“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.