By Lisa Mulliken
Recently my daughter and granddaughter were visiting, and we were all on the couch watching a movie. My granddaughter was cuddled up next to me and very engrossed in the movie. Her mother, on the other side of the couch, said to her, “Tell Mimi what you did at Pop Pop’s house.” When she didn’t receive a response, she asked her again. Still no response. So, she asked her one more time and my granddaughter turned her head, looked at her mom, and said, “Mom, it’s my mouth so I’ll use it to talk when I want to.” She then turned her head back to the movie. I know what you are thinking, she’s sassy! But she is also right! How many times do we ask children questions that they aren’t interested in answering or expect them to engage in conversations with us when their attention is on something else? How often do we ask questions, such as, “What color is that?” or “How many do you have?”
We learn more about children’s interests and abilities by noticing what captures their attention, and we better support their language development when we engage in conversations and ask questions when they are engaged with us in a shared activity of their choosing. For example, you notice an older toddler is engrossed in stacking blocks. So, instead of asking, “What shape is that block?” you:
- Introduce new concepts and vocabulary, such as arch, cylinder, gravity or balance, as you talk about the block structure.
- Use directional language (behind, under, inside, on top).
- Engage in verbal play, such as “ready, set, go!”, as the child knocks the tower down.
- Encourage the child to persist in stacking blocks (Your tower is so high! You can do it! One more block!).
- Encourage problem solving as you ask, “How can we make the tower stronger, so it doesn’t fall over?” or “What would happen if……?”
- Talk about opposites (up/down, tall/short, heavy/light).
- Repeat and expand on children’s language.
- Ask open ended questions that encourage back-and -forth exchanges.
By getting down on a child’s level to engage and talk about the activities they are interested in, teachers can support children’s language development and learn more about how the child sees the world. When we take advantage of children’s interests to encourage communication, they are more likely to “use their mouths!” to talk to us!