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Let's Talk About Eggplants

The first mother wheels her shopping cart down the produce aisle, where her Kindergartner spots an eggplant and asks what it is. The mother shushes her child, ignoring the question.

A second mother, faced with the same question, responds curtly, "Oh, that's an eggplant, but we don't eat it."

The third mother coos, "Oh, that's an eggplant. It's one of the few purple vegetables." She picks it up, hands it to her son, and encourages him to put it on the scale. "Oh, look, it's about two pounds!" she says. "And it's $1.99 a pound, so that would cost just about $4. That's a bit pricey, but you like veal parmesan, and eggplant parmesan is delicious too. You'll love it. Let's buy one, take it home, cut it open. We'll make a dish together."

This case study, executed by Phyllis Hunter (2009), illuminates the variety of ways in which mothers engage with their children. In my recent research on how children acquire language, this anecdote remained at the forefront of my mind. Harris, Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek (2010) highlight six principles of language learning that highlight why the first mother's response is so paramount to language development. While their research focuses on infants through kindergartenders, I found the underpinnings quite relevent when thinking about teaching vocabulary to older students. And as vocabulary is a predictor of comprehension, and often a neglected component of a balanced literacy program, I felt compelled to share the research with you!

Six Principles of Vocabulary Learning

Harris, Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek, 2010

1) Children learn words they hear most frequently. In fact, 86-98% of what children under three years old say is exactly what they hear their caregivers saying. And haven't we all had the experience of a toddler repeating something they really shouldn't be?!

The temptation is to use child-directed or infant-directed speech when speaking to our littlest ones and while there is incredible value in this, children also need to be exposed to complex language, novel words, and sophisticated grammar patterns. Reading books is a fantastic way to do this. Sitting children in front of a screen is not (and is actually harmful in language development).

2) Children learn words about things that are interesting to them. Parents and educators will best build their child's vocabulary and grammatical knowledge if they talk about objects and events that their child is looking at as opposed to redirecting their attention elsewhere.

Peer-to-peer dialogue and socio-dramatic play is a highly effective way of building the language skills required for conventional literacy learning. Children who are given the option of choosing activities with peers will engage fully and use language to negotiate the rules and expectation. These types of conversations are exceptionally beneficial as children participate in literacy-rich classrooms.

3) Children learn language in responsive contexts. Research shows time and again that when parents and educators consistently interact in responsive, sensitive, warm-hearted ways, not only does vocabulary flourish but children demonstrate social skills such as cooperation, acceptance, sensitivity and responsiveness. Children who hear more discouragements or negative comments from caretakers consequently have trouble demonstrating such social skills and using the language tied to such behaviors.

4) Children learn words in meaningful contexts. Learning words in an integrated fashion fosters retention and proper usage of such words more than learning lists of isolated words. For young students, grocery lists, lists of animals seen at a zoo, etc. will prompt children to remember and use these words. Explicit teaching of vocabulary words in isolation won't provide us with the desire result of retention and transfer of words.

5) Children learn words when they have a clear understanding of the definition. When children (and adults) hear words and are only somewhat sure of the its meaning, they are less likely to remember or attempt to use the word. Repeated exposure of words in a variety of contexts that clearly demonstrate the meaning of the word is critical as children develop vocabulary. While some children can infer word meanings quite accurately, for others providing a clear description and visual or kinesthetic model (when possible) is pivotal in acquiring vocabulary.

When children ask "What's that?" they are not seeking the name of the item. They are seeking its function, its origin, how it was made, why we need one, etc. Engage them in a conversation!

6) Children learn vocabulary and grammar in tandem. Vocabulary predicts grammar and grammar predicts vocabulary. Children gain information about a word through the grammatical context in which it is used. And children understand the nuances of grammar when they comprehend the language in a sentence.

Repeated readings of beloved texts, overheard conversations between adults, and child-directed speech are incredibly beneficial when working on building the language of little learners. Conversations between children and adults that contain sophisticated grammar and novel words are crucial. Don't expect your students to repeat your language or grammar immediately but consistent conversations and exposure to such language is key. So the next time your student asks you a seemingly small question (What's that?), engage her in a excited conversation!

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