Babies begin learning vocabulary at birth. Begin teaching them by modeling the English speech sounds.

A large influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants in my part of the country is affecting the schools. One innovation has been the establishment of an Essential Vocabulary List for the early grades.

The Essential Vocabulary is a list of subject content words. For first-graders these words include weather, rainy, sunny, cloudy, snowy, foggy, windy, hot, and cold.

Teachers have discovered that children may have heard the words and even use them, but that they don’t necessarily understand what they mean.

This is not an issue that concerns the immigrant population only. American-born children in English-speaking families are being short-changed by attitudes that fail to recognize the learning capacity and language needs of little children.

My granddaughter Carys is two years and two months. She talks all the time, but most of the words she says are still incomprehensible to adults. Some, however, are perfectly clear. She amazed her mother the other day when, because her mother didn’t understand the word she was saying, Carys found a synonym that her mother could understand.

This was an extraordinarily sophisticated use of language. It was possible because of the way that the adults in her life talk to Carys.

Baby talk has never played a large part in the way we talk to Carys. When her mother, father, or uncle interact with her, they describe what they are doing. If they’re dressing, they talk about articles of clothing and the act of putting them on. They often give more than one word for an object. For example, hat, cap, chapeau. They don’t hesitate to throw in “big words,” or words from other languages.

They talk about the texture of things and compare one thing to another. This coat is soft. The cat’s fur is soft. They teach the concepts of hot, cold, warm, long, short and not just the names of things.

I knew a neighbor’s child who, at the age of five or six, lacked the vocabulary suitable to her age because of the way the adults in her family talked to her. She knew the names of things, but was limited in what she could talk about. Mostly she responded to my efforts to talk about something by whirling away and pointing at something, saying “What’s this?” She was noun-oriented.

Pre-schoolers need to learn verbs and prepositions as well as nouns. Many children come to school with little understanding of words like in, on, up, into, down, and under. The use of prepositions is a very abstract concept, but children learn them easily in play.

Carys understands many prepositions because she’s had them acted out for her. For up, her daddy swings her up into the air, saying the word up. For down, he swings her back down, saying the word down. All the prepositions can be taught by acting them out with the child’s whole body. For on, put her on a park bench. For under, put her under a table. For with, take her hand and tell her she’s going with you.

In addition to her interaction with adults, Carys has video tapes and DVDs that she watches over and over. At my house I have one Baby Einsteins DVD and one Teletubbies tape. We’ve watched the same two videos too many times to count. She never tires of them. At first she watched in silence. Gradually she repeated certain actions or words. Now she speaks many of the words and whole sentences with the characters. She never tires of them because every time she watches, she learns something new, or finds it easier to say a difficult word.

Don’t short-change your preschoolers. They need words as much as they need food and vitamins.

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