"It's my 'sponsibility!" says 4-year-old Jake as he puts his toy cars into the block "garage" he has just completed with his classmate. "No! I will do that!' insists Leila. "Let's see if we can find a compromise," suggests the teacher. "Let's find a way that you can both take responsibility for putting the cars away."

We use language to express our intentions, describe our feelings, and understand the ideas of others. It is a skill we use so effortlessly that it can easily be taken for granted.

As early childhood educators, we have the privilege of watching the stunning language growth that occurs in a child's early years. However, this privilege comes with tremendous responsibility. What children accomplish during this time has a lifelong impact. And although they seem to achieve much on their own, children cannot progress without the nurturing, guidance, and modeling of appropriate language use by the adults around them.

Building Vocabulary

When we think about vocabulary development, it is important to consider how word knowledge grows and how it deepens. Both aspects of vocabulary development are critical to the ability to use, act on, and expand children's language knowledge base.

Vocabulary grows by:

Expanding the child's exposure to, and interaction with, language. The more language a child hears, the more words he will learn and use. This is an easily overlooked but critically important first step in examining ways in which we can enrich children's linguistic environments. It's important to take advantage of those times during the day, including snack time, group time, and outdoor-play time, when you can help engage children in lively conversation.

Embedding new words in familiar contexts. Young children love patterns and routines that enable them to successfully predict what will happen next and to experiment with variations of what they already know. By purposefully introducing new words, you can increase their active, speaking repertoire. For example, assuming most children can describe things using words such as "big and little," you might gradually engage in deliberate talk about "narrow and wide," "short and tall," "low and high," and "tiny and huge" during block or dramatic play. This significantly deepens conceptual knowledge by helping children see numerous ways of looking at things.

Exposing children to rare and intriguing words. Young children love the sound of long and seemingly difficult words. They will often pick up unusual words through stories that are read to them, or through exposure to dramatic uses of language. An older sibling of a new baby may arrive at school declaring that the baby's diaper is "saturated." Another child may say that a friend's behavior is "ridiculous." These instances of surprisingly sophisticated language use come from children's attention to, and interest in, the way adults use language to express precise feelings and reactions.

Vocabulary knowledge deepens by:

  • knowing the concepts a word represents
  • knowing multiple meanings of a word
  • understanding word associations
  • knowing how a word is used in conjunction with other words
  • understanding a word's syntactic behavior
  • knowing other words that sound like it

Keep Them Talking!

Children first learn to talk in their home environment by listening to, and gradually taking part in, the daily conversations of family members. When a child becomes part of a classroom, she must share the time and attention of the teacher with a host of other children. Opportunities for extended and personalized language of the sort they may experience at home may not be as frequent. And yet, these opportunities are desperately needed, because not all children come to school having been exposed to language-rich backgrounds.

Here are some ways you can maximize the language potential of all the children in your class:

Personally greet children as they arrive each day. Choose a daily or weekly theme to characterize your welcome and use it over and over again. For example, you might choose to focus on the weather or what they brought for snack or lunch. If the theme is children's clothing, you might say, "Julian, what a bright red sweater you have on today. I see one, two, three, four buttons!" or "Claire, look at that long zipper on your yellow jacket. It is half way up. Where is your hood?" With this process, each child will benefit from hearing what you are saying, and will notice words you use that they have never heard before.

Change the language of your daily routines. It is critically important for young children to learn routines. However, what makes routines recognizable and effective is your explanation regarding why the routine is necessary and what the expectations are. Once you have been able to establish these goals with children, you can use language to both deepen their understanding and to introduce new vocabulary. For example, how many times each year are you likely to say, "It's time to clean up"? By using rich words such as organize, collaborate, and arrange, you will both expand and deepen children's understanding of language.

Make the one-on-one times you have with children really count. Repeat what the child says as she "reads" her work, then build on and extend it. For example, in response to a child who has created a drawing and written, with invented vocabulary or otherwise, "I like rain," you might say, "I like rain. I see all of your raindrops here and a puddle. What is it about rain that you like? This puddle looks like it would be fun to splash in." For all children, but especially those who come from language-deprived backgrounds, a minute or so a day in instances like these will translate into measurable differences in language growth.

Building Vocabulary by Reading Aloud

Besides interaction, what other ways can we enhance the richness of our vocabulary bank? The answer, of course, is in print. To function in a literate society, we must be able to access knowledge through written language. Reading aloud is important not only because it helps prepare children to learn to read but also because it exposes them to rich language they otherwise would not hear. Through stories read aloud, children are exposed to both "technical" vocabulary-words necessary for understanding content (steamer, beam, tugboat, cables, and barge are words you might find in a story about a lighthouse) and "academic" vocabulary-words you might find in the same story that describe the action and emotions (swiftly, urgently, steep, anxious, glum).

Building Language Through Books

You can use books to purposefully promote language development in the following ways:

  • Determine which books are best for shared reading (cumulative and repetitive text, minimal text, high picture-text correlation) and which books are best for reading aloud and listening comprehension.
  • Become familiar with a read-aloud ahead of time.
  • Select vocabulary words to use in your discussions with children after the reading. Try to use words that appear more than once in the story.
  • Throughout the day or during the week, find ways to use words encountered in read-alouds so children hear them in different contexts.
  • Celebrate and call out words that you have previously discussed if you encounter them again in a different story.
  • Encourage a love of rare and unusual words.

The Reading/Writing Connection

Writing is a visual representation of our thoughts. Not only does it allow for self-- expression, but it also develops and refines thinking skills. The attempt to put something down in writing requires the ability to create and refine one's ideas. And that's not easy! However, just as very young children are instinctively drawn to picture books, they are similarly fascinated with writing early on. And just as they need daily experiences with hearing stories, it is critical that they have plenty of opportunities to write and draw.

There is a reciprocal relationship between learning to read and learning to write. Research shows that each develops alongside the other, and that what children may learn from one experience actually informs another. Just as children often incorporate language and ideas they have picked up from favorite stories into their play, they will also experiment with recreating images and even words from book experiences in their drawings and writings.

Children's writing can be a valuable informative tool for you too. Over the course of a school year, these writings, along with work samples in a variety of areas, will help to provide you with a record of children's developmental progress. Keeping a portfolio of children's work in the early childhood years is critical in helping you identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Journaling in the Classroom

One of the most valuable ways to make the most of language development, reading, and writing all at the same time is to promote the use of journals in your classroom. Preschool- and kindergarten-age children are not too young to learn about the excitement and fun of keeping a journal and to recognize it as something special they can call their own.

Journals. are a marvelous way to promote writing every day They are motivating to children because they are highly personal, giving each child a consistent place to keep his ideas. And they are simple to create-a stack of white paper stapled together with colored paper for the cover is all you need.

Here are some time-tested tips for using journals successfully with children:

  • Use unlined paper until you feel that children can write between the fines with some consistency.
  • When you introduce lined paper, make sure that there is unlined space at the top for illustrations. Or, you can alternate pages of lined and unlined so that there is always a clear space for optional drawings.
  • Vary between free choice of topics and suggesting topics. It is hard for young children to think of something to write on their own every day and they often welcome any ideas you might have.
  • When providing a topic, alternate between experience-based suggestions (class trips, weekend fun, reactions to stories, things that make you feel happy, hurt, or sad) and writing-based suggestions (creating a poem, writing a story using the words "Once upon a time," making a list for a specific purpose).
  • Let children use their journals just to practice. (You can even set aside the left-hand pages or the pages at the back of the book for that purpose.) Many who are already writing enjoy practicing writing letters over and over Others like to practice writing new words they have learned. Still others like to practice writing ideas before writing the actual story.
  • Treat journals as living documents. Encourage children to review their own entries from time to time. By doing this, they will take pride in their accomplishments and even use old entries as a source for new ideas.
  • Consider journals a vital part of your classroom. Just as it is important for children to develop fluency in reading, they need to develop ease, efficiency, and accuracy in their writing skills. This enables them to feel confident, express ideas, and continue to make progress throughout the elementary grades as work becomes increasingly more difficult.

The work we do now, in terms of language development, can have a big payoff for children years down the road. Research shows that those children reaching school age with smaller vocabularies, less depth in prior knowledge and background experiences, and fewer experiences with hearing stories and exploring with print are more likely to have significant problems in learning to read. It is clear that if we boost children's language and literacy experiences, later difficulties can be alleviated or even avoided.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart ON TRACK WITH LANGUAGE (PDF)