What Does the Cow Say?: How Does Nursery School Promote Language Development?
Most mornings I begin my day with a Facetime call with my daughter Mia, and her daughter, 18-month-old Alma Louise. Communicating through a screen has its challenges, especially when one of the participants is just acquiring language, but it also has its high points. The first time my granddaughter, Lulu, as she is called, greeted me with an enthusiastic and cheerful, Hi!, was one such high point.
Lately, it seems that every morning there is a new addition to her rapidly growing word list and she is as delighted as I am that she has added another word to her growing vocabulary. My daily phone calls with Lulu have me thinking a lot about language development and the importance of providing young children with the richest possible language experience.
Another call with a family member really got me thinking as well. I was inquiring about my great-nephew Jack’s adjustment to nursery school and his father, my nephew Rob, had lots of positive things to say about his new experiences. The biggest surprise to Rob was the explosion of language from his already verbal and articulate four-year-old.
I explained to him that a nursery school environment provides new and different ways that stimulate speech and language development. Starting with teachers, a powerful resource in supporting the language development of young children, teachers are very intentional in their use of language - they have to be to effectively communicate with young children whose language acquisition is in various stages of development. A child in nursery school is being exposed to new voices, ones with their own accents, cadence, and ways of expressing ideas. Because it isn’t just what a teacher says, but how he or she says it that can enrich a child’s language acquisition.
I use the word “amazing” a lot, and many parents of my students would comment how surprised they were when this word started popping up in the speech of their 3 or 4-year-olds. My own children, whose nursery school teacher was originally from Scotland, would comment when it was time to put their toys away, that it was time to “tidy up the nursery”, certainly a phrase they had never heard from me.
In addition to a teacher’s choice of words, the instruction is often backed up with props and visual aids which support greater comprehension. Songs and fingerplays enhance language and comprehension as well. Repetition, such as in a song like, “The Wheels on the Bus”, solidifies meaning and understanding. Asking questions of children that go beyond yes or no, force children to think and formulate responses that may require more than a one-word answer. Clear expectations, clearly stated, regarding the class routines, a necessary staple of every nursery school classroom, instill confidence and security, all underlying factors in speech and language acquisition.
A quality early childhood program will have a daily story time and an environment stocked with a variety of books. Being read aloud to each day further extends language development, not only by introducing new vocabulary and concepts but by reinforcing the words with illustrations that support meaning.
Finally, it is important to note the role socialization plays in language development. By that, I mean how important it is for children to be in a group setting in order to expand and enrich their linguistic skills. Peer learning, especially in mixed-age groups promotes language development. Without realizing it, parents and caregivers often anticipate the needs of their charges and fill in a lot of the blanks where communication is concerned. Young children playing together …do not. A nursery school child needs to find the words to let a playmate know that she or he wants the truck next or that they want the boat they’ve just built together to sail off to grandma’s house. When several children are speaking at once, a young child needs to focus on the words of those children and begin to understand the give and take of conversation and how and when to contribute their own words and ideas to the flow. They have to work hard to be heard and understood in a way that is different from the home environment and the parent-child dialogue. They have to work hard to connect with others and that is a powerful motivator.
Speech and language are more than articulation, vocabulary, and grammar. Verbal communication is a complex use of words to express oneself to others and to understand the expression of others to us. Nursery school provides the platform for the practice of these skills with immediate feedback about one’s success in communicating. Questions like what does the cow say? are appropriate for toddlers and what constitutes a conversation is made up primarily of a back and forth such as that. But as children progress, and begin to combine words, it is important that they are encouraged to answer more open-ended questions. Children in group settings are motivated to combine words and express their feelings to the adults and children around them in new and novel ways. Conversations happen that stimulate an explosion of language development just like what my nephew observed in his son.
At the nursery school where I worked, we would have a speech and language screening each September to make sure that each child was where they needed to be in terms of speech and language development. Because speech and language are critical for socialization and future academic success, we felt any delays should be addressed early. I mention this practice because the speech and language therapists doing the screening always mentioned that attendance in an early childhood program was the first remedy (but not always the only remedy) for a speech or language delay for all of the reasons that I have mentioned.
Just like mine and my granddaughter’s delight at each new word, preschoolers are delighted and proud of their ever-expanding repertoire… as they should be. I too am delighted by the impressive achievements in the linguistic development of young children and …my granddaughter had me at “Hi!”.