I see it in the hallways every single day – students walking in lines, heads sometimes down, with “quiet fingers” up or “bubbles” in their mouths. And every day I see teachers, principals, counselors praising these lines. I hear comments like, “Wow! Look how quiet you all are!” or “Oh my goodness, is that Pre-K? You all are so quiet!” It is interesting to me how we praise the silence. I see the same thing in classrooms; the quieter the room, the higher the praise. It seems to make sense right? We want our students to be orderly and hard-working, and the quieter they are the more they’re learning. Right?
The problem with this praise is that it prioritizes silence from students rather than vocalization. And this is the opposite of what we should be doing. At any age, but particularly in early childhood, giving students the opportunity to voice their thoughts and questions by conversing with others is an invaluable skill that can only be learned through practice. Many have asked me, “Is allowing students to practice conversing in places like walking in hallways that important?”
The location might be up for debate, but research shows that the need for practicing conversation is not. On average a child from a low-income household enters Pre-K at age 4 having heard 30 million less words than a child from a middle to high-income household. 30 million less words (Hart & Risley 2004). Not to mention that by age 4, a child is at the tail end of the highest period of brain plasticity that they will experience in their lifetime. The Urban Child Institute’s research suggests that millions upon millions of neurons are formed during this time and that the potential for neural development is at its highest during our first four years. This means that a child will hear and eventually use the words they hear; the more words they hear as they are learning to speak, the more likely they are to use and understand those words later on. And the more words they use and understand, the easier time they will have reading for meaning, that is, reading and comprehending what they’ve read. It appears one of the most effective ways to overcome this gap is to enable our kids in the early years to not only hear words but to use them as well.
All else aside, everyone seems to agree on one thing: the development of a strong vocabulary through conversation imparts numerous benefits to young children. One of these benefits is highlighted in research conducted by Pelletier and Astington (2004) which found that “[i]n conversation, children develop the language needed to make sense of print, specifically decontextualized language – or the language of the “not here and not now.” The more words young children hear parents, teachers, and other influencers use, the more they begin to understand and use those words; this ability to hear and gain understanding of words can then translate to literacy.
As young children begin reading, many words are unfamiliar to them; however, knowing how to find the meaning of a word by how it is used in conversation applies directly to reading comprehension. It is much easier to define unknown words when you can use their context to define them and thus understand all of what is being read rather than pieces and parts, which can confuse and muddle comprehension. It is no surprise that other studies have shown that this skill termed “narrative comprehension and production” relates to academic performance in school, especially to learning to read and write (O’Neil, Pearce, & Pick 2004).
So how do we have rich, meaningful conversation in our classrooms? There are two strategies needed to successfully develop vocabulary in the classroom. The first is an understanding of “Tier II” vocabulary or high-frequency/multiple meaning words. Tier II words are described by Thaashida L. Hutton, M.S. as “words [that] occur often in mature language situations such as adult conversations and literature, and therefore strongly influence speaking and reading.” To most effectively teach Tier II words teachers should compile a list of about 5-10 for a week or two and commit to using these words in planned conversation, teaching time, and informal conversations with students. To facilitate this, teachers can post these words around the room, model how to use them in conversation and point out when students use these words in conversation.
The second element is a commitment to engaging students in conversation as much as possible. This means engagement with both us and their peers. This is a difficult task to accomplish each day, especially when the expectation is that we have quiet lines and quiet classrooms. It requires determination and practice on the teacher and parent’s parts. For more specific tips on easy ways to create meaningful conversation with students see these articles by Janette Pelletier and Early Childhood Australia.
Conversation, not silence, is the most powerful tool we can use to help our students from low-income backgrounds overcome the word gaps they so often develop early in life. I encourage administrators and other teachers to think about these facts the next time they are tempted to quiet students in moments where great conversation can be had. Our kids have so little time to develop these life-long skills that we cannot afford to always be silent.
By Meagan Fowler
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“Silence” picture credited to http://www.walkingtowardsthelight.org/listen-to-the-silence/