Speaking and Listening in Early Childhood Development
by Chris Hibbard
“It is important to know what words mean so that you can understand what people are telling you. A good place to learn new words is at school. You can also learn new words at home. I learned the word “concentrate” at school when my desk partner kept talking to me. I told the teacher and she told my desk partner to let me “concentrate”. He did not know what that word meant, so the teacher explained that he was to let me do my work without any interruptions. This is how I learned about the word “concentrate”.
– Beckie, Grade 2 Student
Aside from the sense of smell, a child’s first contact with the world is usually made by hearing. The ears are certainly the source of a child’s first experience with language, even if, to an observer, it becomes clear that those ears do not work as well as they should. Even a child that is hard of hearing will quickly realize that all is quiet.
Hearing is only part of listening. Ask any boy who’s ever been playing video games when his mother calls him for dinner. Listening means hearing and then registering what one has heard as being important enough to remember and respond to if necessary.
Many teachers assume that students have listening skills, and instruction in that department can be neglected. What we all need to know is that students will listen differently than we do – we are older and able to concentrate longer, for the most part. Children in the early primary grades will listen with interest and with intent, hanging on every word – unless they learn it’s not worth their time. Adults, and especially teachers, need to be conscious of which words they are saying – every word might be repeated later outside of a classroom, most likely over mashed potatoes two hours later with mom and dad.
The other side of the listening coin – no surprise – is speaking. There is an old saying that it is impossible to do both – listen and speak – at the same time, but they are both crucial skills when it comes to development and speaking should not be neglected either. Even if a student has a speech impediment or other vocal impairment, speech is still a valuable tool for the assessment of learning.
In the early grades, speaking is often engaged in most as a response to literature and other stimuli. It is “switched on” during presentations (show & tell anyone?), role-play-acting, (playing house), and the arts – “What do you see in this picture?”
Anyone who has ever attempted it will know that a 6-year-old is a much better conversationalist than is a 3-year-old. What was once “Bye-bye” has become “Good-Bye”. “Stop it” has become “Stop that,” and “Up! Up!” has become “Lift me up so that I can see too!”
The following paragraphs might help shed some light on what’s next in the listening/speaking sequence, as well as offer some tips on what to expect in PS-1 if you are placed with a children in this age group, this period that falls between Piaget’s late Pre-operations Stage and his early Concrete Operations stage, the period between ages 5-9, grades K-3.
For the most part, Kindergarten aged children are exposed to, and understand best, words with between 2 and 6 letters. These will generally be commonly used words that they have picked up at home before school began. Example, under the letter C alone: clean, close, cold, color, cat, come, coming, and cookie. (All C-words – coincidence,In a classroom setting they will respond best with “sight words”: often dichotomous words they can see in their minds: tree/sky, big/little, circle/square, two/three, penny/nickel, eyes/nose, bird/fish, red and blue and so on.
By Grade 1, students will be able to listen attentively and engage actively in a variety of oral language experiences. The “average” Grade 1 student, if there is such a thing, is expected to know how to “actively listen” – that is, to listen to get information. They are expected to respond appropriately and courteously to directions and direct questioning. This should include recognizing the musical elements (but not the names for) literary language such as rhymes, repetition, or alliteration. They are expected to be able to listen purely for enjoyment and appreciation – as in a concert (and I’m hopefully not dating myself too much here) put on by puppets, by Raffi, or by Sharon, Lois & Bram. As such, Grade One kids are expected to participate in rhymes, songs, conversations and question/answer sessions.
Most have mastered basic grammar and pronunciation of their first language and have moved away from “over-regularization” saying “I go-ed” or “I wented” has been corrected: “I went.” A Grade-1er will be learning what alphabet letters represent what sounds, what parts constitutes a word (vowels, consonants) and how to recognize and talk about the different sounds these parts make. Even so, a child in kindergarten or Grade 1 still has a fair distance to go before reaching fluency.
By Grade 2, the “average child” is expected to be able to listen critically – to interpret and evaluate information. They should by now be listening responsively to stories and other texts read aloud – provided the texts are not too difficult. This would be a fine age to read them classics like “Charlotte’s Web” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” (provided the curriculum permits such works of course.)
By Grade 2, culture has likely become a subject of learning. The “average” 6-year-old is expected to listen and speak – to actively communicate that is – to gain knowledge of his or her own culture, the culture of others – and the differences and similarities between them.
By this age, a 6-year-old second grader should be connecting their own experiences and ideas with those of others, and sharing their thoughts. This may likely involve the introduction and comparison of different languages and oral traditions (family stories and folk tales.) This would be a good age to start reflecting on, and comparing different customs in different regions.
By Grade 3, the ability to speak appropriately to different audiences for different purposes, or on different occasions – with friends, with families and elders, at home, at church, outside or inside, etc. By now, they should be able to discern and distinguish the appropriate volume, tone, and rate of speech for the occasion at hand. This likely involves coordinated usage or verbal and non-verbal communication – body language and eye contact when making announcements, giving directions, and the like.
A Grade 3 student is expected to at least attempt to ask relevant questions and/or attempt to answer them. The size of the discussion group and the relationships between themselves and their peers may have an impact on the likelihood of their contributions, for as many of us know, presenting in front of large groups can be intimidating even as adults.
In these three levels of school, K-3, students should be able to engage in dramatic interpretation of their experiences, stories, poems, or plays. This is why you’ll see elementary school Christmas concerts where the grade 1 kids are the sheep and the stars – they’re involved, but not as much as the Grade 2 elves or the Grade 3 Mary.
All along, from ages 5-8, thanks to listening to others and internalizing, the child is (or should be) gaining increasing control of grammar in language – including correct tense, basic sentence structure, using simple subject-verb agreements and so on.
In grade 1, a student might have a listening vocabulary of 15,000 words – though they might only speak 1/10 of them. By Grade 3 this same figure, and ratio, has jumped to 35,000. Small words, big words, descriptive words and angry words; words that can shift through all tenses – past, present and futures – even many adult words they luckily don’t grasp the full meaning of : infuriating, cancerous, savings account.
It is in Grade 3 and beyond, from age 8 and up, that a child (quote-unquote) “normally” shifts to a new level of understanding, when listening, speaking, reading, and writing, all begin to work together – allowing for the introduction and usage of modifiers such as adverbs – happily rather than happy, quickly rather than quick.
On a general optimistic level, I would suggest that it is in this age range, particularly the latter part, Grades 3 & 4, that students may be most receptive to learning – like the proverbial sponge soaking up everything that comes in contact with it; an excellent opportunity to expand young minds. On the other hand, this is also the period in which children can pick up the first notion that they may in fact, know something you don’t know, essentially clueing them in that in some areas, they could very well be smarter than you – their teacher.