Start Early. Start well.

January 27, 2017

Professional Learning Institute Focuses on Supporting Children's Language Development

Omaha, Neb. — Supporting children’s language development to build a strong foundation for their thinking and learning was the focus of the second institute of the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan “Professional Development for All” 2016-17 series Jan. 19 and 21 in Omaha.

About 200 teachers, community-based early childhood educators, and others who serve young children in the metro area took part in the event, entitled “It’s More Than Words: Young Children’s Language, Thinking, and Learning.”

Developed by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska and funded by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties, the free professional development series is designed to introduce leading-edge research and innovative practices to those who work with young children and families, and give early childhood professionals the chance to come together and learn from each other. 

Language an Amazing Accomplishment

Dr. Luisiana Meléndez, associate clinical professor and director of the Bilingual/ESL Certificate Program at Erikson Institute, said in her keynote address that “language development is an amazing, amazing accomplishment.” Yet oral language develops quite naturally when it is nurtured within responsive relationships. “We are born wired to learn language.”

Meléndez said children at birth are already attuned to language, having listened to their mothers while still in the womb.

“Research shows that at 7 months’ gestation, their hearts beat more rapidly when their mother talks,” she said.


  • “Oral Language Birth to Age 8: Implications of the Multiple Contexts of Development: Home, Community, and School”  ̶  Dr. Luisiana Meléndez (video)
  • “Oral Language Birth to Age 8: Implications of the Multiple Contexts of Development: Home, Community, and School ”  ̶  Dr. Luisiana Meléndez (PowerPoint)
  • “Language as a Foundation for Children’s Thinking and Learning Ages 0  ̶  5”  ̶  Dr. Holly Hatton-Bowers (PowerPoint)
  • “Language as a Foundation for Children’s Thinking and Learning Ages 5  ̶  8”  ̶  Nancy Powers and Jenna O’Farrell (PowerPoint)
  • “Language as a Foundation for Children’s Thinking and Learning Ages 0  ̶  8”  ̶  Dr. Luisiana Meléndez and Janette Merkel (PowerPoint, in Spanish)

    Meléndez said parents and caregivers support infants’ language learning by speaking “motherese” or “parentese,” which incorporates slower, higher-pitched speech, stressed pronunciation, shorter phrases, repetition, limited number of words, gestures and so forth.

    By age 5, the key features of oral language development are in place, she said, and children are moving toward more sophisticated levels of syntax and vocabulary. While oral language develops naturally through interactions, reading and writing does not, she said. “But once that challenge is conquered, what a delight. The written word brings us such possibilities.”

    Meléndez also spoke about bilingual learning. Research has shown that bilingualism aids working memory, the ability to pay attention, and even earnings potential as an adult. “Being biliterate makes sense in our global society,” she said.

    Meléndez said close to 20 percent of students in Nebraska’s public schools are English language learners. She said she’s glad to see the number of dual language programs in the state. “You are doing a lot of good things to serve these students.”

    “The growing diversity, linguistic and otherwise, of students in Nebraska’s classrooms brings with it some challenges,” she said. “It also carries tremendous opportunity.”

    Having High-Quality Conversations

    Holly Hatton-Bowers, Ph.D., assistant professor in Child, Youth, and Family Studies and early childhood Extension specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said children need high-quality experiences in relationships that are connected and safe for oral language to develop.

    Parents and caregivers’ sensitivity and responsiveness are key—it’s not just how many words children are exposed to, she said. Children need exposure to books, language-rich play, and quality conversations. Quality conversations happen when the adult follows the child’s lead, talks about what interests the youngster, and takes turns speaking. One important thing to remember is children need time to process information, she said.

    “Talk a lot, but it’s important how you do it,” Hatton-Bowers said. “You need to give them 5 seconds to absorb what you say.”

    Quality conversations may include storytelling (answering the who, what, where, when, why, and how) and sequencing of events; expanding the message (example: child says eat now; adult says yes, let’s eat some bananas); and adding new words (child says house is so big; adult says yes, that house is gigantic).

    Play is another great opportunity, she said. “Your interest, questions, and comments as you play alongside children helps grow a child’s oral language, social-emotional development, and critical thinking.”

    Model active listening skills, paraphrase the child and expand on their thoughts by asking open-ended questions, she said. Model correct language use without correcting the child.

    Parents and educators both have an important role to play in children’s language and development. Both can work to “build a child’s brain,” she said.

    Building Language in the Primary Grades

    Another session was led by Nancy Powers and Jenna O’Farrell from St. Johnsbury (Vt.) School. Powers is a third grade teacher and O’Farrell is lower school principal for PreK through Grade 3. Both of them participated in the FirstSchool initiative, a PreK-3rd grade approach to improving early elementary school experiences for African-American, Latino, and low-income children and their families. FirstSchool is based at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    Powers and O’Farrell talked about the connection between social-emotional and language development. One thing they teach, Powers said, is learning how to communicate better by gauging yourself and others, reading somebody else’s body language, and things such as where you need to stop before saying something else.

    A big part of it is letting kids talk, building on their conversations and not having it be so structured, she said, “allowing that to happen.”

    “The quickest way to stop children playing is to inject an adult into it,” O’Farrell said. “Sometimes we think we want to be a part of it. But it’s important to listen and observe their oral language. It doesn’t have to be dominated by adults.”

    “There’s a time for teacher directives and there’s times for students to talk,” Powers said. “We need to make sure there’s a balance.”

    O’Farrell said the guidance counselors in their school teach Second Step, a social-emotional curriculum, in the classroom, and teachers support children in practicing those social-emotional skills.

    Thursday’s institute also featured a Spanish-language session presented by Meléndez and Janette Merkel, program specialist at the Buffett Institute, on the importance of language development. This was an expansion from the first 2016-17 “Professional Development for All” institute, in which Spanish translation was offered for participants.

    Closing Thoughts From Presenters

    Thursday’s institute closed with a panel discussion with the featured presenters, moderated by Merkel. One question was what is the most important step educators and caregivers can take to promote language development.

  • “Don’t be afraid to let go and let students talk with each other,” Powers said. “Remember that play in PreK to third grade is very important. You’ll find out what students really know if you listen to them in their interactions with their peers.”
  • “What we as teachers or future teachers and those working with families need to remember is how powerful and complex language is,” Meléndez said. “Be sure to ask questions and take risks.”
  • “Think about how we can foster children’s early learning and being critical thinkers,” Hatton-Bowers said. “There’s a strategy of engaging children in their learning process. You can have a big impact on children’s lives.”
  • “You can increase children’s oral language skills when they walk in the building,” O’Farrell said. “The more personal interactions you have during the day, the more it increases their confidence and ability to use expressive language. Think about how do we create opportunities for more normal interactions in school.”

The next 2016-17 “Professional Development for All” institute is on Thursday, March 2, with the program repeated on Saturday, March 4. Registration will be open soon.

Scroll to top