Here are seven ways young children learn to use and appreciate oral language as a meaningful part of their lives.

1. To communicate needs.

Sixteen-month-old Leah points to the refrigerator, indicating she wants some juice. Her mother takes out the apple juice but Leah shakes her head. "Daddy juice!" she replies. Leah's mother gets her the grape juice her father drinks.

Your role: Let children know you understand, and build on the conversation by offering clarifying words: "Would you like some grape juice?"

2. To bring order to the world

Steven lives in a high-rise apartment and often hears his mother utter, "Come on, elevator!" Sometimes he says it for her and, once inside, helps again by adding "Elevator down!" Already, Steven senses the effectiveness of using language to show what he expects and wants to happen.

Your role: Talk about communication and discuss ways children can politely tell others what to do.

3. To talk about themselves.

Through personal storytelling, we relate our hopes, needs, and fears; in short, we establish and express our identities.

Your role: Listen and let children know you value what they have to say. Make group time an opportunity for everyone to listen and share.

4. To explore who they are.

During dramatic play children often invent and test out new roles -- thinking out loud as they verbally work through ideas in a riskfree context.

Your role: Provide lots of time, space, and props for children to role-play events and characters.

5. To resolve differences and form relationships.

Sara lashes out because Carolyn wants to be "best friends" with Tommy. Jesse sees her crying and offers to come play.

Your role: Encourage children to talk about how they feel. Help them find ways to resolve conflicts by modeling appropriate language.

6 To find out information.

"Where does rain come from?" "Why does soap float?" "How come your grandma picks you up?" As language develops, children begin to use it as a vehicle to learn more.

Your role: Encourage questions and respond in ways that support investigations and curiosity.

7. To share and act on new information.

Young children see and hear others exchanging information all around them and they want to be involved.

Your role: Make sure learning-center activities provide strong opportunities for children to learn from one another using language. Help children by asking them to describe what they see, consult one another, and share information they learn from books.

Susan Canizares is an editor who produces books and materials for young children, parents, and teachers. She is completing a doctoral program in language development.