Receptive and Expressive Language

Many adults think that language development is something that automatically occurs just by a child’s being present during conversations and television viewing.  This is not so.  Children need to practice their language skills through meaningful interactions with adults and other children.  Early Educators must make language fun. Reading to children is one of the best ways to promote language development.  It teaches vocabulary in meaningful ways, and then talking with children about what you have read allows the child to practice using the new words in conversation.

Language Development can be divided into two separate parts: Receptive Language (Listening & Understanding) and Expressive Language (Speaking & Communicating). Language begins from day one and should be an emphasis in all early childhood classrooms.  Children’s ability to understand and use language is considered one of the main indicators of school success as well as success later in life.  Teachers should strive to increase the quantity of words that the children understand and use, as well as emphasize conversational skills.

Receptive language is the ability to understand language as it is heard or read. Studies show that between 30-38 months, children’s vocabulary more than doubles and continues to quickly grow.  According to researchers Gardner-Neblett, “The interactions children have with adults influences early brain growth and learning, giving early childhood educators a crucial opportunity to provide children with interactions that can support language and communication”.  Early Childhood Educators should be engaging children in language and communication skills everyday throughout the day.  Teachers should be asking open-ended questions of the children, boosting conversational skills, and parallel talking (describing what a child is, or you are, doing), extending children’s sentences to include more descriptive words (It’s a dog.  Yes, it’s a big red dog).

Expressive language is the ability to use language to communicate one’s wants or needs.  It is the ability to use vocabulary and make sentences.   Teachers should be talking to preschool children on a variety of subjects and intentionally introducing the children to new vocabulary.  Language experiences should be made meaningful to the children and vocabulary should be part of and not separate from these experiences.  Teachers should use strategies that extend children’s conversations in meaningful ways every day, all day long.   Children need to be able to practice talking to each other and adults, naturally, often, and freely.

The website Clarity, has good resources to show what is considered developmentally appropriate language skills for preschool aged children. And remember, if ever a parent or you as the teacher has a concern about a child’s language development, it may be necessary to have a professional assessment done.

Activities to promote Speaking & Communicating

  • Follow grammatically correct rules and model good language.
  • Read to children often and share a definition or picture of new words (You may not be able to take a child to a cave but you could point it out in the story and say, “A cave is a hole in a mountain where a bear might live”.
  • Compare and contrast new words with words the children have already been introduced to.  (We said an aquarium is a habit for fish.  A pond is also a habitat where fish live).
  • Read more than one book on a subject to help reinforce a concept.Use new vocabulary throughout the day so the children hear it in different sentences.
  • Encourage the children to use the new vocabulary throughout the day. 
  • Talk with children about subjects that interest them and use this as an opportunity to teach new vocabulary.
  • Read to children often on a variety of subjects.  Include fiction or informational books.
  • After reading a story ask who, what, where, when, and why questions.
  • Help children to find ways to relate new ideas from stories and conversations to their own lives.
  • Children learn through repetition, repetition, and repetition.
  • Teach children opposites/antonyms.Teach children words with similar meanings/synonyms.
  • Teach by showing the definitions of words (stomp, saunter, march, run, tiptoe).
  • Encourage conversation throughout the day. 
  • Intentionally use this time to teach new vocabulary.
  • Write children’s dictations to their pictures and artwork.
  • Interject new words or bigger words into children’s play (I see you are constructing a ramp with those blocks).
  • Take the child’s words and help them summarize their thoughts or link to prior knowledge.
  • Finish a sentence or add to the child’s sentence making it more complex.   These extensions help children build stronger vocabularies.
  • Sing songs; do finger plays, and other word related activities.
  • Teachers who use DEPOT with young children enhance the children’s communication skills.  (D=describe what you are seeing or doing.  E=expand on a subject by adding new vocabulary or information.  P=comment positively about what a child is saying or doing.  O=ask open-ended questions that require children to think, describe, observe, or find a solution.  T=take turns in a conversation, aim for 5+ back and forth). 

Activities to promote Listening & Understanding

  • When speaking to a child, address him/her by name and look them in the eye.
  • Call objects and people by their correct names.
  • Before reading a story to the children, take a moment to explain any words that might be new vocabulary.  And then stop again while reading the story to point out the vocabulary word/s.
  • Read to the children often.  Stories are full of new vocabulary and interesting words.
  • Follow the children’s interests in identifying new vocabulary words.  Use your thematic unit to expand the children’s vocabulary.  (On the farm there is a burro or donkey).
  • While talking with a child, help keep her on topic. By Giving reminders or prompts if the child goes off subject.
  • Talk to your children about what they are doing while they interact in all your classroom centers.  (I see you are building your blocks tall, what are you making?)
  • Carry on conversations with the children.  Model what good listening looks like (expressing interest, asking questions, and making eye contact).
  • Play games where children must follow simple directions (Simon Says, If You’re Wearing Green… When the music stops-everybody must freeze!).
  • Give multiple step directions to the children to follow.  (Put your coat in your cubby and have a seat on the carpet.  Make sure your flush the toilet, wash your hands, and turn off the light please.  First we are going to draw around the shape and then we will cut it out with scissors).
  • Play games that emphasize phonological awareness.  (Capital T, small t, what begins with /t/?  Rhyming Words Sound the Same-hold up two pictures, do these rhyme?    Eye Spy with My Little Eye something…).
  • Ask children questions about a story that you have just read.  (Name some of the animals that the little boy met, Why was the little rabbit sad?  Who came to the house when the cake was burning in the oven?).
  • Play Categories with the children.  This helps children learn how words are interrelated.  Try ‘things that are cold’, ‘things we wear’, ‘and things that are smaller than a cat’.
  • Play games using positional words. (Put the cube in the box, on the box, under the box).
  • When you ask a question, give the children time to formulate a response.  Count to ten in your head before repeating the question.
  • Make riddles for the children to guess (I live under the ground, fishermen use me to catch fish, I am squirmy). 
  • Ask who, what, where, when, and why questions.  (Who drove you to school, where do fish live, what is your favorite color, when do you brush your teeth, why do we need to exercise?).
  • When you read a story, talk about it afterwards.  What happened first, next, last?
  • Make a visual schedule that the children can see.  Show them where you are on the schedule and what will come next.  (We are eating snack and then we will go outside to play).
  • Books, songs, and finger plays with rhyming words all help children to understand that language has many different sounds.
  • Reduce background noise so that children can hear language being used in the classroom. 
  • Read, read, read, and then talk about the story.