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The Role of Oral Language in Raising Happy Kids

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Firstly, we must understand that the pre-school years (3-5 year olds) are an important stage of language development that speech pathologists refer to as the ‘talking to learn’ period. During this period, children are no longer ‘learning to talk’ and instead use their oral language skills for thinking.

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We all want the same thing for our children – to be ‘happy’. Happiness is defined by positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

Happy kids have a positive well-being and grow up knowing; they are kind, they are smart, and they are important. So how do we instil these attributes in our children?

Talking to Learn

Firstly, we must understand that the pre-school years (3-5 year olds) are an important stage of language development that speech pathologists refer to as the ‘talking to learn’ period. During this period, children are no longer ‘learning to talk’ and instead use their oral language skills for thinking. Critical thinking happens when children draw on their existing knowledge and experiences to solve problems, predict outcomes, form opinions, compare scenarios, express emotions, project thoughts, evaluate ideas and think creatively. It is this ‘language for thinking’ that lays the foundation for growing ‘kind, smart and important’ humans. Here’s how

‘You is Kind’

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

To be kind, our children need to develop a skill known as ‘theory of mind’. The understanding that people don’t share the same thoughts and feelings as you do develops during childhood, and is called “theory of mind” (Lauren Lowry, The Hanen Centre). Like many other social skills, oral language is a crucial element in developing theory of mind particularly through the ‘language of projection’.

The language of projection uses complex ‘what if’ statements to help children see things from a different perspective, a skill that does not come naturally to young children who are inherently egocentric.

Tips for Projecting

Projecting Feelings: “If I were the little pig, I would feel very frightened when my house was destroyed by the big, bad wolf.”

Projecting Words: “If you were Baby Bear, what would you say to Goldilocks when you saw her sleeping in your bed?”

Projecting Needs/Wants: “If I were the Wild Child, I would want a bottle of warm milk.”

If we nurture this ‘language of projection’, we will help build empathy in our children, allowing them to form and maintain strong relationships in school and in life and ultimately be ‘kind’ human beings. In fact, studies have shown that when mothers use words that refer to thinking and feeling when they talk to their child, it helps their child’s theory of mind development (Ruffman, T., Slade, L., & Crowe, E., 2003).

Talking Tip: Role play and pretending is a particularly powerful tool in developing the language of projection, theory of mind skills and ultimately empathy. An adult who joins in the pretend play is not just a ‘fun parent’!

‘You is Smart’

“If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will forever think it’s stupid.” – Albert Einstein

There are all kinds of ‘smarts’ in the world, but it is generally accepted that your ability to identify a problem, brainstorm solutions and attempt to solve a problem is a strong indicator of ‘intelligence’ and a useful one too. The oral language skills required to problem solve is an important skill for your children to practise and develop in order to be ‘smart’.

In a reading context, identifying the main problem in a story and discussing alternative solutions is a great read aloud strategy for parents to support their child’s problem solving and reading comprehension abilities, now and in the future.

Problem Solving in Stories

Identify the problem: “What is Gerald the giraffe’s problem?”

Brainstorm solutions: “How else could Incy Wincy have reached the top of the water spout?”

Decide on best option: “Would you call for help or try to save Alexander the duck yourself? Why?”

There are multiple opportunities throughout our everyday lives where we can practise the language of problem solving with our children. Modelling the thinking process of problem solving aloud is great way to incidentally support your children’s critical thinking. Parents and educators who are the most successful at developing problem solving are those who sound genuine in their language and allow their child opportunities to participate in the process.

Problem Solving in Everyday Life

Identify the problem: “I am not sure how I will fit all this washing on the line.”

Brainstorm solutions: “Maybe I could put the big items on the washing line outside. Or maybe I should just drape the sheets over the furniture and turn the fan on.”

Prompt for rationale: “Why do I need to turn the fan on?”

Talking Tip: Try to balance your comments and questions so it feels like a conversation rather than an interrogation. It is your comments not your questions that will give your child the language they need, before they read.

Happy teacher drawing with children at preschool and talking to a smiling little girl.

‘You is Important’

“Children must be taught how to think. Not what to think.” – Albert Einstein

The ability to make judgements, form opinions, link prior knowledge to new learnings and compare their own experiences with others will all support your children’s sense of self-important and is vital in today’s modern world. As speech pathologists, we encourage parents and educators to use the ‘language of evaluations and experiences’ to contribute to your child’s sense of self-importance.

Talking Tip for Parents

Link to experiences: “This reminds me of that time we went to the beach and saw a horse.”

Link to prior knowledge: “The dog in the story looks just like our neighbour’s dog.”

Share your thoughts: “I think that the frog was being very greedy and not sharing.”

Share your opinions: “Which page of the book was your favourite?”

While using the ‘language of evaluations’ is an important skill to develop a child’s sense of worth, the actual ‘process’ of turning reading into a conversation is powerful too. “Reading is most valuable when it is accompanied by interactive discussion, including questions to invite responses and opinions.”(Morrow & Gambrell, 2004; Storch & Whitehurts, 2002)

Talking Tip: The back and forth conversations that occur during book reading time not only builds strong oral language skills but will create a ‘reciprocal respect’ that ensures children feel their opinions, thoughts and feelings are heard.

cute baby girl sitting on floor and reading book with mom

Oral Language is a Superpower

Critical thinking and oral language have a reciprocal relationship – as one skill grows so too does the other. Speech language pathologists refer to these critical thinking skills as ‘language for thinking’ and they contribute significantly to future success in communication skills, reading comprehension, overall academic success and more importantly to becoming ‘happy’ little humans. In fact, research shows that oral language is a superpower as a child’s level of language skills before entering school actually predicts their success in both math and in reading, and even to social skills (Pace et al., 2018).

Pre-school aged children rely heavily on the supporting adults around them to foster these skills early in life during talking, playing and reading. In fact, children are born with the potential for critical thinking skills but the presence of these skills and the extent to which they are evident rely heavily on their environment (Centre for Developing Child, Harvard University).

It is in ‘what we say’ as parents and educators that truly matters.

We cannot guarantee oral language prowess will buy our children ‘happiness’ but there is no doubt that oral language is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.

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