One morning Maggie’s mother asked her young daughter what she would like for breakfast. Maggie hesitated for a moment, then said, “I thought, but not for very long,” (about her breakfast) quoting a phrase from Piggy in the Puddle by Charlotte Pomerantz (1989). One of the most important and obvious benefits of sharing literature with young children is the impact books have on language development. Young children delight in the sounds of poetry, try out new vocabulary, and acquire understanding of concepts as they experience the language of books. Some children add their own words or verses to favorite rhymes or songs, as Dylan did when he sang about “Ringo, Singo, and Tingo”, after his mom sang from the songbook Bingo (Wells, 1999). Sharing poetry in books and rhymes by Dr. Seuss, A. A. Milne, Jack Prelutsky, and “Mother Goose” encourages children to play with language and invent their own variations and verses (Neuman et al., 2000).
Even before they begin talking, children are developing receptive language, an understanding of words and their meanings. Gabrielle (15 months) demonstrated her receptive vocabulary when she pointed to her own nose, ears, and so on, as her mother read a book about body parts. When asked, “Where is the cow (horse, pig)?” in a farm animal book, Gabrielle pointed to the animals and made their sounds. Expressive language is another term for spoken language. When Gabrielle could name the body parts and animals, she demonstrated her ability to use expressive language. Children’s receptive language learning is usually several months ahead of their expressive language. It is obvious that literature fosters the development of both types of language.
Language acquisition is not only important for oral communication; it is also a first step in becoming literate. Research has shown a clear link between the size of a child’s vocabulary and early reading ability (Snow et al., 1998). According to Rosenblatt (1978), reading is an interaction between the reader and written text. When we read, we are not just decoding print; we are reconstructing the author’s meaning based on our knowledge of language patterns and meanings (Goodman, 1967; Rosenblatt, 1978). Children’s knowledge of language patterns and familiarity with syntax (language structure) and semantics (meaning) helps them anticipate and interpret written language as they begin to read (Morrow, 1997).
The literary language found in books is often quite different from spoken language. In books, children hear phrases like “once upon a time,” “many years ago,” “in the arms of their happy parents,” and words such as “fretted,” “homeward,” and “plunking” rarely used in oral language conversation. Children who have acquired background knowledge of literary language are better prepared for the organization and vocabulary found in text. In the following paragraphs we will look at the four areas of language learning children acquire during the preschool years—phonological knowledge, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics—and ways these facets of language can be enhanced through literature experiences.
Teacher to Family: Supporting Oral Language
Children who speak clearly and confidently are better able to express their needs and desires, develop friendships, and are more competent at acquiring new skills. Oral language is the foundation for reading and writing. Children who have acquired strong vocabularies, speak in complex sentences, and differentiate among the sounds of language usually become successful readers. It is also likely that children who are successful speakers have heard stories read aloud from an early age and have participated in conversations from the time they were small.
How can families help their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers become capable language users?
- Begin talking to your child from the time of birth. Respond with soothing words to your baby’s cries, coos, and laughter. Respond with enthusiasm to new sounds and treat them as meaningful. Treat early babbles and coos as real language by responding in a conversational way during feeding, diaper changes, and other routines.
- Provide your baby with many experiences that you can talk about. On walks around the neighborhood talk about flowers, trees, pets, houses, and signs. Identify and describe foods at the grocery store. Children learn vocabulary within the context of meaningful experiences.
- Play with your child, using language to describe what both of you are doing. Any type of healthy play provides fertile ground for language experiences.
- Encourage your child’s natural instinct toward dramatic play as an important source for developing creativity and language. Children are thrilled when family members take on roles in their play. But remember—let your child take the lead.
- Read to your child often and in many different situations. Many families read regularly at naptime or bedtime; others find opportunities to share books while waiting for appointments, in the car while another adult is driving, or early in the morning before the day’s activities begin.
© ______ 2004, Merrill, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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