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Using Words to Communicate and Educate

December, 2009
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One day, a very little boy of my acquaintance decided that he needed to find out the names for everything around him. Andy suddenly began to look very intently at various objects in the room, pointing out to me each of them in turn. At first I had no idea what he wanted. I thought he was asking me to give him whatever he was looking at, or to do something with it. But he showed me that that was not what he wanted. For a while I was baffled.
Then, on a hunch, I tried telling him the name of what he was showing me. Instantly he showed by his expression that I had guessed right. He began to point to many other objects. Here I thought I might help if I gave him a question that he could ask whenever he wanted to know the name of something (a very useful thing also in studying a foreign language). So when he pointed to a vase, I said, “What’s that called? That’s called a vase.” I hoped that if I said it often enough, he would learn to say it. For a short while at least, he did, but I don’t know how long it stuck, or for that matter how long-lasting was his need to be told the names of things. After all, any observant child in a family or community where people do a lot of talking will soon learn what things are called just by listening to what people say about them.

I was careful, when I told Andy the name of something, not to tell him as if it were a lesson or something he had to remember. Nor did I test him by saying, “What’s this? What’s that?” This kind of checking up is not necessary, and it puts a child in a spot where he will feel that, if he says the wrong thing, he has done wrong and is in the wrong. I have seen kindly, well-meaning parents and teachers do this to young children, hoping to help them learn. Almost every time the child soon took on the kind of tense, tricky expression we see on so many children’s faces in school, and began the same sad old business of bluffing, guessing, and playing for hints. Even in the rare case when a child did not react this defensively to questions, too much quizzing is likely to make him begin to think that learning does not mean figuring out how things work, but getting and giving answers that please grownups.

We should also remember that children (like adults), and above all young children, know and understand much more than they can put into words. If we point to a lamp and say to a young child, “What’s that?” we may not always get an answer. If we get none, or the wrong one, does it mean that the child doesn’t know the name for a lamp, or doesn’t know what the word “lamp” refers to? Not necessarily. In other contexts, he might know the word perfectly well. His reason for not answering the question “What’s that?” may be only that the question itself confuses him and that he doesn’t know what we want him to say or do. A child’s understanding of the world is uncertain and tentative. If we question him too much or too sharply, we are more likely to weaken that understanding than strengthen it. His understanding will grow faster if we can make ourselves have faith in it and leave it alone.

One way that may help children learn the names of things is by talking about everything we do together. Many moms or dads, getting a child ready to go out, may say something like this: “Now we’ll tie up this shoe; pull the laces good and tight; alright, coat next, arms in the sleeves, zip it up nice and tight; now the mittens, left mitten on the left hand, right mitten on the right hand; now comes the hat, on it goes, over your ears…” This kind of talk, when it is companionable and fun, provides a chance with a child to learn not just words, but also the kind of phrases and sentences they fit into.

This kind of talk is not necessary though; billions of children learn to speak who have never been spoken to in this way but it is another way to provide rich language. Unfortunately, I suspect many people who try to talk this way to children will have much more “teaching” in their voices than love and pleasure and they will end up doing more harm than good. If talk is not honest and does not have real feeling behind it – like most of the talk children hear on TV – they will not think of it as something they can or want to do themselves, and will learn little or nothing from it. So, if we keep it light and meaningful, without making every moment a “teachable” one, communication will flow and develop naturally from the earliest stages. Enjoy your conversations with your little ones; they certainly have many experiences to share and a naturally growing ability to use words.

By Laurie Robinson

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