Last week I had the privilege of watching something very special; an early childhood teacher helping a two-year-old to put on her shoes and socks in preparation for going outside. Yes, I can imagine what you are already thinking, ‘so what was so special about that’? A fair question and one I will attempt to answer through this blog post.
Firstly, let me share some of what I observed in a little more detail. The teacher, Kelly, sits down facing Ngaire, who has brought Kelly her shoes and socks to be put on.
Kelly: Ok what do we put on first? (curiosity in her voice)
Ngaire: (holding one sock) Shoes.
Kelly: We put our shoes on first? Ok then let’s put our shoes on. (She reaches out to start doing this).
Ngaire: (Holds a sock close to her face and looks inside)
Kelly: What’s in your sock? Let’s have a look.
Ngaire: (Puts the sock up to Kelly’s nose)
Kelly: (playful and expressive) POOOOOH! What’s that smell?
Ngaire: (Laughs and puts the sock to Kelly’s nose again)
Ngaire: (Laughs even louder and returns the sock to Kelly’s nose again)
This back and forward interaction goes on a further three times, each time with Ngaire’s laughter getting louder, until Kelly stops reacting and switches back to the business of putting on the shoes.
After further exchanges in which Kelly protests nicely at having to do all the work of getting Ngaire’s shoes on, she asks Ngaire again to help her. All this time, Ngaire is looking at Kelly, smiling, laughing and responding. She is clearly totally engaged and enjoying this back and forth exchange.
Kelly: (Holding shoe for right foot) Where does it need to go? (The tone of her voice and facial expression suggests this is a game)
Ngaire: (Presents left foot – no sock – for Kelly to put the right foot shoe on)
Kelly: (Puts shoe on and then sock over top of the shoe) Is that right? Is that how we do it? And then we put the sock on, eh. There we go.
Ngaire: (Laughter. Pauses, looks concerned)
Kelly: What’s wrong with that?
Ngaire: (Pulls the sock off) Wrong feet.
Kelly: Ahhh, wrong feet! You show me. I don’t know. (Shrugs)
Ngaire: (Undoes shoe and attempts to put it on right foot) It goes there. (Looks up at Kelly with a big grin)
This was an interaction (among several I have observed) in which Kelly was a responsive partner in a conversation that had a definite ongoing ‘serve and return’ pattern to it. In the case of Ngaire, who is still learning to string words together, gesture also played a key role in her contribution to the conversation.
What made this interaction so special and memorable for me was not that Ngaire knew a bit about putting shoes on the right way, although that was impressive too. It was the skills and dispositions that Kelly demonstrated as a facilitator and teacher of oral language. She used several strategies that are known to encourage interaction and communication, yet in my experience are often overlooked by teachers.
Here is a summary of the qualities I observed in Kelly’s practice:
- She makes time to turn a fairly routine task into a fun-filled, engaging experience by joining in the play.
- She positions herself face-to-face with Ngaire to show she is present
- She doesn’t simply follow Ngaire’s lead; she adds to it.
- She uses playfulness, expression, surprise and curiosity to sustain the talk and conversation.
- She gives Ngaire more reasons to communicate by putting the shoe on the wrong foot and the sock over the top of the shoe.
- She helps build Ngaire’s vocabulary by imitating and expanding single words to full sentences. For example, when Ngaire says “Shoes”, Kelly comes back with, “We put our shoes on first? Ok then let’s put our shoes on”.”
So, what has this episode got to do with literacy — as the title of this post suggests – when there is not an alphabet or a writing instrument in sight?
I think James Britton 1, answered this eloquently and accurately back in 1970 with his proposition that, ‘…reading and writing float on a sea of talk’ ( p164). What he was suggesting, and what has been confirmed over and over again by more recent studies 2, is that to be a confident and competent reader and writer you first have to become a confident and competent talker and listener. Aside from the obvious social and emotional benefits, talk introduces children to the words they later learn to read and write. Importantly, talk is the outward expression of thinking; it is also how we process and remember information. This last point comes with a caveat though. Without opportunities to speak as well as listen, the development of this all important thinking is limited.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that talk and conversation are the best predictors of later success during the school years, oral language remains the neglected Cinderella of the components (oral, visual and written) that are necessary to become literate in any language. To illustrate this here are some examples of what I often experience in my travels around early childhood services.
- I see plenty of planning for activities and experiences, far less for the new vocabulary that could be introduced alongside these.
- I see teachers reserving stories, songs, chants, rhymes and word games for large group mat times when informal, spontaneous small groups for these same activities would give children richer opportunities to participate actively.
- I hear teachers saying they feel guilty if they spend too much time talking to one or two children, not appreciating that these conversations are probably the best gift for learning they can offer.
- I hear and see teachers responding to parent expectations for literacy learning (often expressed as alphabet knowledge) with exercises and worksheets when they could be doing so much more towards achieving this outcome by adhering to James Britton’s notion that reading and writing ‘float on a sea of talk’
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said, ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. We have a situation in New Zealand now where new entrant teachers are telling us that many children are starting school with insufficient oral language competency to successfully begin the formal reading and writing process. Importantly, the negative impact of this on learning and social competence is frequently cumulative as children move through the schooling system and beyond. While, the reasons behind new entrant teachers’ concerns are often multi-faceted, it is worth considering that early childhood teachers, in particular, are in the very privileged position of teaching the age group most receptive to language learning.
If there is one message I hope you will take from this blogpost, it is that you grasp this privilege firmly with both hands so that children aren’t confined to a limited world both now and in their future. A starting point for doing this would be to give at least as much attention to the quality of adult-child talk and conversation in your practice, professional learning and discussions, as you give to things like alphabets, narrative assessment and planning activities.
Kelly teaches at First Steps Everglade Babies Childcare, Manukau, Auckland.
1 Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press
2 van Hees, J. (2007). Expanding oral language in the classroom. Wellington: NZCER.