William, a quiet kindergartner, sat in the corner of the classroom alone. Silently, he observed his classmates and his teachers while methodically twirling a block in his hands. He reluctantly engages with other students or his teachers. He’s never caused a problem and often is simply forgotten. He obeys and follows directions but moves in his own methodical pace. He has been identified as a slow learner due to his slow development in speech.
The American Speech Language and Hearing Association (2013) identifies the methodologies by which four to five year olds develop speech. At this stage of development, children should be able to use sentences which contain many details, tell stories and communicate efficiently with their peers. Additionally, they ought to be able to pronounce most sounds correctly including rhyming words, letters, numbers and mimic the grammar used within their household. Christie, Enz and Vukelich (2010) expound on this developmental stage by adding dramatic play and the ability to use both pretend communication such as in role playing as well as metacommunication skills.
Researchers have investigated and determined the best practices to develop language skills such as displaying posters and maps in addition to student work on the walls of the classroom. Charts and visual dictionaries or word posters on the walls added to language development. Another classroom teacher efficiently used the audio and visual technology for the development of language skills including computer games (Guthrie and Perkins, 2006). Christie, Enz and Vukelich (2010) share other methods such as daily reading to children by the teacher to model language skills. During these reading opportunities, educators need to encourage the children to discuss the text through making comments, sharing their feelings and thoughts and even to ask questions about what they are reading.
In addition to reading to students, children need to be encouraged to share what they are reading. Lucy, a second grade teacher, created book clubs for her students. At any given point during the school year, several book clubs were operating. These book clubs were loosely organized, placing the ultimate control with the students. Lucy had students share their favorite books that they were reading independently and then followed by students expressing an interest in one book or another. The book club leaders consistently changed through the school year, providing an opportunity for each student to lead a discussion. Students demonstrated more interest in reading while participating in the book club groups than when pushed into the pre-determined language acquisition curriculum. Through book club meeting, students learned language skills by the example of their peers and their teacher who also shared what she was reading despite the difficulty of the text.
Girolametto and Weitzman (2007) promote language development programs which support and enhance the opportunities for peer communication, reminding educators that learning is a social experience. Students need exposure to rich experiences of language education through social activities such as presentations, large and small group discussions and even role playing. Role playing should be encouraged in different contexts from classroom exposure to recess and free time. Researchers have documented that as students play with each other using their language skills, the students “teach each other about the functions, features, and meaning of print in play” (Christie, Enz & Vukelich, 2010, p. 26). These early positive experiences with language and role playing transferred to a “strong and positive impact on writing quality” (ibid., p. 27).
Educators need to demonstrate these opportunities and support language development while making opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds, including learning disabilities, cultures and ethnicity. Creating an atmosphere of respect and understanding needs to be a significant goal of every educator (Morgan & Jones, 2007). Strategies to develop positive learning environments with a diversity of students can be achieved through simple yet poignant methods such as examining family heritage, learning the origins of one’s name, initiating cooperative learning environments and involving parents, grandparents, family members as well as community members. Students can actively research their heritage through investigation, interviewing family members, internet research, library trips and through the involvement of genealogical foundations.
Positive learning environments and experiences are created as students maintain positive encounters with their mentors (Brookfield, 1995) and as their learning environments cross with their personal learning styles. There are many different models of learning which help students to identify their styles in relation to their environment such as multiple intelligences, Honey-Mumford, Kolb, etc. However, the greatest asset is simply allowing the student the opportunity to interact within a variety of learning situations, peers and with adults (Christie, Enz & Vukelich, 2010) to determine where they feel most comfortable. Through this encouragement, students have the ability to learn about themselves so they will participate in the many facets and interactions with print.
Knowles (1975) proposed that within the formal classroom, students require a particular type of environment. He called it a warm learning climate. Such a warm learning climate possesses mutual respect for individual experience and creativity shaping a “warm, mutually respectful, dialogic and mutually trustful” (p. 29) environment. It is conducive to communication where participants may be actively involved and thereby attributing to language development. “No doubt about it, the environment is a powerful teacher” (Christie, Enz & Vukelich, 2010, p. 23).
Embedded within the warm learning environment is the responsibility of the educator to provide a rich environment filled with print, including many diverse materials to support language acquisition. Pool and Carter (2011) provide specific methods in which to provide print-rich environments to develop language in young children. A literacy center where a wide variety of books are available to students with low shelves and a comfortable reading space encourage students to investigate written language within text. Role playing can be encouraged through a play area or center focusing on drama including scripts, props and other materials. Writing can be develop within a writing center which displays appropriate tools like crayons, markers, magnetic letters, a variety of paper, chalkboards and even white boards. The center could proudly display the names of each student in an effort to help younger students experiment in writing their names.
However, language acquisition does not need to be separated from other domains. With little difficulty, educators can simply embed language acquisition tools into other domains. For instance, within a science unit or a center for science explorations, students can be encouraged to develop their language through recording their information and participating in the experimental methods. Teachers can make available scientific journals for students to record their thoughts. Children can also gather together in small and large groups to explore their discoveries and share their experiences. Such development within other domains is referred to as a whole language approach.
However, when planning activities and a language acquisition curriculum, the preparation needs to be centered around the four aspects of language acquisition, namely oral language, phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge and print awareness (Christie, Enz & Vukelich, 2010). The State of Virginia (2013) includes five standards associated with language acquisition.
- First, listening and speaking skills which include the need to understand social awareness and communication within social contexts.
- Second, phonological awareness and knowledge of the alphabet as children learn how to recognize their letters and the sounds associated with each.
- Third, students need to be able to construct meaning surrounding the concepts of words, punctuations and sentence construction or print awareness and concepts.
- Fourth, comprehension is an essential skill for language development which are developed through interactions with text, peers and adults.
- Lastly, early writing skills are associated with language and literacy development which are foundational to later writing abilities and skills.
The development of curriculum in language and literacy instruction has developed throughout the past several decades to include more opportunities for students to interact with language, especially the oral language skills. However, when looking at the need for oral language development which is most effectively demonstrated through teachers, a gap arises in the urgency to provide more mentors and examples. Within a kindergarten setting, either public or private institution, the current recommended ration of teacher to student ratio should be 1 to 12 students. Despite this recommendation, many classrooms do not supply these educators or at least fail to provide highly qualified individuals (National Association of Education of Young Children, 2013).
Knowing that educators cannot cover every content area with equal attention, discrimination needs to be used in evaluating the use of classroom time. The instructor needs to continue to remember the purpose of education which is to teach the student and not the content. The most optimal methodology to accomplish this is through positive learning environments and positive learning experiences (Knowles, 1975) and including a print rich classroom environment which is built upon prior experiences of students.
William, our quiet kindergartner, acquired the necessary language skills. His teachers met his needs by recognizing his reserved nature was not attributed to a learning disability to a simple lack of invitation to participate. With each invitation, Liam became more involved with his peers and his learning community. He made the connections between the written and oral language and developed lifelong relationships with his educators who reached out to the small child in the corner.
American Speech Language and Hearing Association. (2013). Four to five years. Retrieved from http://www.asha.org/public/speech/development/45.htm
Christie, J. F., Enz, B. J., & Vukelich, C. (2010). Teaching language literacy: Preschool through the Elementary Grades. Upper Saddle, NJ: Allyn and Bacon.
Girolametto, L. & Weitzman, E. (2007). Promoting peer interaction skills: Professional development for early childhood educators and preschool teachers. Topics in Language Disorders, 27(2), 93-110.
Guthrie, J. & Perkins, S. (2006). How important is a specialist classroom environment for language learning? The New Zealand Language Teacher, 32, 1-7.
Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: a guide for learners and teachers. Parsippany, New Jersey: Globe Fearon Press.
Morgan, H. & Jones, R. (2007/2008 Winter). Classroom ideas sparklers. Childhood Education, 84(2), 94-98.
National Association of Education of Young Children. (2013). Teacher child ratios. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/files/academy/file/Teacher-Child_Ratio_Chart_9_16_08.pdf
Pool, J. & Carter, D. (2011). Creating print rich learning centers. Teaching Young Children, 4(4), 18-21.
State of Virginia. (2013). Language and literacy. Retrieved from http://www.dss.virginia.gov/files/division/cc/provider_training_development/intro_page/publications/milestones/milestones_individually/05.pdf
By Tracy Atkinson
Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.