Attunement to children’s needs creates opportunities for language.
Because language is social, development is driven by the quantity and quality of interactions between a child and their adults. Sensitive care promotes healthy development of a child overall, but language is innately social. Communication between young children and adults includes eye-gaze, sounds and symbols, and often tactile sensations as a baby is held or a toddler clasps the knees of a seated adult. Attunement, or being aware and responsive to a child’s needs, sends messages to the child about their worth and whether those needs will be met. As children grow and begin using more words, they are constantly reaching out for our cues on their proficiency. The serve and return interchange is not only building language, it is building a social understanding, which then builds language.
Eliciting Language Through Conversations and Questions
Adult-child interactions give opportunities to observe, learn, and practice language skills. Even simple language conversations foster this growth. Consider the example of Imani’s exchange with her teacher. She said, “I no like it: go-fish.” Her teacher responded by acknowledging, “You do not like goldfish.” This strategy, known as expansion, fills in missing words and provides a model of language rules. A similar strategy, recasting, fills in what is missing, while also extending the child’s idea or changing the sentence structure. A child might exclaim, “Water, Cold!” The teacher may recast by asking a question, “Is the water cold?” Further recasting might cause the teacher to say, “You do not like this cold water on your hands!” With recasting, the child’s initial utterance may be changed from a statement to a question, or ideas extended and lengthened. Expansion and recasting provide language models for children who are multilingual and engaging in code-mixing to communicate their ideas. For example, a child may say, “Quiero milk.” The teacher may then respond by saying either “¿Quieres leche?” or “Would you like some milk?” Recasting provides a language model without overtly correcting the child. More importantly, it sends a message that the child is understood. These supportive interactions provide the cognitive stimulation, sensitivity, and responsiveness to help foster language (Hamre & Pianta, 2005) and support cognitive gains over time (Siraj & Asani, 2015).
The quality of the interaction is also a relevant component to consider. Interactions that emphasize close-ended or one-word responses reduce a child to answers that are brief and minimal (Pianta et al., 2012). “Did you go outside yesterday?” yields a shorter conversation than asking, “What did you do this weekend?” When children have opportunities to have longer back-and-forth conversations with open-ended questions, it naturally creates more opportunities for children to practice their conversational skills and to expand their thoughts (Pianta et al., 2012; Scull, Paatsch, & Raba, 2013). This approach is not merely helpful for individual children in each conversation, but there is a positive impact on the quality of the classroom environment (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). Sustained conversations promote enhanced language and literacy practices in the classroom overall (Justice et al., 2008).
One way to promote extended conversation is to use a model of Shared Sustained Thinking (Siraj & Asani, 2015). In Shared Sustained Thinking adults intentionally start teacher-child dialogues designed to expand answers and keep children engaged in conversation. Supportive shared conversations include solving problems together, clarifying concepts, evaluating activities, and the conversation extends as parties are thinking about their own ideas and knowledge. Helpful strategies for fostering supportive shared conversations are outlined in the table below, with verbal examples and non-verbal examples proposed by Siraj-Blatchford (2015) and expanded by the authors of this textbook.
Supporting Children’s Sustained Shared Thinking
Chart 7.5 “Supporting Children’s Sustained Shared Thinking.” Content is based on Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2015). Quality Interactions in the Early Years Keynote Address at the TACTYC Annual Conference, Cardiff, 5 November – Birth to 8 Matters! Seeking Seamlessness – Continuity? Integration? Creativity?” http://www.tactyc.org.uk/pdfs/2005conf_siraj.pdf [Google Scholar]
Greeting the child and listening
Body oriented toward child, bending over to near eye level to child
Showing Genuine Interest
Maintaining eye contact, smiling, nodding
Respecting children’s own decisions and choices by inviting children to elaborate
Saying things like, “I really want to know more about this.”
Listening and engaging in the response
“So you think that…”
Drawing picture together or as a depiction that you understand the conversation
Offering the adult’s own experience
I like to…
Sharing photos or pictures
“So you think that this stone will melt if I boil it in water?”
Use facial gestures, such as a questioning expression
“Could we try doing it this way?”
Pointing to item while smiling
“Don’t forget that you said that this stone will melt if I boil it.”
Tapping forgotten item
Using encouragement to further thinking
“You have really thought hard about where to put this door in the palace. Where will you put the windows?”
Give your brain a kiss (kiss hand and then touch hand to head)
Offering an alternative viewpoint
“Maybe Goldilocks wasn’t naughty when she ate the porridge.”
Showing another way to solve a problem (e.g., a different way of stacking blocks)
“What do you think the three bears would do if Goldilocks knocked on their door and invited them to go on a picnic?”
Act out pretend play and dress up scenarios
“Thank goodness that you were wearing boots when you jumped in those puddles! Look at my feet. They are soaking wet!”
Mirroring child’s gestures
Varied, animated facial expressions
Asking open-ended questions
“How did you…?”
“Why does this…?”
“What happens next…?”
“What do you think…?”
“I wonder what would happen if…?”
Using drawing for communication and indicating questions
“I have to think hard about what I will do this evening. I need to take my dog to the vet because he has a sore foot, take my library books back to the library, and buy some food for dinner tonight. But I won’t have time to do all of these things.”
Demonstrating thoughtful examination of items or drawings by pausing first
Instructional Opportunities That Support Language Development
Dramatic play creates opportunities for children to engage with their peers and act out real life scenarios. Many early learning settings have dramatic play areas, including home living/kitchen, puppet stages, flannel sets, and temporary thematic spots, such as an apple orchard or mechanic’s garage. These types of activities foster opportunities for children to practice dialogue, use different voices, and experiment with conversational rhythms. Teachers may or may not join in, but having a richness of materials available in the environment can help children to engage in discussions with one another.
The ability of children to discriminate sounds and perceive rhythm and rhyme is associated with early reading ability. Nursery rhymes are particularly effective. They are short verses, making them easily repeatable. Children’s exposure to nursery rhymes is connected with spelling success in early grades (Dunst et al., 2011) and are particularly effective with English Language Learners (Prošić-Santovac, 2015). For example, “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick!” is easier for children to master and repeat than a longer poem. Even short poems allow for practicing tone of voice, inflection, grammar, and figurative language. These early attempts help build a foundation for language development. Hearing the sounds at the beginnings and endings of words helps children explore connecting these sounds to letters and prepares children for early reading (Rasinki & Zimmerman, 2013). As teachers introduce poems of different styles, they create opportunities for the children to enhance their vocabulary knowledge and to engage with their peers in addition to enjoying and celebrating language.
Language Accessibility and Differentiated Supports
Assistive technology includes devices or services that help children with disabilities to engage in learning and social interactions (Lohmann et al., 2019). Common examples include sign language, picture communication boards, adapted books, and voice output communication devices (Lohmann et al., 2019; Skau & Cascella, 2006). Sign language provides a visual or tactile demonstration of spoken words and is used not only for children who are deaf or hard of hearing, but hearing children as well. A common strategy is to have parents and children learn 20 to 30 words that are useful for the child and their environments (Skau & Cascella, 2006). This approach allows children to be able to communicate and understand some of the most basic and fundamental concepts. In the same way, picture boards allow children to touch or point to words they hear or wish to say. These can be used at home or school and can be relatively easy to produce or reproduce by using computers and cardstock or poster boards. For example, a picture of clothing, toothbrush, breakfast, then a car can highlight the order of routine for a young child. This also allows the possibility for the child to ask for or about a portion of the routine as it is occurring by pointing to that same board. Story and song boards create opportunities to point to pictures as a story or song is being shared. This generates space for a non-verbal child to respond, repeat, and participate fully in a classroom environment. Using a communication board might also be effective for a verbal child that is bothered by noise, as a child could wear earphones to manage the noise, and still participate by pointing to a board. It works best to include interesting textures or even real objects attached to the board (Skau & Cascella, 2006). As an example, an educator telling the story of The Three Little Pigs enhances children’s understandings with the storyboard by affixing to the board a picture of a brick, a small stick, and a bit of straw or raffia. Teachers can also point to storyboards as an aided language simulation for all children by pointing to words and pictures to emphasize meaning while telling a story, “The first little pig built his house out of STRAW.”
Vocal output devices produce pre-recorded messages when children press a button or otherwise trigger a word (Lohmann et al, 2019, Skau & Cascella, 2006). The child activates the device to answer questions, prompt others to action, or otherwise communicate. A vocal output device could be used in the classroom to record phrases or lines from poetry, story, or song. When the class joins in the story or song, the child with the vocal output device can then also join in.
Use of tablets and smartphones for assistive communication purposes has increased more recently as these items have become more readily available (Lohmann et al., 2019). Smart devices can easily be used in a classroom as a way of helping to create vocal output for a story. For example, classmates or teachers could record voices on the phone or tablet, “And I will huff and puff and blow your house down!” The child using the technology could play it at the cue when everyone joins in. The voice recording could be the child, teacher, classmates, or even family members with some planning ahead. Use of smart technology for assistive communication is most effective when adults have positive beliefs about the use of these devices (Zajc et al., 2018). Similarly, teachers’ use and comfort integrating assistive technologies develops as they gain more experiences using adaptive technologies within young learners .
Children’s language development depends on ample meaningful language experiences with peers and adults. These experiences allow children opportunities to express themselves and be understood. When educators and parents provide these opportunities they support children’s language development. Understanding typical language trajectories allows educators to anticipate children’s language needs and enrich language environments accordingly.
It is also important to understand differences in the developmental trajectories. Children who are English Language Learners might have some initial delays as they navigate a silent period of receptive language before becoming more expressive/productive. Home language retention and multilingualism results in cognitive gains and maintains important cultural ties. Children who are deaf and/or hard of hearing may have language delays depending on the severity of the hearing loss and the type and timing of intervention. All children with hearing loss benefit from social play opportunities as this strengthens productive language. Children who have autism may struggle with receptive and expressive language. Nonverbal cues may be particularly difficult for a child to master. Early intervention is helpful, not only for language development itself, but for the social transactions that take place. Shared conversations help to elicit growth in listening, speaking, and nonverbal communication. Assisted technology can help to bridge the gap when children need communication support.
Intentional educators promote children’s language development by attending to children’s individual differences, remaining culturally responsive, providing context and environmental supports, and using adaptive technologies that enhance children’s engagement. Children have a desire to communicate and a right to be understood. Language in its many forms allows this process to unfold.