One of the most powerful gifts that we adults can give infants and toddlers is to shower them all day long with conversation in their home languages. It only costs time and attention, and since language and the family culture that accompanies it fulfill kids’ needs to understand their loved ones and the world around them, that shower of language is indeed a gift of abundance.
The cascade of language is critical early on in a child’s life as it soon evolves into the ebb and flow of dialogue. Listening to adult and older-sibling talk is good for small children’s development of language and cognition because it helps children learn their place in the family and the community, and develop conversation skills.
That’s why the phrase, “talking is teaching” needs some careful consideration. Certainly talking at a car-seat bound baby about anything and everything that comes into one’s mind is indeed “Talking,” yet “Talking” should really be more than an adult or sibling going on and on about whatever comes into their heads. Talking must be understood here as conversational give-and-take and interactive turn-taking that invites the baby to participate. We should talk not just to but with children.
Reading to children also is best understood as reading with children rather than to children. Turning pages, reading the text and pointing at pictures are part of daily reading as a family, but that’s not all of what reading should include. The universal good advice to read daily with small children, adds irreplaceable riches to the informational and linguistic complexity of the language little ones will hear, upgrading the context within which conversation can be nurtured.
It’s the give and take of interacting around the content of a book that provides the richest path forward to full participation in their communities. Talking about events that occur around the home and across the neighborhood is undeniably a good thing for children. Talking about books that provide access to the disciplines of the world—science, literature, mathematics, history, economics, the arts and all the rest—is critical to the development of each of those perspectives which eclipse the typical family chat. Along with learning about the values and cultural practices of family life, children need to engage in conversation to create their very own grasps upon these myriad ways of looking at the world. Through conversation, children have opportunities to think about and communicate their observations, thoughts, questions and confusions about those perspectives.
Conversing with children IS the most natural process of teaching language, and it serves as the gateway for children to create and assume their unique roles within their families and communities. Kids then become generators of unique language and its meaning for themselves while actively participating in the creation of significant meanings about life and the world for others.
So, let’s not just talk to teach; let’s converse to teach. And by inviting children to that participation, they will complete the circle by becoming teachers themselves.