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.
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)
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.
“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