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Grounding Experiences in Language: Expanding a Child’s World

Children’s language development is dependent upon exploration and their growing ability to understanding the world they inhabit. It is when children learn to listen, question, and to formulate and test their own assumptions that learning occurs.

By actively engaging with new experiences, children deepen their knowledge about the world and, in addition, expand their vocabulary and understanding of previously acquired words and knowledge. Not all experiences are created equally, however, and an important component of a quality early childhood literacy program is to include a variety of experiences that children can engage in throughout the year.

While every experience a child has contains the potential to deepen their knowledge, it is not enough to simply expose a child to new experiences. It is essential to immerse and ground these experiences in conversation.

Hart & Risley (1995), in their landmark study on vocabulary differences amongst children, talk about the concept of “parent talk.” “Parent talk” is when “a parent defines and labels what children should notice and think about the world, their family, and themselves and suggest how interesting and important various objects, events, and relationships are.”

In this same vein, it is important that teachers engage in this kind of “discovery talk” with young children. It is not enough to have a block corner in the classroom or to take a class trip to a museum without first helping children identify and understand the experiences they will have or help them label the work they have created.

Have conversations with children about what they might experience. So many times, we give children instructions and expectations about their behavior, but we don’t take the time to talk about what the child might see, hear, or touch. If you add a new art material to the classroom, take time to brainstorm with the children about what kind of magical objects they might create!

Help children talk about their experiences. Whether they choose to spend choice time at the sand table, or you’re heading out as a class to the local science center, each experience has specific words that help the child build a better understanding of what is occurring. They’ll also be able to better anchor the experience as a reference for the next time it occurs.

A variety of experiences will help children learn new vocabulary, give them practice talking about new things, and help to connect their thoughts in meaningful ways so they are able to interact with parents, with other adults, and with other children.

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Krystyann Krywko specializes in education research, and focuses on literacy, and on hearing loss and the impact it has on children and families. She holds an Ed. D in International Education Development from Teachers College, Columbia University; where she was a Spencer Fellow for the 2005 cohort. She has more than 10 years of early childhood teaching experience.

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