This week’s post has been written by Guest Educator, Jenny Hirst. A primary educator for over twenty years, Jenny’s area of expertise is in the acquisition of early literacy. She works in New Zealand schools supporting children, (and their teachers), who have severe difficulties learning to read and write. Jenny has also spent a number of years working in school reform projects in Abu Dhabi and Malaysia.
It seems like we are stating the obvious when we say that it is necessary for young children to be able to speak and converse when they start school. Is it also reasonable to expect that school starters are beginning to show appropriate listening behaviours? I would imagine that anyone reading this would be nodding their head in agreement. Oral language however, is much more than just speaking and listening. It can define us and affect many aspects of our lives. But teachers are becoming increasingly alarmed at the quality of that talking and listening and the decline that has become apparent in oral language skills over the last decade.
Factors contributing to this won’t be discussed here, but instead we’ll touch on why strong oral language skills are so incredibly important and some of the things that can be done at home to strengthen them.
We know that oral language is closely related to thinking and understanding. A child with oral language that is effective enough to express his/her thinking and who has an extensive vocabulary base will be advantaged in their education. Perhaps it is a little under-estimated, but it is speech that has the power to expand a person’s inner meaning-making and thinking capacities.
In addition, researchers have found that verbal competency correlates with increased levels of participation in learning. Children who are able to communicate well with their peers and teachers are much more likely to feel confident to make friends, ask questions and engage in the experiences offered at school.
And as if all that isn’t enough reason to prioritise our pre-schoolers oral language development, it is well recognised that a child’s ability to express his/herself orally is a strong predictor of their literacy learning. Poor oral language skills have an extremely detrimental effect on literacy acquisition.
What are Some of the Oral Language Skills that are Useful for Young Children to Develop?
- Understand that features such as body language can make a difference to the meaning of words
- Initiate or contribute to a conversation. Know that intonation has an effect on what is said
- Know the meaning of many words
- Can group words together to make greater meaning (sentences)
- Growing awareness of appropriate grammatical structures
- Ability to rhyme and find patterns in words: e.g. cat fat sat flying driving crying brown broom break
- Make adjustments to talk according to the context. Classroom language is very different to home language. We speak differently to people dependent upon who and where they are. E.g. whispering in a library, shouting on a sport’s field or when we are talking to a stranger or a grandparent
- Able to ask questions for help or for more information
- Able to follow simple instructions
- Know that a song and singing tells a story
- Able to hear and isolate the sounds in a word
- Knowing when it is appropriate to talk and not talk
- Expected ways of working and playing with other children
e.g. turn taking in a conversation, tone, volume
- Retell or recount an event or story
- Listen and watch for particular information, words or ideas.
- Ignoring distractions to focus on a speaker
How can Families Support Children’s Language Development?
Doesn’t language development just come naturally? In many respects yes, it does, as we are biologically wired to communicate. Nevertheless, language input is not always a guarantee of language output. Just because a child may be exposed to a lot of language doesn’t necessarily mean they will be great communicators. Children need to notice and interact with that language. This is where a caring and observant adult can make a great difference. Below are some strategies that may be useful to foster quality communication skills in your child.
Some Final Thoughts…
When speaking with your child, try not to dominate the conversations/interactions, and be conscious of when they need your support. Use lots of praise and encouragement; and above all, have fun! Avoid making talk a “lesson” but just a natural extension of the relationship you have with a child.