A little known fact about me is that I once wanted to be a speech pathologist. I was even enrolled in the program at my undergrad college. It didn't pan out, since I was more interested in majoring in switching majors, but the science behind language and speech continues to fascinate me. This is true even more now that I spend my days planning early literacy activities for storytime.
So how are early literacy and early language skills linked?
Talking and communicating (two different concepts) are important parts of learning how to read. Children will have an easier time identifying written words when they have already heard those words spoken aloud and are familiar with their meaning. The more sounds children learn to make and the more letters they can associate with those sounds means they'll be able to "sound out" a vast amount of words when they begin reading on their own.
Talking is so important that the Every Child Ready To Read initiative has identified it as a practice we need to encourage in children, since it works to develop each of the six early literacy skills (thank you to CLEL for providing the information on the skills and practices).
Now that we know why talking is so important, let's focus on how children learn how to talk.
Lately I've been reading Playing With Words 365, a blog run by Katie, a pediatric speech pathologist who is also a mother. She wrote a post in early November concerning the difference between phonological delays and articulation delays. Katie does a great job at explaining the two, though it can be a little difficult for those of us who aren't SLPs to grasp. Once I figured it out, though, I realized that children's brains are infinitely more complex than I had originally thought.
Then Mental Floss posted this article by Arika Okrent: 10 Language Mistakes Kids Make That Are Actually Pretty Smart. Holy cow. Ladies and gents, this BLEW ME AWAY, especially number five. Children learn the exceptions to the rule first (using "went"), then once they understand the fundamentals of the rule (past tense verbs end in -ed) they adapt the exception to conform to the rule ("went" becomes "goed"). Amazing!
I recently signed up for an online class called Enhancing Language Development in Childhood which is geared towards parents and grandparents. The class is through Ed2Go, an educational service my library system acquired for our patrons. As soon as I started to read the course material I knew that this was an informational gold mine. The instructor, Kt Paxton, has a Bachelor's in childhood development and has spent more than a decade teaching preschool.
Just a few of the tips I've picked up from Paxton in just the first two weeks:
1. Nothing beats face-to-face time! Babies prefer to focus on human faces. Speaking to them one on one gives them a chance to see how your mouth moves to make sounds. They can also tell the difference between their caregiver's voice and a recording of the same voice.
2. Babies are born with the ability to learn the sounds of every language. Over time, their brains perform "neural pruning" and discard what they don't need. By the time they're ten months old, their brain is already weeding out the pathways that haven't been used. The sooner you start speaking to your baby the better!
3. A baby's first word is the one that means something to him. When he uses that word in a variety of situations, consistently, and in different contexts, chances are good that he has learned his first word.
How can we use this knowledge in our storytimes?
The good news is, we're already doing it! Singing a song slows down the language for children to hear each syllable. Singing songs two or three times strengthens the neural pathways for language. Reading picture books that use words not often found in everyday communication builds vocabularies. Telling felt board stories connects images and words. Using basic sign language gives pre-verbal children an opportunity to express themselves. The list can go on and on.
We can go even further with this information by remembering to slow down when we read, by having a few songs that we sing every class, and by continuing to offer a fun and safe learning environment.
For further reading:
Ellen Galinsky's Twitter and Facebook accounts. She's the author of Mind in the Making: Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. It's a pragmatic look at how children develop and learn. What I like the most about it is that it's written for parents and care givers in an easy to understand style that doesn't judge or make adults feel guilty for what they are or aren't doing. I'm in the middle of reading it now and it's hard to put down.
Recommended by Kt Paxton:
Communication and Your Newborn from KidsHealth
Typical Speech and Language Development from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association
Language Development in Children from Education.com
Signing the Way by Tania Allen from the National Literacy Trust
Recommended by Melissa at Mel's Desk:
Ready to Learn from KBYU-TV in Provo, UT
Brain Rules for Baby: How to Raise a Smart and Happy Child from Zero to Five by John Medina
Bright from the Start: The Science Backed Way to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind from Birth to Age 3 by Jill Stamm