'There are lots of books you've asked me to read today, so let's settle down and get started, everybody."

Sarah, the teacher of a class of 4-year-olds, assembles the children on the meeting-area rug after a busy morning. They are looking forward to having snack outside on this mild fall day, but book time is not something Sarah is willing to give up.

Yasmin: Are you gonna read our "What We Do in School" books?

Sarah: How many books would that be?

Children: Two hundred thousand! Hundreds?

Sarah: How many children are there in our class?

Yasmin: Oh, 23. Too many to read.

Joey: Yeah. Can you read Road Builders first? I brought it from home, and you promised.

Maybelle: I wanna tell you something. Dan is coming over tonight!

Sarah: (picking up Road Builders) So your Uncle Dan is coming over for dinner? I know how much you love to see him. Joey, we don't have time to read your whole book, but let's pick out some pages. Here's the grader....

Joey: The grader smashes the ground!

Cassie: There's a dump truck! I've seen one of those before, and we have a toy one in our school shed.

Sarah: What's this? (Children are silent.) Here, it says "cherry picker." Why do you suppose it's called that?

Danny: Because it picks cherries?

Joey: No! No! I see them in the road when some lights go out and they have to fix them!

Sarah: Marie's dad works for the electric company. Why don't we invite him to come and talk to us about the cherry picker's job?

This back-and-forth, messy, time-consuming, spontaneous interaction is a perfect example of early childhood communication led by a skilled teacher. Sarah facilitates children's listening and speaking in the following ways, as she "wonders" along with her 4-year-olds:

  • She holds to her agenda while making room for children's suggestions.
  • She honors the home-school connection by reading a book brought from home.
  • She responds to a child even if comments are off-topic.
  • She allows children to hear each other, as she extends their ideas and suggests further exploration.
  • Her tone is respectful; children are spoken to in a natural, conversational way that says, "I'm here to keep you safe and help you do what you need to do-we are all learning together."

Setting Communication Goals

When I reflect on my career in teaching, I realize that the greatest rewards always stem from the joys of communication. We are touched by the children in our classes, just as the children are touched by us. This central connection can lead children to continually deepen their awareness of others and allow them to express themselves in an atmosphere of trust. Your primary communication goals are to:

  • further each child's emerging self-esteem;
  • encourage each child's developing empathy for others; and
  • use communication as the basis for a meaningful curriculum.

We know that communication is central to the learning process. An early childhood classroom minus the busy hum of children and teachers interacting is the opposite of a developmentally appropriate environment.

Communication can be specifically linked to the expanding skills of listening and speaking, as children connect to the reading and writing behaviors that characterize early literacy development. Let's look at how you can set up your classroom to make the most of communication and home-school connections, as well as ways to strengthen your role as "communications director."

Communicating Throughout the Day

You may have a personal preference when it comes to structuring your day, and your own rhythm is certainly important to consider. Half-day and full-day programs differ structurally and are affected by meals, nap time, and the length of time spent in school.

Consider the effect of your children's ages on classroom communication. If they are twos and young threes, just entering the room may take some adjustment while they scan the space for a friend or familiar material. With the youngest children, your own role will be crucial as you facilitate separation from parents. Fours and fives, however, are usually eager to start off in a meeting time together. Routines, including taking attendance, designating classroom jobs, and doing the calendar and weather, provide a stable beginning and lively conversation.

The dynamics of this year's class may be another element in making your decisions about the day. As you refine your class schedule, think about balancing the different "kinds of talk" that signal communication.

Loud talk. Children's large-motor activity will often inspire dramatic exchanges as they act out action scenes or direct tricycle traffic. Aside from the benefits of physical exercise, just being in a larger, unrestricted space can encourage freewheeling conversation. If your schedule isn't working for you, experiment! For instance, if the children spill into the room each day with a surplus of physical energy, try negotiating with the rest of the staff for an early outdoor or gym time before asking your class to meet or settle into a choice-time routine.

Spontaneous talk. Incorporate the Reggio Emilia concept that young children's time should not be "set by the clock." This means allowing children as much choice as possible, as well as enough time to explore materials in depth. Solid stretches of time encourage spontaneous discussion among children who are playing and working cooperatively or side by side. Ample time also allows you to observe wordless communication between children, and to talk with them about the meanings behind their investigations.

Quiet talk. Snack or lunchtime can be an ideal setting for quiet listening and speaking. Some teachers prefer that small groups of 4 to 6 children talk together at individual tables. While they eat, she facilitates the conversations, moving from group to group. Another teacher sets a calm mood by seating all the children together around a single table space. As she listens carefully to their conversation, she places emphasis on taking turns and then picks up on a particular theme:

Teacher: Ali, you say something scary happened yesterday. Want to tell us about it?

Ali: A big scary dog was barking at my dog.

Teacher: Let's ask each person if something happened yesterday that they'd like to talk about. Jess, what about you? (Jess shakes her head.) It's OK if you don't want to talk. We can come back to you if you think of something. Lily, your turn....

Examining Your Role

Some groups of children seem to "jell" naturally, while others struggle throughout the year to make connections. Whatever this year brings, it is your responsibility to create a sense of community in the classroom.

Noted early childhood educator Lilian Katz tells us that children's feelings and dispositions play as large a role in the learning process as gaining skills and knowledge. The respectful tone you set will become a model for children. Your position as the reassuring, interested adult will enable them to function comfortably with each other in an atmosphere of complete safety and trust. Your attention to naturally communicative activities, such as dramatic play, group times, and oneon-one interactions, contributes to communication in your classroom-while at the same time providing a strong foundation for early literacy development.

Observing Communication

Listening to children's spontaneous play scenarios is fascinating work! During dramatic play, it's sometimes impossible to follow the interweaving story lines as new players continually join in. But observation will give you insight into the children's interests, the elements of story they understand (beginning, middle, and end), and their ability to symbolize. Let's look at one dramatic-play scenario:

Julia: Doctor, doctor, I have a sick baby!

Ray: I want to be the dog.

Julia: OK, but stay with this baby while I ask Jenny to be the doctor and drive the ambulance to the hospital.

As the dialogue continues, you watch Ray-on all fours-look for something to serve as a leash, while Jenny brings a bag of hastily grabbed items to use as her "doctor tools." The soft scarf that becomes a leash and the toy rolling pin that serves as a hypodermic needle demonstrate the children's ability to represent symbolically. This is a key step towards understanding that a written word stands for a spoken word, and that abstract patterns of letters form words with specific meanings.

When children include each other in their dramatic-play stories, they are verbally negotiating, while at the same time preserving the integrity of their own ideas.

Dina: I wanna be the baby!

Maya: No! I wanna be the baby. You be the mom!

Dina: How 'bout we both be the babies, and Timmy can be the mom? Timmy?

In this scene, we see Dina showing flexible thinking and a willingness to cooperate. However, if Timmy refuses, and negotiations break down, the teacher needs to take advantage of the opportunity to enter the scene in the role of mediator.

Fostering Group Communication

Communication in your classroom will flourish during group times that include both routines and special events.

Routines. Morning routines, such as attendance, job-chart, weather, and calendar discussions, allow children to recognize their names and those of classmates along with other important words, signs and symbols. Children's names are often the first words that provide clues for an understanding of sound-symbol relationships. As children learn to take turns and listen to others, morning routines become times for oral communication: sharing items from home, recording a newly lost tooth on a "missing-tooth" graph, or selecting a specific center activity with which to begin the day.

Story- or book-sharing time. As we all know, reading to and with children is perhaps the most significant contribution we can make to their literacy learning. It models the act of reading, including directionality, and entices children through the story. Classics such as Caps for Sale, predictable books that encourage phonemic awareness, Big Books, and wordless books are innately interactive and invite children's participation.

We want young children to be enraptured by stories and responsive to their content, but this isn't to say they won't fidget unmercifully when we're trying to read aloud! Cynthia Ballenger, in her book Teaching Other People's Children, describes the adjustment she had to make in reading stories to her class of Haitianborn 4-year-olds. While the oral tradition in their families was strong, books were a rarity, and in the children's eyes shared a similar status with catalogues. Cynthia's reading of stories from the books she herself cherished was met by constant interruption and insertion of personal narratives. Her frustration turned to introspection as she worked to balance her own love of storybooks with a new understanding of the children's culture and their need to communicate.

Dramatic presentations. Listening and speaking go hand in hand with drama. Young children's interest in folk tales can often lead to the desire to act them out. "It's my turn to be the troll!" or "I want to be the littlest Billy Goat!" becomes part of the negotiation as children take turns playing roles in The Three Billy Goats Gruff, The Three Little Pigs, or Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Noted teacher and author Vivian Paley has used children's own stories to inspire dramatic reenactments. Children dictate their stories to her, and then take turns acting them out. The rest of the class helps out by either assuming roles or quietly listening as audience members. In Pale/s final year of kindergarten teaching, Leo Lionni's storybooks inspired equally compelling classroom dramas and choral responses.

Experience charts, choral speaking, and group games. Bringing children together around a shared language-and-literacy activity has always been a favorite part of the early childhood curriculum for me. Making an experience chart with children based on observations of a class pet, a trip to a neighborhood store, or a favorite recipe continues to be a great way to work with a group. Experience charts reinforce for all children, no matter what their individual developmental levels, the concept that spoken words can be written down and read back.

Learning a rhyme together, such as the Halloween favorite "Five Little Pumpkins Sitting on a Gate," will lend itself both to an illustrated chart and to group choral speaking. Phonemic awareness is intrinsic to choral speaking, and phonic principles are evident on the written chart as children notice the sameness and difference between the words "gate" and "late."

In her book Room for Talk, Rebekah Fassler describes an ESL kindergarten teacher who successfully exposed children of many different home languages to English. Always respecting the children's linguistic and cultural diversity, Mrs. Barker used an array of strategies to help her children communicate. One interactive game involved rolling a ball to another child, while saying one's own name (the rules could be altered by saying the name of the intended recipient instead). Mrs. Barker was careful to incorporate children's individual variations to the game, such as bouncing the ball before passing it along, knowing that these non-verbal additions are part of increased communication.

Classroom visitors. Inviting parents to your classroom to share their expertise will often culminate in a group time. Children are fascinated when watching a dentist mom or firefighter dad share their knowledge, along with the accompanying tools or uniforms. Parents whose hobbies include playing an instrument, singing, or storytelling are treasures who will enrich your communication curriculum. I will always remember a parent of Greek descent who shared with my class the precious nature of shoes in her home country. As she described the new pair of sneakers that appeared just once a year on Greek Easter, the children's eyes grew wide with appreciation and awe.

Problem-solving sessions. We all know that children sometimes struggle to get along. When an argument erupts, it's often helpful to draw children to the group meeting area to ask, "What's happening? A few minutes ago there was such a happy buzzing sound in the room, but that's changed. What can we do about it?"

I recently watched Joe, a kindergarten teacher, call his children to a "magic circle" meeting after two youngsters-trying to play Tic Tac Toe-had become furious over who would have the "Xs" first. The whole class listened as Joe described the problem without using the boys' names. Soon they began to offer suggestions, and finally the two children involved joined in the problem-solving process.

Encouraging Communication One-on-One

Your attention to individual children during choice times can encourage them to express themselves in a wider way, building a bridge between a child and the class as a whole. Here's a look at the kinds of communication that can happen in one learning center:

THE ART AREA

Children's paint, clay, collage, and construction projects lay a foundation for eye-hand coordination and simultaneously encourage the expression of ideas. The teacher's non-judgmental attention encourages pride and self-esteem.

On a recent visit to a threes class, I saw some interesting work mounted on a wall at the children's level. During an art activity, these children had expressed their creativity by working with white tempera paint, glue, and yarn. Each mounted piece was accompanied by the 3-year-old artist's dictated description. Here are two examples, followed by a teacher's comment next to a third piece.

"Tall tall grass. There are bugs in the grass and in the ground. It is raining from the sky, and when the rain stops, there will be bugs flying in the sky. There are butterflies flying here, too."

"This is a big boat, going far away to New York City. There are many things on the boat with many people on it. The boat is floating on the river."

"As she worked with the material, Lynn looked at me and pointed at the flowers on her shirt and then at her artwork. She was not ready to talk yet. As she pointed, she gave me a big smile."

In these three descriptions, we can see children communicating at different developmental levels, facilitated by their access to art media. Each child's ideas were then communicated further, as their teacher read the descriptions aloud to the class.

THE DRAWING AND WRITING TABLE

I cannot stress too strongly the importance of a specific place where children can, to use David Armington's phrase from his book The Living Classroom, "talk on paper." Simple drawings accompanied by single words carry as much importance as a child's own ambitious "chapter book." Some children prefer to use their own "inventive" or "transitional" spelling to label a picture or tell a simple story. Others may have so much to say that a teacher is needed to act as a "scribe" until writing skills have developed, allowing the child's complex thinking to become visible.

Observing a group of 4-year-olds, I saw Jade working on a stapled book of simple representational drawings. The book was quite thick, and I asked if I could see it. Her "chapter book" revealed dictated text with strong story elements. Later, I listened while the teacher read Jade's book to the class.

"Chapter One. A Bunny Met a Duck. They met each other but they didn't know their names, so they decided to ask. The bunny said her name first: 'My name is Soft.' Then the duck went. She said 'My name is Pond.' They spent the whole day playing with each other, and then their mothers said, 'Lunchtime!'"

Chapter One was followed by Chapters Two and Three, all accompanied by carefully executed colored-pencil drawings. The class sat immobile, enthralled. When the teacher reached the end of Chapter Three, the "Butterfly Chapter," the children erupted with enthusiasm.

Children: Yeah! She had babies! I love being 4 and a half! I love flowers! I like pink butterflies!

Teacher So, I have a question for you, Jade. What gave you some of the ideas for your book?"

Jade: I can't remember....

Teacher: Do you know what's going to happen at the end?

Jade: I'm going to draw more!

When communication is a visible part of the entire early childhood classroom, it is a testament to the teacher's careful planning, respectful encouragement, and willingness to try new things. It's also a testament to children's innate desire to interact with the world, to be recognized, and to love and be loved. When teacher and children communicate together, the sky's me limit!

Communication All Around the Classroom

BLOCKS

1. Be sure you have enough blocks and shapes for the ages of the children in your classroom. Threes and fours are capable of cooperative block building. If children seem reluctant to build, set out 3 or 4 blocks on the floor yourself as an enticement for them.

2. Don't skimp on space in this area! Two to four children should be easily accommodated for maximum communication. Keep blocks organized by shape.

3. For sign making, provide oak tag cards, paper, markers, and pencils, along with some models for the children to copy, such as "SAVE" or "PLEASE DON'T KNOCK THIS BUILDING DOWN."

4. Keep some books in the vicinity that relate to buildings or construction projects, along with a map or two.

5. Provide accessories, as they seem appropriate to the themes you notice in children's block work.

6. Use a camera to record block structures that must be taken down at the end of the class session. These can be shared with parents.

DRAMATIC PLAY

1. Decide on your basic dramatic-play equipment. Do you want a variety of dress-up clothes, hats, shoes, or a collection of colored scarves?

2. You don't need fancy kitchen equipment for house play. Big blocks make terrific stoves, tables, chairs, or refrigerators. Consider alternatives to plastic pretend food: white play dough for baked items, inch cubes for meat, and shoelaces for spaghetti.

3. Keep office and shopping supplies on hand should the children ever seem interested in playing "Let's Go to Work," running a store, or starting a restaurant.

4. Make puppets available for the kind of dramatic play that seems better suited to a specific story and an audience.

5. Encourage dramatic play on the playground or in a larger play space, where action themes are bound to emerge.

6. A sand or water table provides soothing sensory experiences and holds many possibilities for conversation.

ART

1. Think of tables as "flexible" (rather than as fixtures), so you can push them together for group art projects.

2. Four to six children around an ample working space are ideal.

3. Ask parents to contribute supplies for collage work: paper-towel rolls, sturdy cardboard, yarn, and string.

4. If you are not experienced with clay, find a local artist or artisan to come to your class.

5. easel painting is fine, but a tray setup on a flat surface-with tempera paint in low containers, a brush, a sponge, and a can of water for rinsing-is even better!

6. Don't be afraid to set out watercolors with small brushes on a table, or equipment for group tempera paintings with large brushes on the floor!

DRAWING AND WRITING

1. Set up a separate, designated space for drawing and writing.

2. Writing and drawing instruments should be varied: crayons, markers, colored pencils, thick lead pencils without erasers, and regular lead pencils for those with well-developed grasps.

4. Keep a separate pencil holder for teachers to use in taking dictation.

5. Scissors and hole punchers are useful for making cards or invitations, and help develop small hand muscles.

MEETING AREA

1. Make this space as comfortable as possible. The rug should be sturdy but not scratchy.

2. This is usually the best place for your classroom library or book rack.

3. Charts with pockets for children's names encourage communication and literacy skills. An attendance chart and a job chart are essential. Depending on the age of your class, you may also have a calendar and weather chart.

4. A rack of chart paper will allow you to demonstrate spontaneously that spoken language may be written down and read back.

5. Keep a container of puppets nearby for group dramas or problem-solving.