Building Three – Five Year Olds’ Language
- Support all the languages children are learning through extended conversation, songs, books, writing, and opportunities to use them in conversation and play with peers. (If children speak different languages, encourage them to use signs and gestures to show what they mean as they talk.)
- Plan private conversation time with all children, and extra time with those whose language lags. Set up a conversation corner, and also make time during play time, meal time, outdoor time, and greeting/leaving time.
- Try to see the world as a child would — and put your wonder into words. What made that sound, and how? Where do those tracks or trails lead? Why is the sky that color? Find out what children wonder about, and help them seek answers to their questions — and to yours.
- Show children that you are curious about their ideas, feelings, opinions, and stories.
- Keep conversations going with empathy, curiosity, elaborations, shared humor, and play. Ask questions whose answers you really want to know.
- Encourage children’s questions. When you introduce a new topic ask: What do you know about it? What else do you want to know? How can we find out? Revisit children’s questions to assess and deepen understanding — and spark more questions.
- Talk about feelings. When do children feel excited, proud, worried, scared, curious, angry, calm, relaxed, or surprised? As you share books and look at pictures together, talk about how you think the people might be feeling and why.
- Expand vocabulary in categories or themes, like sea animals, colors, and words that relate to birds (flight, beak, nest, hatch, hummingbird). This can be especially helpful to dual language learners, who may know some words in one of their languages, some in the other, and some in both.
- Reinforce new vocabulary through comparison with familiar words and experiences and with lots of opportunities to use the new words.
- Spark conversation and creativity by asking “What if…” What if we lived in a place that was very hot and windy, or very cold and snowy? How would our homes, clothes, schools, and playgrounds be different? What if we turned our doll house into a space station?
- Extend children’s explorations with rich, descriptive vocabulary, imaginative leaps, and word play. A pine cone may be bumpy, scaly, brown and brittle, scritchy-scratchy, or roly-poly. It can hold seeds or bird food, or become a rolling pin, miniature tree, doll’s hat, or back scratcher. Challenge children to observe, wonder, imagine, and invent. Build on their ideas as you join them in playful conversation.
- Make sure that the children who need the most opportunities to practice and expand their language don’t end up getting the fewest. Find ways for children whose language lags, or whose preferred language is different from the others’, to share skills that peers will admire. Teach words and play skills that will help them join the fun.
Playing and Working Together
- Share photos, artifacts, stories, and vocabulary related to your hobbies, work, and life experience. Demonstrate what you do — and let children help. Show them how your read and write as part of your grown-up life.
- Cooking together can involve lots of sensory, science, and math talk, along with planning, choosing, and step-by-step thinking. Let children make up their own recipes for salads, breakfast dishes, pasta sauces and combinations, soups, sandwiches, roll-ups, smoothies, and fruit, yogurt, or cereal “sundaes.” Make a recipe collection together.
- Help children organize possessions, clothing, and play materials in ways that work for them. They might want to group like items together, created themed spaces like a garage for toy vehicles or a pen for stuffed animals, arrange items by color or size, or keep items together that they use for a particular purpose. Talk about categories, shapes, sizes, numbers, and likes and differences as you help them find appropriate containers.
- Get creative with with boxes and recycled materials. Invite children to join you in creating settings, props, or mini-worlds for pretend play. Discuss what you will need and how you can make it. Take on a role and pretend together, or set the stage, encourage peers to play together, and offer a prop or prompt if their play gets stuck.
- Help children create forts, playhouses, spaceships, and secret hideouts where they can engage with a friend or two in extended play and conversation. Over time, help children find new items to add to their special place.
- Create an area on a table, bookshelf, or in a corner where children can create a mini-world over weeks. Use recycled materials, small toys, and odds and ends to supply a base, building blocks (containers, cardboard tubes, blocks), roofs (board books, cardboard, fabric, wax paper), natural and decorative materials (rocks, cones, moss, shiny paper, tissue), and miniature people, animals, and vehicles. Talk with children frequently about what they want to create and what more they need. Encourage pretend play and storytelling as well as construction.
- Make friends with children’s pretend, imaginary, and “invisible” friends. Include them in play and conversation, and invite them along on real and imaginary adventures.
- Play language games that get children to observe closely and describe details. In addition to “I Spy” you might try “What else can we say about it?” “I see a flower with red petals. What else can we say about it?” Take turns adding descriptive words and challenging each other to notice “something else.”
- Most preschool-aged children love small, secret worlds. You might start with a letter from a fairy who needs a home for her family, a tale about the animals who live under your school, or a library book on making fairy or gnome gardens or nesting sites for small animals. Encourage close observation, imagination, and joint story-telling, with everyone building on each other’s ideas as you create such worlds together.
- Help children create play environments and themed prop collections so they can practice specialized vocabulary in their pretend play. Read related fiction and nonfiction to help children hear how experts like mechanics, veterinarians, farmers, and chefs sound.
- Ramp up pretend play with surprising combinations. Put a doll and blanket in the block area, a pizzeria next to the fire station, or some miniature pumpkins in the sand box and see what happens. Talk with children about their ideas for new play items, arrangements, and themes.
- Work with children to turn a pretend play drama into a homemade book.
- “The single most important activity for building … understandings and skills essential for reading success appears to be reading aloud to children.” “It is the talk that surrounds the storybook reading that gives it power.” (These quotes from the joint statement of NAEYC and the International Reading Association refer to vocabulary, world knowledge, love of books, and story concepts as well as beginning reading skills.)
- Use books to jumpstart extended conversations. Read with children one on one or in small groups so you can talk about what they notice, wonder, worry about, and want to try out. Find more to talk about with each reading of a favorite book.
- Choose and read books with goals in mind. Do you want to build a child’s vocabulary, knowledge, social-emotional understanding, or love of playful language? Challenge his thinking, or make sure he understands the story and can participate fully as you read to the class? Let your goals shape your conversations.
- Build units of study around books. Seek out fiction, poetry, and nonfiction books that pursue similar themes, topics, or questions. Choose similar folktales from different cultures, or a collection from one culture. Talk with children about similarities and differences they notice.
- Look for books with lovely language — and culturally-authentic stories, illustrations, dialog, and writing styles. African-American authors like Julius Lester embed poetry in their prose. Other artists and authors reflect their roots in their drawing, water color, or collage style, their use of dialect, repetition, or language play, or their choice of themes and settings. Help children notice these features and experiment with similar techniques as they tell stories, make up poems and songs, and create books of their own.
- Highlight new words as you read, and create opportunities to use them in a variety of pretend play, investigation, and creative building contexts.
- As you reread a favorite book with children, talk about some of their favorite words. What words do they know that sound similar, or mean the same thing? What other words might you use to name or describe similar or related things or actions?
- Share some books with preschoolers that are “over their heads.” These can be chapter books for older children that you read aloud at rest time, pausing as needed to check comprehension and explain new word and ideas. They can also be picture guide books that you use to identify living things or natural objects you find, or nonfiction books that provide you both with information on a subject a child is deeply interested in.
- Let children “read” their favorite books to you. They can tell you the story, make up their own story to go with the pictures, show you things they like in the book, or “read” words they’ve memorized and have you read the rest. Let the child be the expert, while you be the learner.
- Plan a trip to the library. Before you go, help children think about what they might see and what books they might get. While there, look for favorite authors, characters, and books on favorite topics. Help children ask librarians for help.
- Help children make or select books as gifts. What kind of book do they think the recipient will like? What do they want to say about the book they made or chose? (Note: A book can be a (digital) photo album with captions, a set of drawings that tell a story or relate to a theme, or a retelling of an event, favorite tale, or imaginary play episode.)