Language Development (page 3)
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.
Phonological knowledge refers to the ability to differentiate between speech and nonspeech sounds, distinguish between phonemes (speech sounds), and attend to slight differences in the way words are pronounced, depending on context (McGee & Richgels, 2000). This knowledge is generally acquired through speaking and listening. There are two important types of phonological knowledge: phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. Phonological awareness is “awareness of anything to do with the sounds of language, from intonation patterns and the sounds of words and syllables, to the sound of a phoneme [the smallest unit of sounds in a language]” (Richgels, 2001, p. 275). Most children gradually develop an awareness of the phonological structure of speech during the preschool years (Snow et al., 1998). Phonemic awareness can be considered a subset of phonological awareness and refers to the ability to hear and distinguish phonemes; for example, whether two words begin or end with the same sound or have the same vowel sound. “The entry to phonemic awareness typically begins with an appreciation of alliteration, for instance that ‘boy’ and ‘butterfly’ begin with a /b/” (Snow et al., 1998). In addition to hearing alliterative sounds, children who are phonemically aware recognize rhymes, can substitute sounds in spoken words (cat to bat), hear syllables (ba-by), and orally segment words (b-a-t).
Phonemic awareness that young children acquire before and while they learn to read is correlated with successful reading (Snow et al., 1998). While there is much emphasis placed on developing phonemic awareness in kindergarten today, it is not necessary that it be taught as an isolated skill. Embedding phonemic awareness activities in natural language and literacy practices provides daily learning opportunities for young children.
The following examples demonstrate the way young children develop phonemic awareness by being exposed to literature before coming to school. In the bathtub, after reading Pete and P.J.: Sing, Dance and Read With Me (Bousman, 2000), Nate quoted the phrase, “wishy-washy wish washy wee!” demonstrating an enjoyment of language sounds. Looking at the rain, Maggie observed, “The rain is turning from ‘drip drip to splash splash’,” an adapted quote from Shirley Hughes’s book An Evening at Alfie’s (1985). An excellent book for developing phonemic awareness is What in the World? by Eve Merriam (1990). Lines like “What in the world goes gnawing and pawing scratching and latching sniffing and squiffing nibbling for tidbits of leftover cheese? Please?” (Merriam, 1990, unnumbered) stimulate sensitivity to sound and the ability to discern the differences between sounds. See Figure 1.6 for a list of books that promote phonemic awareness.
The association between sounds and written letters are sometimes referred to as grapho-phonic relationships (McGee & Richgels, 2000). In English two or more speech sounds usually are associated with each letter. Beginning readers must learn the different occasions when each sound is used. Having a strong foundation in oral language from conversations with adults and hearing books read aloud provides a framework for learning grapho-phonic relationships.
Books For Developing Phonemic Awareness
- Baby-O (Carlstrom, 1992)
- Barnyard Banter (Fleming, 1994)
- Carrot/Parrot (Martin, 1991)
- Chicka Chicka Boom Boom (Martin & Archambault, 1989)
- Each Peach Pear Plum (Ahlberg & Ahlberg, 1978)
- Higgle Wiggle Happy Rhymes (Merriam, 1994)
- In the Tall, Tall Grass (Fleming, 1991)
- Jake Baked the Cake (Hennessey, 1990)
- Pigs in the Mud in the Middle of the Rud (Plourde, 1997)
- Poems for the Very Young (Rosen, 1993)
- Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young (Prelutsky, 1986)
- Sheep in a Jeep (Shaw, 1986)
- Silly Sally (Wood, 1992)
- Sleepytime Rhyme (Charlip, 2000)
- To Market, to Market (Miranda, 1997)
Syntax refers to the grammatical rules of language and the way words are arranged in sentences. Exposure to a wide variety of literature introduces children to interesting and unique syntax that is different from the structure of spoken language. “Children who have been read to a great deal will already know, in some way, that the language of books is different from the language that they speak. They will be developing ‘an ear’ for bookish or literary forms of language” (Clay, 1991, p. 28). A young mother shared the following example of her son’s “bookish language.” For several days after he heard Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss (1966), Nate would repeat phrases from the book, following the sentence structure. According to his mother, “Nate put great emphasis on the line ‘the turtles were happy, quite happy indeed.’”
Semantics refers to the meaning connected with language. Understanding vocabulary and making sense of phrases and sentences are part of semantics. Many young children seem to constantly be asking questions in an effort to better understand language and the world around them. The day after hearing Tasty Baby Belly Buttons (Sierra, 1999) Maggie asked her mother what “in the arms of their happy parents” meant. At 2.5 she often asked questions about words and sentences in books she read, clarifying definitions and making the new words part of her vocabulary. Many children learn vocabulary through the context of books. Emily loved The Wild Baby (Lindgren, 1981) and memorized most of it before she was 3. One day when she had lost a toy she instructed her mother, “Mama, hunt vainly” using an advanced vocabulary word she learned from her favorite book.
Pragmatics is the social context of language. As they learn to speak, children gradually learn that language is used differently in different cultural or social situations. For example, we generally have different ways of communication in school, at a doctor’s office, at a grocery store, or at home. Unique vocabulary is associated with each location, as well as differences in tone of voice and ways of approaching those who have more power in each situation. Most children seem to internalize these differences fairly well, given enough experiences and modeling by adults. Reading books about diverse cultures and places may also introduce children to the ways people use language in different situations. In addition, children may also acquire knowledge of the pragmatics of books, or book language, through hearing stories read aloud.
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