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Oral Language and Vocabulary


“The extent of classroom language support, in the form of stimulating and responsive interactions has been identified as the single most important aspect of preschool programs in relation to child language and literacy development” (Howes et al., 2008; Mashburn et al., 2008).

Oral language is the foundation of learning to read and write. If a child’s world only provides labels of objects and no descriptive terms for those objects, that child’s language will be impacted (e.g., balloon vs. big, round, floating, red balloon). If the language that a child hears is only directives or behavior management phrases, that child’s language is impacted (e.g., Come over here. Stop that!). Children in early childhood education settings need to acquire speaking and listening skills in fun and meaningful ways. Research tells us that children who do not develop strong oral language skills during this time will start to fall behind before they start school (Hart & Risley, 2003). Children need strong adult models of language and vocabulary to ensure that they become “owners” and “users” of language. This means that classrooms need to provide authentic speaking opportunities that allow children to talk throughout the course of the day and that teachers need to take time to talk with children about books, language, concepts, and activities. Engaging others in conversations involves asking questions, listening, and responding using both verbal and nonverbal expressions.

One easy technique that helps extend conversations is to “strive for five” exchanges when conversing with children. This means that you each take a minimum of five turns in the conversation. Teachers can enhance children’s oral language and vocabulary development by teaching new words in context, providing activities that allow children to use new words, scaffolding language for children by asking open-ended questions, expanding on what children have to say, and by playing with children. Center times and meal times are great times to have conversations with children that help them see how conversations can occur in authentic settings. Overall, children’s experiences and growing knowledge of the world around them provides endless opportunities for expanding receptive, expressive, and definitional vocabulary, and puts them on the road to reading success as vocabulary is one of the most important predictors of early reading achievement.