Tag Archives: language

Speak UP! Why We Should Use Big Words With Little Kids

 Have you ever overheard someone talking to an infant, and they use that high, sing-songy voice?  That’s called “parentese” and it’s been shown in research to support language development in infants.

Now, have you ever heard someone use that same voice and watered-down words with a preschooler?  That’s called patronizing, and it shows a gross underestimation of a child’s capacity for vocabulary building.

A child between the ages of 2 and 6 has the ability to learn between 6 and 10 words per day(1).  That’s up to 70 words a week!  But there’s no way a child can reach those kinds of numbers if she isn’t exposed to language in meaningful, interactive ways.

Quality Conversations

 The discrepancy of the use of language in homes across social class is an interesting thing to consider.  On average, a child in a welfare class family hears 616 words in an average hour, while a child in a professional class family hears 2,153 words (2)!  While there are many differences in typical outcomes for child development across social classes, it is interesting to note that these differences are not necessarily a direct result of income, but of the experiences the children have.

If we truly respect the child’s amazing ability to rapidly build vocabulary, we will take advantage of the opportunity to engage them in quality conversations and expose them to new words.  Here are a few ways to do just that:

Don’t shy away from the big words.  It is very common for adults to simplify their language when talking to young children.  Instead of referring to the veterinarian, we talk about the “animal doctor”.  While a sentence full of new words would be a bit overwhelming for anyone, throwing in a new word now and then is a great opportunity to build vocabulary!  If we are referring to the veterinarian, we should use that word, offering “animal doctor” as an explanation, and then referring to “veterinarian” a few more times in the conversation.  If you’re explaining what something is, you might as well use the right word the first time.  Children may not always pick up on those big words, but they certainly won’t if they don’t ever hear them.  There isn’t much opportunity for growth if we’re always using words they already know.  So go ahead, use words like “identical” instead of “same” and “metamorphosis” instead of “change”.  You’ll be surprised at what your children will pick up on when you give them the chance!

Talk with them, not at them.  Include children in the conversation by asking them open-ended questions.  Ask them to tell you about the best part of their day.  Have them tell you all about the structure they’re building out of legos.  Ask them about what they think will happen next in the story you’re reading.  Study after study bears out the fact that children learn more when they are engaged in conversation with adults and competent peers as opposed to passively hearing information.

READ.  First graders who have been read to regularly have an average working vocabulary of 40,000 words while those who are rarely read to have a working vocabulary of just 10,ooo words.  The difference comes from the number of words they have heard in a positive, engaging experience.  Strive for that 20 minutes a day of reading aloud and talk with your children about what you’re reading.  Use extension activities to give you the opportunity to refer back to those new words they were exposed to in the reading.

Talk About Success

When children have a larger vocabulary, they have a distinct advantage in the learning process in general.  Think about it.  Would you prefer to take a science class in a foreign language or the one you are familiar with?  Children with a small vocabulary are essentially hearing a foreign language at school.  The brain power needed to understand new concepts is diverted to simply try to understand the words being spoken.  The more words a child has at his disposal, the more he is going to understand and the more he is going to verbally participate in the learning process.

In many studies vocabulary is a valuable predictor of academic success, but what predicts vocabulary?  Conversations with adults.  Children scoring higher on language measures have consistently had more quality conversations with their parents and caregivers. 

So start today, and speak up with your little ones!

For more information:

1 Conversations in Childcare – California Childcare Health Program

2 Vocabulary – Concepts and Research – University of Oregon

Top photo by glendali.

Center photo by bjearwicke.

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Building a Bilingual Home – Guest Post at Modern Familia

Angélica at Modern Familia asked me to write a guest post focusing on the language development of bilingual children.  Slide on over there to check out more on this topic!

Here’s just a taste:

 I remember my first summer working at a migrant school and watching in amazement as a tiny three year-old girl sat between two friends, cheerfully carrying on one conversation in perfect English, and another in perfect Spanish, her shiny dark ponytail flipping as she turned her head from one side to the other.  I had probably taken Spanish classes for about as long as she had been alive, but knew she had already attained a goal I am still far from reaching!  Raising your child with the ability to speak two languages is an amazing gift.  Here is some information that might help you as you begin this great undertaking.

Click here to read the rest!

Photo by doriana s.
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dscn1290For a fun rhyming activity with your preschoolers, create a Rhyme-A-Saurus!  This dinosaur is not a meat-eater or a plant-eater, he eats rhymes! 

Using a set of rhyming cards (you can find printable ones here or purchase a set at a teaching supply store)  give your children one card each, and keep the rhyming pair yourself.  Explain that this dinosaur is a rhyme-eater and loves rhyme sandwiches.  Ask them to help you make a sandwich by putting two rhyming words together and feeding them to the dinosaur! 

One by one, show and say one of your rhyming words and invite the child with the rhyming pair to put both words in the dinosaurs mouth.  Of course, this activity is enhanced by ferocious eating sounds, and burps are always a favorite! 

The dinosaur is made by drawing a dinosaur face on tag board or cardboard, coloring, and cutting a slot in the mouth.  I used the T. Rex on the cover of Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe for my inspiration.  (Use this activity in conjunction with that story for a great book activity!)  You may opt for a less ferocious looking specimen.  If you’re not comfortable free-handing, use a copier or an overhead projector to transfer an enlarged image from a book.

This activity enhances language skills, and rhyming skills in particular.  Rhyming skills are a part of phonemic awareness, a huge predictor and precursor for reading success!

 Click here for more dinosaur ideas!


Filed under book activity, Building Readers, game, language activity, Learning through Play and Experience, Uncategorized

Verbalizing Emotions



Photo courtesy of hyperorbit.


During the preschool years, children are bombarded with very strong emotions, yet their developing language skills often limit their capacity to express those feelings.  In such situations, it’s much easier to act than to speak.  What results are the tantrums, the hitting, the biting, and other behaviors, which too frequently typify the preschool years. As adults, we can help reduce these undesirable behaviors by giving children the tools to express their emotions verbally.  Here are a few examples:


·         Label emotions.  Label your child’s, your own, and those you come across in stories.   Go beyond “mad” and use more descriptive words, such as frustrated or disappointed.  This gives your child the vocabulary to express emotion verbally.  Additionally, research has shown that the very act of labeling (and thereby validating) a child’s emotions provides comfort. 

·          “I’m so frustrated with this computer right now.” 

·          “I’m sorry you’re feeling so disappointed about not getting that today.” 

·          “How do you think the three little pigs felt when they heard the wolf at their door?” 


·         Help them verbalize their needs. Preschoolers commonly act out when a need or desire has been frustrated.  Frustrated needs could be the need to be independent on a new skill, the need for an object that they can’t obtain or that has been taken away, or the basic needs such as sleep and food.  

·         “You look like you’re upset about something.  Tell me about it.”  “What do you think we could do about it?” 

·         “I can help you when you can use words to tell me what you need.” 

·         “I can understand you when you use a calm, polite voice.  Then I can know how to help you.” 



·         Guide them through social conflicts.  When children fight over toys or get upset about something that was said or done, we can verbally coach them through those situations. 

·          “How do you think it made her feel when you ___?”  

·         “How did it make you feel when he ____?”   “Maybe he didn’t even know that would make you sad.  Can you tell him that and ask him nicely not to do it again” 

·         “Instead of taking the doll, you could ask her if you can use it when she’s done.” 

·         “What would be a polite way to ask him to move?”


Helping children to verbalize their emotions doesn’t always give immediate end to an emotional crisis, but it does build the foundation for children to find more peaceful ways to address their frustration in the future.  When adults validate children’s emotions and provide them with an open dialogue, it not only helps children to develop that ability to verbalize their feelings themselves, but also shows them empathy and assures them that they are understood and loved.  That comfort alone can go a long way in soothing the occasional storms of the preschool years!


For more on Positive Guidance, click here!


See also: Tools for Tantrums, Pro-Social Development, Language & Literacy



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Let’s Pretend

Photo provided by rrss. 

“Let’s play house.  I’ll be the mom, and you be the Dear.”  This is one of my favorite lines I’ve ever observed in the dramatic play area of a laboratory preschool.  Dramatic play is known by its more common monikers, such as dress-up, playing house, or playing pretend.  Whatever the name, it is an enchanting play situation for young children where they can be whoever, or whatever, they wish.  While it is an empowering escape into the world of fantasy, it also a huge tool for learning and growth in the child’s development.

 Making Sense of this Crazy World

Dramatic Play is frequently used by children as a cognitive processing tool.  The may use it to imitate familiar roles or to explore both familiar and new situations.  This is why playing “house” is so popular for children.  They are taking on roles they see everyday, but they are roles they don’t usually get a shot at in real life.  When a child becomes the daddy, he imitates the most salient characteristics of his father figure.  If he sees his father as a powerful person (if only because he gets to drive the car), he may portray the daddy as a very demanding and forceful person.  While imitating the roles to the best of their own understanding, they are also exploring what other possibilities lie within those roles.  Can he be a superhero and save the day and then take care of the baby too? 

Children often re-enact frightening and difficult situations as a means to overcoming, mastering, and feeling power in those situations.  A child who was frightened by a snake during a camp out may be the one to tame the snake or scare it away in a reenactment.  Children will also create fantasy situations (I’m a princess and you’re Superman.) as a means of feeling power and satisfaction, or simply escaping from reality.  Dramatic play gives children the opportunity to communicate things that are beyond their verbal levels, and wonder out loud about social situations.

The School of Performing Arts

No one would debate whether or not children are having fun engaging in this type of play, but the learning taking place is effective and important.  While your own child’s portrayal of “the mommy” may be an exaggerated caricature of your actual character, it is your child’s best attempt to see things the way Mommy sees things, and do things the way she would.  It is one of the first means by which a young child displays empathy, an advanced social skill for ego-centric, concrete thinkers.  To reword a Vygotskian idea, as a sister in a family, a child merely acts as “self” without thinking of herself as filling a role.  As a “sister” in a play situation, a child considers what that role means, as well as what a sister might feel or how she might respond.  Additionally, social skills are enhanced during dramatic play as children work together as “directors” and “script writers”, negotiating and cooperating along the way. 

These negotiations, as well as the production of play itself also build language and literacy skills.  The children use language as they build their scripts and communicate their ideas.  When the dramatic play area is set up in conjunction with a thematic unit (example: Building and Construction) they will use new vocabulary words specific to the setting (“Let’s build the foundation here.”).  Representational play also paves the way for reading.  Accepting that the scribbles c-a-t represent that fuzzy meowing thing is much more easily done if you can also accept that an empty box represents a castle.  Additionally, children will often implement developmental writing as part of performing a role (waitress, postal worker, doctor,etc.).  As the “script” unfolds with its many players, children explore different twists to their plots and create new possibilities and solutions.  This process fosters inquiry, creativity, and cognitive growth as it forces children to think abstractly.

There’s a Place for Us

While preschool rooms often have designated dramatic play areas, and the act of dressing up and pretending is unmistakable, young children engage in dramatic play in many ways and during many different activities.  Any time a child is using abstract thinking and creating a new role or situation, he/she is engaging in dramatic play.  This may present itself as a storyline in the block area (This is the tower where the princess is kept, and this is the factory where we build the rockets to get to her.) in the sensory table (This rice is snow, and now my truck is buried!), or right in front of our eyes when we are unaware (I’m Spider man, but nobody knows because right now I’m Peter Parker.)  So the next time your children insist on wearing gloves on a 90+ degree day because “that’s what superheroes do,”  or open the fridge to talk to pretend friends, remember that they are engaged in some of the most important work in their job called play.


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Language & Literacy

Photo provided by Bies

A bandaid feel me better.”  We relish the quirky sayings our children devise as they wade through the task of decoding the furtive rules we use as we communicate.  Our children’s faulty contrivances are not only endearing, but give us some insight into their progress as they decipher our mysterious code. 

The development of language and literacy skills are key to success not only academically, but in life.  Brilliance of thought or tenderness of feelings can easily go unnoticed without the ability to properly and effectively communicate.  In the words of psychologist Lev Vygotsky, “A word devoid of thought is a dead thing, and a thought unembodied in words remains a shadow.”  Moreover, language serves as the channel for most learning, as it involves the ability to receive information whether it be instructional, social, or otherwise.

Language and literacy span a HUGE list of skills and categories, and represent a rapidly advancing aspect of a child’s development.  Children are almost constantly surrounded by language whether in print, in song, in conversation (with adults or other child-decipherers), or even within their own minds.  It is critical to their development as well as their daily life.

Language includes receptive language (listening and understanding), and expressive language (effectively communicating ideas).  Both spheres require the continued mastery of vocabulary, something we continue to hone throughout adulthood (though, unfortunately, at a much more sluggish pace than our younger selves), as well as grammar and semantics.  Language development also includes the advancement of oral and aural skills, often a matter of muscle and air control, discernment of sounds, or learned active listening skills, which frequently come with experience combined with physical growth and development.

Literacy development incorporates a sizable list of activities and skills comprised in the early childhood experience.  In simple terms it is reading and writing, but these skills are end goals, not the jumping off point.  At the preschool level, children must build the foundations necessary to later become independent readers and writers.  They must be able to discern sounds before they can manipulate them, manipulate them before they can anticipate them, and anticipate them before they can read them. Then, to varying degrees appropriate to their own developmental levels, they become readers and writers themselves.

While many programs check the box next to Literacy by handing out alphabet coloring sheets, letter recognition is but one part of early literacy development.  Along with letter recognition, one of the strongest predictors at the preschool level of literacy success in later years is phonological awareness (the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in words-think Dr. Seuss).  This involves the ability to hear and create things like rhymes and alliterations – key components in fingerplays, nursery rhymes, and songs.  These types of activities may be seen as cute, or “soft”, but they are essential to developing successful readers!  Literacy is also encouraged as children and adults read and write books together, explore environmental print (simply print in the child’s environment: cereal boxes, restaurant signs, labels, DVD boxes, etc.), and engage in conversation.

Surrounding children in a print-rich, language-rich environment and expressing to them our passion for language and literacy in word and in deed goes a long way to building successful, life-long learners.

You may also be interested in the article, A Culture of Literacy: Teaching Preschoolers the ABC’s and More.


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