “You’ve made an impression of your hand in the mud.”
Wordless books are a fabulous way to combine the two. One that we considered in class, It Looks Like Spilt Milk, by Charles G. Shaw, offers the intimacy of story time, with the opportunity for conversation, discussion, and imaginative thinking. There is no limit on the words you can use to describe objects and themes found there. As children become familiar with all the phonological, semantic, and syntactic mechanics of language they gain confidence and are propelled to the next level. They are now excited about writing their own letters and drawing pictures that tell their own stories. A large, early vocabulary with a firm knowledge of the alphabet, the ability to rapidly recite the letters and their corresponding sounds is an indication that they are ready to begin reading and writing words; forming sentences.
Giving children this strong foundation begins at home, is furthered and enhanced in school, and reinforced by everyday conversations around them. Our instructor presented a study from the National Early Literacy Panel which discovered a large “Word Gap” in children of differing backgrounds. For various reasons, economic or cultural, some kids start school with as many as 30,000 fewer words at their disposal. If sheer number of words indicates academic readiness, this appears to be a blatant handicap. But to say he will not catch up reasonably fast is to underestimate human ability and determination. From an anecdotal perspective, I have known of instances where children from highly disadvantaged homes were driven to books and reading for the escape that it offered. Of course, this may be the exception, but children have such facility for language, such resilience for living and learning, and a gut-wrenching need to fit in with their peers, that I believe there is so much we can do to mitigate those lesser circumstances. Children who are at-risk may have residual problems for a lifetime, but language, and the love of reading, does not necessarily have to be one of them. A strong handle on language is very empowering. Equipping young ones with strong vocabulary allows them to engage with their culture, their faith, and the world in general.
I’m looking forward to our next session: Print Motivation and Awareness.