Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Oral Language Learning for Young Children

My youngest daughter and my grandson

Dear friends,

Here's an excerpt from my book Common Sense Excellence on teaching oral language. This includes listening, speech, and oral composition.  Oral language is something we teach throughout the day with our little conversations, whether we realize it or not.  Brothers and sisters even learn it from one another!  Oral language is the vital preparation for learning to read and write.



“Come, my children, listen to me; 
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.” Psalm 34:11

“...let the wise listen and add to their learning, 
and let the discerning get guidance.” Proverbs 1:5

“Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise; 
apply your heart to what I teach, 
for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart 
and have all of them ready on your lips.” 
Proverbs 22:17-18

Listening to spoken words is where it all begins!  Our children listen to us talk from the time they are in our wombs.  We don’t give them formal lessons, but they learn to talk anyway. Isn’t it amazing?

Take full advantage of the power of warm companionship.  The constant give and take of conversation, coupled with the natural repetition in everyday life, enhances listening skills almost effortlessly. Encourage your young children to tell you about their feelings and the events of the day.  And listen to them!  Be interested! 

Discern auditory problems. Does your child seem to have a hard time listening to you?  There is a difference between hearing and listening.  Your child may seem to be merely uncooperative, but perhaps he can’t hear you well enough to distinguish sounds properly.  Because hearing impairment affects the ability to process language, this can lead to permanent speech delays, so please don’t ignore this possibility. Many auditory and speech problems can be detected by a doctor or speech/language therapist using simple screening tests. If money is a concern, check with your county health department or local public school for free or low-cost testing and/or therapy.

Teach your child to pay attention. Suppose your child can hear you just fine -- when he wants to!  Perhaps he needs extra practical training in the fine art of listening.  Maybe it’s an attitude problem, but it could be that he just doesn’t know how to listen.  First, make sure that he is right in front of you, not across the room or at the other end of the house.  Next, make sustained eye contact. The ability to look someone in the eye as they speak is a valuable skill, and we may as well start now!  When your child is “front and center” paying attention to you, start talking to him.  Keep the sentences short, sweet and specific.  Ask him to repeat after you what you said.  Does he know what you mean?  If you say, “Please clean your room,” does he interpret that as an option because you said “please” or does he understand it as polite but mandatory?  Exactly what does “clean” mean?  Oh, and is there any time limit on this assignment?  Spell it out!  Then check up on it!
Work on simple auditory memorization skills. A valuable language skill is to be able to store the “input” in such a way as to recall it for “output” later.  As part of our listening skills approach, we encourage our young children to memorize Scripture passages, poetry, song lyrics, and quite pragmatically, a sequence of instructions that we wish them to follow.  Start small, and go slow.  Give them a phrase or two at a time, and repeat that until it is learned.   When you start using dictation methods for academics (more on this later), you will appreciate the time you have spent developing auditory memory.  Remember that it is better for them to memorize a few things thoroughly than many things shakily.  

Practice rhyming words.  Tell your child several examples of rhyming words, such as cat and mat or nickle and pickle.   Then say pairs of words (some rhyming and some not) and ask your child if they rhyme.  Next, say a word and ask your child to give you one that rhymes it. This may sound silly, but rhyming is an effective auditory discrimination activity and pre-reading skill.

Match spoken words with visual images. In the beginning stages, you can point to a picture and name it for your child.  When he knows many of the words, you can point to a picture and ask him to name it, or you can name an item and ask him to point to it.  (This is an example of Dr. Maria Montessori’s Three-Period Lesson.)  This activity naturally provides for continued discussion about the things you see on each page of a picture book.  For example, you can talk about shapes and colors of items, their uses, and other educational concepts -- all cuddled up on the couch having a grand time!


Moses said to the LORD, 
‘O Lord, I have never been eloquent,
neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. 
I am slow of speech and tongue.’  
The LORD said to him, ‘Who gave man his mouth? 
Who makes him deaf or mute? 
Who gives him sight or makes him blind? 
Is it not I, the LORD?
Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’"  
Exodus 4:10-11

“Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.” Psalm 139:4

“Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24

Coach your children on how to control their voices.  Proper volume, tone, pitch, inflection and speed will make them pleasant to hear. They should know when a quieter “inside” voice is appropriate, and when it’s OK to be more exuberant.  For example, if they are visiting someone who is wearing a hearing aid, they need to be sensitive to the fact that loud noises might cause a very unpleasant screeching noise in the person’s ear.  Start early to teach your children to control their voices!

Discuss when to speak and when to be quiet.  Do you have a little chatterbox who won’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise?  Teach her how to take turns in a conversation!  There are also times when we have to be totally quiet.  In most church services, it is important to be silent during the pastor’s prayer and sermon.  However, we should sing out enthusiastically during a rousing praise chorus, and greet others in a normal conversational tone (not a shy whisper!) during the “meet your neighbor” moment.  Part of this will come by your example, but you will probably also need to issue some gentle reminders when the actual time comes. 

Work on correct pronunciation and diction.  You may be able to understand what your child is saying because you know him and can practically read his mind, but can other people figure out his speech?  Some pronunciation problems are developmental, which means that the child usually grows out of it with time and practice.  The ability to correctly pronounce the R sound, for example, often does not appear until age seven.  Work with your child gradually, practicing sounds with him as you read stories, learn nursery rhymes and carry on simple conversations.  Try not to call undue attention to the problem; nervousness tends to make it worse.  Consult a physician if you suspect a physical problem, such as a tight connecting tissue under the tongue.   A speech therapist can also help diagnose and treat problems.  If you can’t afford to see one in private practice, ask for a free screening with a public school therapist.  Your child, even as a preschooler, may be eligible for special education sessions.    I had a speech impairment until minor surgery at age seven, and two of my children have had significant speech delays and/or diction problems which eventually improved, so my full sympathies are with you!

Let your child play with accents. This is the beginning of drama!  Some of the easiest accents to imitate are Southern USA, Boston, New York, British, Australian and Spanish. In the process, children learn to listen carefully to what makes each one distinct, and to reproduce the sound patterns not just in a given word, but in a whole spontaneous conversation.  Can you hear the gears clicking in their brains?

Show how the meaning of a word or sentence can change with tone of voice or vocal inflection.  Try changing your tone of voice (jovial, haughty, sad, excited, mildly sarcastic, serene) or emphasize different words in the sentence.  How does this change the message that comes across?

Teach your child how to answer the phone correctly, as well as make outgoing calls.  This will vary from family to family, but instruction should include what to say when you answer the phone, how to inform a family member that they have a phone call, what to say if the person they ask for is not available, how to take a message, how to dial a number, how to leave a message, what hours are appropriate for phone calls, etc.  I often remind my children that if they make a comment in the earshot of someone here who is on the phone, the person on the other end can probably hear it, too.

Practice reciting short pieces of literature.   Poems and famous speeches are good material for this activity.  Recitation helps a child to speak clearly and expressively, to cut out dead words such as um and you know, and to control his body movements.  Do this in the privacy of your own home until your child is ready for a more public audience.

Accustom your child to public speaking situations.   As ambassadors for Christ  Jesus, it is so helpful to be able to get up in front of a crowd and say a few intelligible words without fainting!  Start with a simple recitation, and move up to more original presentations.

Train your children to speak sweetly to each other and to you.  If I had it all to do over again, I would have majored on this.  I can tell you from experience that if you fail in this area when your children are young, you will pay for it later.  Name calling, bickering, tattling, slander, whining, sassing -- these can all poison the atmosphere of your home to the extent that you allow them.  Once ingrained, they are hard to shake off.  You can help your child find ways to communicate his feelings which do not tear other people down and stir up conflict.  This includes tone of voice, body language, and actual words.

Oral Composition

“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; 
he did not say anything to them without using a parable. 
So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet: 
‘I will open my mouth in parables, 
I will utter things hidden since the creation of the world.’”  
Matthew 13:34-35

“Listen, for I have worthy things to say; 
I open my lips to speak what is right.” Proverbs 8:6

“Gold there is, and rubies in abundance,
but lips that speak knowledge are a rare jewel.” Proverbs 20:15

Moving beyond the mechanical aspects of listening and speaking, I would like to talk about something which requires a little more brain power: oral composition.

Oral composition starts at birth.  The earliest exposure your child has to language formation is  hearing you speak from the time he is born.  How do you choose your words?  How do you organize your thoughts?  Can he follow the sequence of events when you tell about something that has happened, or when you make up a story just for him?  As he grows through the preschool years, he will tell you about life as he knows it, like what happened when Daddy took him to the baseball game.  It may be out of sequence a little bit, or perhaps he exaggerates here and there, but it’s his story.  Yes, this is oral composition in its seedling form.  Water it, and it will bear fruit.  Listen!

Oral composition sneaks in when your child is at play.  If she is building in the sand box, she might tell you that she is making a castle.  If he is dressing up, he might be a clown or a soldier.  If she is playing with dolls, she might speak to her babies in sentences that sound uncannily like your own (for better or worse)!   If he is racing around with a toy fire engine, he might describe how he is putting out the flames.  Talking about what he or she is doing is a vital part of the pretending process!  You can help by providing the props and asking an occasional question.

Oral composition is developed by narration.  For a more academic approach, let me elaborate on oral narration, which I mentioned in the Literature section.  Charlotte Mason advocated this method for all ages, but especially for young children.  It means telling back what you have heard in your own words, and perhaps adding in your own opinions or ideas about the topic.  This can be done after listening to a story or poem, reading a chapter of a book, or even looking at a piece of fine art.  The narration might be sprinkled with a few new vocabulary words from whatever was read.  In this way, he not only shows that he understands the material, but he is also developing his own language skills in a powerful and natural way.  These sessions can be short and sweet, perhaps just a few minutes.   If you must ask questions, try to keep them open-ended so that your child can’t just reply with a yes or no, or answer with a bare bones phrase.  You don’t want to extract the information, but let it flow.

Oral composition flows from a topic which grabs your child’s attention and interest.  Maybe you are out in the garage doing laundry when he comes up and starts chattering about an exciting book he’s been reading about snakes or astronauts or whatever.  You can tell he is psyched about it.  You know the information is rattling around in his brain, just waiting to be released through his mouth!  Let it stay at this level for quite some time, just getting him comfortable sharing verbally, either with factual information or a story. 

Oral composition blossoms into original storytelling. After a child has had ample exposure to read aloud literature and plenty of practice in oral narration, he may be ready for original oral storytelling beyond what would normally occur in conversation.  Working orally should definitely come before any attempt at formal written storytelling!  A few children may want to make up fanciful stories, but most would do well to stick with the familiar, such as a description of things they have experienced with their senses, or a narrative of a recent happening. You can easily incorporate oral storytelling naturally and spontaneously by asking your child, “Tell me all about the Christy’s birthday party!” or “Why are you so excited right now?” or “You didn’t like the way that story ended.  How would you change it?”    Keep in mind that you can use oral narration and composition with a child who does not yet know how to read.  Even a three year old can offer a few sentences here and there.  These little conversations are part of your warm and loving relationship with your child, not some complex scholarly skill!  Many years ago, our little children would beg to hear my impromptu stories about the fictional Blake family.  When I was too tired to think of anything even halfway original, Joanna, then nine, came to the rescue with her own Max and Liz stories.  After all, she has heard mine often enough that she had a pattern to go by, and she has a lively imagination of her own.  The younger ones began to prefer her stories to mine.  (I won’t take that personally!)  The older ones still tell stories to their little brothers and sisters. These story telling sessions may be after regular school hours, but I’d be the last one to complain!

Oral composition is a crucial academic skill.  Parents may discount the value of oral narration or story telling because there is no paper trail to prove that the child has done “language arts” for the day.  If this is your concern, just mark down on your child’s record sheet what he did:  “Gave oral narration about Abraham Lincoln biography,” or “Discussed Charlotte’s Web book with Mom,” or “Described paintings at art museum,” or “Made up original story about exploring Mars.”  These are all perfectly valid educational activities, and you should be proud to have them listed in your child’s portfolio. Just think of how pleased you will be when your child can carry on an interesting conversation with the adults and children at your next family reunion!
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