Oral Language Experiences
for Young Learners

Dr. Rebecca Palacios

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When your child reads, he or she looks at the written words on a page and decides what spoken words the written words represent. But that doesn’t help him understand what he is reading unless he also knows the meanings of those spoken words.

In fact, research has demonstrated that learning to read depends critically on a young learner’s oral vocabulary. The size of a child’s oral vocabulary determines not only the ability to understand what is read, but also the ability to sound words out, since sounding out a familiar word is much easier than sounding out a word that one has never heard or heard only a few times.

There are actually many ways to develop a child’s oral language skills, and different children learn in different ways. Here are some approaches that I have found to be effective with many children over the years:

One useful approach is based on the fact that young children are very curious about the world around them. That curiosity can lead to many opportunities to create valuable language experiences, as you talk to your child and answer questions about the things that are present in his or her environment.

For example, some wonderful language-building opportunities are provided by the fruits and vegetables you see in the grocery store. You can talk about their colors, their textures, their sizes, and how they are grown. There are often stickers on the fruits and vegetables that tell you where they are from. When you tell your child about these stickers, you can talk about geography and the parts of the world where the fruits and vegetables have been grown and shipped from. And while you’re at it, you can talk about healthy eating! Later on, you can build upon this experience by reading one of the many children’s books that talk about plants and their life cycles.

Language experiences such as this, which include touching, smelling, hearing, tasting, and seeing, will help your child remember the language he or she has heard because it is connected to one of your child’s senses. These language experiences also set the stage for important reading skills like recalling, comprehending, classifying, sequencing, and retelling stories.

Of course, you don’t have to go shopping to build language. As you drive, talk about the signs, the colors of the cars, and the businesses on the sides of the roads. As you cook, talk about the ingredients you are using. When you take a walk in a park, talk about the characteristics of the people, pets, and plants that you see.

When you aren’t talking—sing! In addition to the vocabulary words a child can learn from songs, the rhythms and rhymes of music help your child to notice how words can sound similar and different. Best of all, you don’t have to be a great singer to sing to and with your child—it is the language that counts.

Language experiences can be especially enriching when they are related to the culture of one’s family, community, or country. For instance, when families come together to make tamales, they can talk about how the tamalada process has evolved since their great-grandmothers ground the corn to make the masa and they chopped the meat for the tamales by hand or using a hand grinder. These conversations can help your child learn how language is not only used to describe but also to share stories, feelings, and values. You can reinforce such an experience afterward by asking your child to create a drawing about it and to talk to you about what he or she has drawn.

In truth, almost any experience in a child’s life can become a rich language experience—all you have to do is add the language!

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