A sensitive period for learning language begins at birth and extends throughout the early years of childhood. In their early years of life, children have a capacity to hear, absorb, and reproduce the sounds of their language. Around age five or six they become very interested in written words and the relationship of words to each other. At the age of eight, a child will learn more words in one week than an adult learns in one year.
Dr. Lise Eliot, a neurobiologist, says, “the reason language is instinctive is because it is, to a large extent, hard-wired in the brain. Just as we evolve neural circuits for eating and seeing, so has our brain, together with a sophisticated vocal apparatus, evolved a complex neural circuit for rapidly perceiving, analyzing, composing, and producing language.”
Parents of young children play the most important role in their children’s acquisition of language. Because language is the way we typically interact with each other, the process is necessary and natural. The first people to interact with a child are his parents through verbal interaction. A newborn’s brain responds best to a type of speech called parentese. Parentese is a way of speaking by using vocal inflection with a higher pitch along with an accentuated stress on vowel sounds. Parents of infants naturally speak to them this way.
Although parentese enables babies to associate words to objects, it is important to not talk-down to toddlers and young children and remember to speak and read to them with the appreciation of their sensitive period for language. During this sensitive period it is important to speak to children with a variety of rich vocabulary. Susan Hall and Louisa Moats of Straight Talk About Reading recommends that parents “Rephrase and extend their children’s words, ask clarifying questions (tell me more about the man you saw), model more complex vocabulary or sentence structure (yes, I see the tall skyscraper you built with lots of windows), and ask open-ended questions,” Also, the “How I Feel” books are a wonderful series to help children ages two to six learn to recognize and identify emotions.
Another way young children learn language is by naming things. Children constantly ask “What is this?” In the Montessori curriculum there is an emphasis on building vocabulary by means of nomenclature cards, cards with pictures and labels. These nomenclature cards are advantageous for building vocabulary in every subject area. Through a format alled the three-period-lesson; advanced vocabulary is easily presented by the teacher and assimilated by the child.
Before presenting cards with pictures and labels, the three-period-lesson is used to introduce new things. The three-periodlesson begins by naming an object or picture by saying, “This is” (This is a petunia (This is a daisy) (This is a periwinkle) Then ask the child to repeat it. The second period is association and recognition; “Show me” (Show me the petunia) (Hand me the periwinkle) (Point to the daisy). The third period is recall,” What is this?”
These same three steps are used in lessons throughout the curriculum and satisfy a child’s hunger for words. Alphabet books are also an excellent way to satisfy that hunger. Some good alphabet books include: Matthew ABC by Peter Catalanotto, Cowboy ABC by Chris L. Demarest, Kipper’s A to Z: An Alphabet Adventure by Mick Inkpen, and ABC T-Rex by Bernard Most.
Jane Healy, the author of Endangered Minds, has documented the effects in children’s declining language skills. She expounds on the rise of the use of filler words such as “like,” “you know,” or “um” about every seventh word. Even in the classroom, she says that teachers can only do so much if students do not have the inner language to sort out what they are thinking. Inner language is required to mediate one’s own behavior, plan ahead, and evaluate if/then situations. A child’s inability to convey thoughts into words handicaps him. It is frustrating and can result in poor behavior and a low self esteem.
Benjamin Bloom, who developed Blooms taxonomy in 1956, identified six levels of cognition: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. These are useful in developing critical thinking skills which rely on logic and reasoning. All the aforementioned are necessary for inner language ability and to be successful in the twenty-first century. These skills develop as the child gets older and are highly utilized in the standards for high school.
National benchmarks are requiring skills that will be needed in the twenty-first century. It is unfortunate and counterproductive that many of the opportunities to hear or read stimulating conversations and subject matter are becoming scarcer. The average TV sitcom is geared toward the vocabulary level of a fourth grader. It is therefore becoming more important for parents to encourage their children to read and to read to them from literature containing a higher vocabulary level than their children’s independent level would dictate.
Contemporary National benchmarks in science now call for instruction to be inquiry-based, according to C.E. Snow, who wrote, Reading for Understanding toward a Research and Development Program in Reading Comprehension. Snow also states, “In History, students need to learn the practices of historical analysis. Contemporary Language arts standards call for students, at all ages, to read authentic literature across genres (e.g., novels, memoirs, interviews) and to write in various genres. Today’s students need to learn to interpret text and how to learn from text.”
It is very important to sew the seeds of a good vocabulary for obvious reasons such as the impression that is made on others. Research has shown that people are more likely to be judged as competent and smart when they speak with a good vocabulary. Research scientist Johnson O’Connor says, “An extensive knowledge of the exact meanings of English words accompanies outstanding success in this country more often than any other single characteristic we have been able to isolate and measure.”
Having a vast vocabulary is also imperative to cognition because our cognitive thoughts are interwoven with our understanding of the language we use. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “A mind once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension.” Problem solving depends on cognition as well as higher level thinking skills. Twenty first century learning requires skills in communication. Information is growing exponentially.
Some great recommendations for children’s literature can be found at the following websites: