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LANGUAGE | THE EARLY YEARS

Language Arts

THE EARLY YEARS

Charlotte Mason believed that learning is hierarchical, especially in skill-based subjects like language. When one stage is skipped or not mastered completely, the other stages will be difficult to master. The foundation for language starts long before school, even before birth. Our brain is literally built on language, and the more diverse language you hear as an infant and child, the easier it will be to learn in all areas. Parental talk should come in a variety of forms: singing, poems, reading, and everyday talk. Singing and poems are especially good for  language acquisition; the rhythm, rhyme, and way they draw out syllables and phonemes are especially helpful for language acquisition. 

Parental Talk

In her book Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain, Dana Suskind delves into the findings of a groundbreaking study on language and brain development in preschool age children. What they found was surprising, even for the researchers.

Although academic achievement and intelligence was more prevalent in higher socioeconomic families, it was not the income that made the difference; it was the amount of words children heard per day. “In one hour, the highest socioeconomic status (SES) children heard an average of two thousand words, while children of welfare families heard about six hundred.Differences in parental responses to children were also striking. Highest SES parents responded to their children about 250 times per hour; lowest SES parents responded to their children fewer than 50 times in the same period. But the most significant and most concerning difference? Verbal approval. 

Children in the highest SES heard about forty expressions of verbal approval per hour. Children in welfare homes, about four.” Instead of saying “no,” “stop,” or “don’t do that,” redirect your child and tell them what they can do. Look for the good and verbally recognize it. If a child is consistently told they can’t do things their brain will be shaped to believe it. 

Suskind concludes that “Parent talk is probably the most valuable resource in our world. No matter the language, the culture, the nuances of vocabulary, or the socioeconomic status, language is the element that helps develop the brain to its optimum potential. In the same way, the lack of language is the enemy of brain development.” 

Exposure is Key

The more words children are familiar with, the better they will understand the complex ideas found in the written and spoken word. Think about trying to understand a lecture in a second language. You may understand the words, but the comprehension takes much longer than in your primary language and by the time you understand the sentence, you are two sentences behind the lecturer. Children who do not grow up in a language-rich environment struggle in school because they cannot keep up with lectures and books full of words they are only slightly familiar with. 

Too often adults speak down to children and choose books that have all the rich and interesting vocabulary diluted down to almost nothing. When it comes to early exposure, a word will never be too complex for children. The reason many children do not understand complex words is because they have not been exposed to them. Many adults do not recognize or understand complex words because of the simple fact that they were not exposed to them enough times to become familiar with them.

The Three T’s

How can you improve your own parental talk? Suskind has narrowed it down to these three steps: tune-in, talk more, and take turns. Tune-in to what your child is interested in; you should be spending the majority of your interactions focusing on and talking about what they are interested in rather than what you deem more important. Once you have tuned in to what your child is interested in, talk about it. Describe what it is, how to use it, or point out things they may have overlooked. 

Take turns asking questions and responding; it is important for children to have lots of opportunities to speak and not just be spoken at. This give-and-take is personalized to the child and develops speech in ways that screens never will. Charlotte Mason gave a wonderful example of tuning-in and talking more in her volume,  Home Education:

“Is little Margaret fixing round eyes on a daisy she has plucked? In a second, the daisy will be thrown away, and a pebble or buttercup will charm the little maid. But the mother seizes the happy moment. She makes Margaret see that the daisy is a bright yellow eye with white eyelashes round it; that all the day long it lies there in the grass and looks up at the great sun, never blinking as Margaret would do, but keeping its eyes wide open. And that is why it is called daisy, ‘day’s eye,’ because its eye is always looking at the sun which makes the day. And what does Margaret think it does at night, when there is no sun? It does what little boys and girls do; it just shuts up its eye with its white lashes tipped with pink, and goes to sleep till the sun comes again in the morning. By this time the daisy has become interesting to Margaret; she looks at it with big eyes after her mother has finished speaking, and then, very likely, cuddles it up to her breast or gives it a soft little kiss. Thus the mother will contrive ways to invest every object in the child’s world with interest and delight.” (Vol 1, pg. 141)

Limit Screens

According to the Academy of Pediatrics recommendations, children under the age of two should not be watching screens at all. In a perfect world children would never be exposed to screens, but this is real life and  children will watch a show occasionally or perhaps play on a device. But these should be the occasional treat, not a substitute for responsive caregiving or an antidote to boredom.

During my internship at United Way I worked with the Help Me Grow program aimed at helping parents nurture their child’s development and provide early detection for developmental disorders. I frequently spoke with mothers who were concerned with their child’s delayed speech. The first question we were trained to ask was “How much screen time does your child  get each day?” The vast majority of parents admitted that their young child spent hours each day watching television or playing games on their iPad. “But they are educational apps!” they would insist.

I then explained that young children cannot learn language from a device. Unfortunately, an “educational app” for young children is an oxymoron. It is a marketing buzzword that companies use on well-meaning parents who desperately want to give their children the best start in life. Why are screens detrimental to language acquisition? Because language involves more than just hearing words spoken. 

Language is Multifaceted

Language is a multisensory skill; you need to hear the words spoken, see the mouth and tongue forming words, and physically practice speaking words in a conversation. You may have noticed your child try to touch your mouth or tongue as you speak. Surprisingly, there is a purpose to this strange and maybe annoying action. In her autobiography, Helen Keller describes her experience of learning how to speak by touching her teacher’s mouth and tongue as she spoke. Although she never mastered speech, she was able to closely mimic those movements and gain a rudimentary ability to speak. 

After tuning-in and talking, you should encourage your child to practice speech by conversing with you. Take turns asking questions and speaking. Even when your baby is young and all they can do is babble, listen and respond. Look them in the eyes and show them that what they have to say is important and valued. You may not know what they are saying,  but the desire to communicate is there. 

Now that you understand how to converse with your child, it is time to delve into reading aloud. 

Reading Aloud

“Guard the nursery; let nothing in that has not the true literary flavour; let the children grow up on a few books read over and over, and let them have none, the reading of which does not cost an appreciable mental effort.” (Vol. 5, p. 215)

Reading aloud high-quality literature should start at birth and continue throughout a child’s  life. The question then is not when you should start, but what should be read. Infants and young children love listening to nursery rhymes, poetry and Dr. Seuss books because of the rhythm and rhyme of the words. Give up books that are “twaddle” as Charlotte Mason would say. Unfortunately, many books being made for children today are, in varying degrees, twaddle.  To gauge whether the book is twaddle I ask myself: do I enjoy reading the book? Does it have intelligent ideas or an interesting plot? Does it have rich language or beautiful illustrations? Is the language dumbed down or targeted for children? (E.g. Captain Underpants)

If your child wants to read the same book over, and over, and over again, read it! If the language is rich they will benefit from the constant exposure to rich vocabulary. Children get more from reading a few good books over and over again, than reading many “twaddly” books only once.

Essential Books for the Early Years:

  • Nursery Rhymes (Tomie de Paolo’s Mother Goose)
  • Read Aloud Rhymes 
  • Fairy Tales illustrated by 
  • Aesop’s Fable (Illustrated by Milo Winter or Jerry Pinkney)
  • Beatrix Potter Books:
    The Tale of Peter Rabbit
    The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies
    The Tale of Tom Kitten
    The Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle
    The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher
    Two Bad Mice
    The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
    The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse 
    The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
  • Winnie the Pooh Series by A.A. Milne (we  LOVE the audiobook version)
  • Robert McCloskey Books
  • Fairy Tales by Scott Gustafson
  • James Herriot’s Treasury for Children
  • The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
  • Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virgina Lee Burton
  • The Children’s Book of Virtues by William J. Bennett
  • The Children’s Book of Heroes by William J. Bennett
  • Frances books by Russell Hoban
  • George and Martha James Marshall
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READING + WRITING: THE EARLY YEARS

Language Arts

READING + PHONICS

CHARLOTTE MASON was ahead of her time in many of her philosophies and methods, and it shows in her method of teaching children to read. You can read her words for yourself in volume one of her Home Education series (see pages 199-222)

Ms. Mason believed that children should be taught to read using phonics, although her methods may not look like traditional phonics instruction. I discovered that the method she describes in her book is very similar to the Word Study approach to phonics and spelling. I recommend this as the foundation of reading instruction for Form 1 (ages 6-9) students. Thousands of studies on reading instruction and brain development show that phonics instruction is essential (see Additional Reading at the end of this article). 

Additionally, research shows that although all children learn to read the same way, each child is unique in how much instruction they require–some children need more explicit instruction, others may simply need some basic instructions to get started, while a small percentage (about 5%) will mostly figure it out on their own.

LETTER RECOGNITION + FORMATION

 

Make Lessons Child-Led

When teaching during the early years (ages 0-6 years old), all lessons should be child-led. The child should show interest and desire in learning how to read and write. Please do not coerce or bribe your child. Lessons should be driven by a natural desire to learn how to read. 

“the children who are persons endowed with minds, clamour to be taught to read and write. We can do it with our children if we like, but it must be at the like cost, the exclusion of the intellectual and imaginative interests and joys proper to children, the devotion of dreary hours every day to these dead pursuits. No, let us be content to be the handmaids of Nature for the first five or six years, remembering that enormous as are the tasks she sets the children, she guides them into the performance of each so that it is done with unfailing delight; for gaiety, delight, mirth belong to her method. If a child chooses to read and write before he is six, let him, but do not make him; and when he does begin, there is no occasion to hurry; let him have a couple of years for the task.” (Mason, Three Educational Idylls, 811)

Reading and writing develops just like other skills: some children start early, others start late. Some children master the skill in a week; for others it could take months, even years! You will most probably see pauses and regressions in their learning. However your child develops reading and writing skills, the key is patience and making your relationship the priority. Stop the lesson before the child’s interest wanes, this is a key to maintaining interest in the long-run. In Charlotte Mason’s opinion, the first six years of life should be a “quiet growing time,” and this program is meant to respect that idea.

Materials

You will find that this approach is simple and requires very little materials. I have made many educational purchases through the years and have found that all I really need are these five things:

Reading high-quality books from a young age ignites a passion for reading that no amount of rewards or coercion can replicate. If you want your child to desire the skill of reading, read them good books.

Plain, white printer paper will do. I have included large, lined paper for children to practice letters, but, honestly, they will practice on any paper they get their hands on.

Colored pencils from IKEA are my children’s absolute favorite writing tools. They are large, have rich color, and you can also add water with a paintbrush to make a watercolor effect on the drawings. As a bonus, they are very affordable.

Simple items from around the house will work for manipulatives: sticks from a nature walk, playdough, salt/sand tray, etc. The only manipulative that I am pleased with purchasing is a moveable Montessori alphabet. You could easily replace the moveable alphabet with Bananagram tiles, or create your own alphabet by printing letters on cardstock and laminating them.

A small child-sized chalkboard can be purchased from most craftstores. This is another purchase I recommend because the resistance of the chalk/chalkboard help strengthen hand muscles.

ONE  | Develop Fine Motor Skills

Children should be practicing their fine motor skills on a daily basis. Some activities could include: threading wooden beads on a shoelace, transferring water from bowl to bowl with eyedropper, playing with playdough, and using large tweezers/tongs to transfer objects (cotton balls, beans, pasta, etc) from one container to another. It’s important to be aware that boys’ fine motor skills develop later than girls; some boys may not be ready for writing until 7 years old! Using the above activities, as well as building with Legos, will help strengthen those muscles needed for handwriting.

TWO | Draw in Air

Before you child ever sets pencil to paper, they should draw the letters in the air, and make it a point to write them in the correct order as they would on paper. Ask your child to make the letter in the air with their finger while saying the sound of the letter. They could also use a stick or pencil to write in the air, if they prefer that instead of a finger. You can also use other parts of the body to draw in the air, like nose or feet. Drawing in the air helps the brain visualize the direction and shape of the letter first, without being encumbered with underdeveloped fine motor skills. Saying the letter sound also helps strengthen the correlation between sight and sound.

Next, use manipulatives to form the shape of the letter, like sticks or pencils. Another activity you can do is to roll out playdough “snakes” and use them to form the letters.

THREE | Draw on Chalkboard

After the child has visualized the shape of the letter and formed it using manipulatives, the next step is to draw the letter on a chalkboard.

Using the chalkboard as a guide, the child should write the letter so that it covers the whole chalkboard, top to bottom, while saying the sound of the letter. After writing the letter with chalk, erase it using a small sponge (a sponge from the dollar store cut into small squares). Alternatively, you can use a small tray with sand or salt and the child writes the letter in the sand using their finger.

FOUR | Draw on Paper

Each written lesson starts with gray letters for the child to trace over to get a feel for how the letter is formed. The lined paper is to practice previous letters learned by writing the suggested words. The parent should carefully write the word first, so the child can see the letter formation and have an example to follow.

The goal is for children to develop beautiful handwriting, but this takes time as the muscles grow strong. Instead of criticizing or giving suggestions, simple ask your child which letters they think look best. Ask why they think those letters look better than the others and what they are going to work on next lesson. This is a great opportunity for your child to examine their own work and learn how to improve on their own.

FIVE | Letter Recognition

Now that the child knows letters by sight, you can start playing games with letters to help recognition. Children naturally do this while looking at books and seeing writing around the house. You can intentionally do this by using the 3-period lesson introduced by Maria Montessori.

“This is _____.” Point to the letter and say the name and sound it makes. Ask your child to repeat. Do this a couple of times.

“Point to _____.” Ask your child to find the letter L, for example, in a group of moveable letters. If they point to the wrong one simply say “that is __, you’re looking for___”

“What letter is this?” The last, and consequently the most difficult, step is to point to a letter and ask the child to tell you it’s name and sound. If they don’t know just tell them the sound, and have them repeat (i.e. start at step one).

A game that is a favorite with my kids is alphabet bingo. The Peaceful Press has FREE bingo boards here.

When your child has learned upper-case letters, use the same lesson structure to learn lower-case. Match the lower-case to the upper-case letters as you learn them. To practice these skills, you can play matching/memory games. My boys also enjoy playing bingo with a mixture of letters on the boards. For instruction on how to form lower-case letters I recommend Italics Handwriting by Penny Gardner, but don’t start your child writing on lined paper with a pencil until they have mastered writing letters in the air and on a chalkboard. Starting with paper and pencil too early can result in sloppy handwriting, not to mention a distaste for the subject. Let your child use chunky pencils and paper on their own, but don’t it until 6-7 years old when their fine motor skills have developed.

You can supplement handwriting lessons with Creative Form Drawing. I have seen a huge improvement in my son’s letter formation after using form drawing along with handwriting.