Language: Moving into the Primary School Years

As children move into the early primary school years, vocabulary continues to grow and principles of reading begin to be introduced. It is important to consider the impact of continued emphasis on background knowledge and the importance of vocabulary. We will discuss additional information related to vocabulary and phonological awareness in Chapter 4. One aspect I want to discuss related to our discussion of the primary school years is the introduction of specific academic language. As children move into kindergarten, there are varying degrees of exposure to the school environment, social interactions, large group instruction, and knowledge of the procedures of the various components of a school day. Regardless of a child's prior exposure to school and social experiences, the move into kindergarten is a substantial transition, both for the child and parents.

Learning the procedures and routines is a large part of the transition to kindergarten. Perhaps children are attending school for the first time or a full day program is introduced for the first time. I have been part of first days of kindergarten on many occasions in my years of clinical practice. There is often a combination of excitement, tears, and, at times, confusion about the expectations. Children need to continue the navigation of interpersonal interactions, as well as the academic language associated with the primary school years. The visual and narrative nature of the early primary years is supportive of the continued language learning environment. Early elementary school educators often provide visual cues, using pictures, pointing, gestures, combined with narration and song to support language learning. My work as a speech-language pathologist has allowed me to see firsthand the positive impact of providing visual support during the early elementary years. These supports offer additional contextual cues, as well as a multimodal approach to learning that will benefit all the young learners in a classroom.

As we continue to explore the early elementary education years in a young language learner's life, it is important to remember that oral language, including vocabulary and grammatical knowledge, is correlated to the literacy components of reading and writing (Lonigan & Shanahan, 2008). This highlights the importance of the oral language foundation built during the early years and the impact of strong oral language skill development on the future development of reading, writing, and spelling. Although this isn't new information, it is important to reiterate to support the essential language foundation built during a child's early language learning years. As a young child enters elementary school, we need to pause for a moment and attempt to look through the lens of the child, including recognition of the new routines, increased complexity of directions, introductions to expressive language in written formats, decoding and reading comprehension, and a need for building increased independence in navigating the world. These are not small tasks! We need to consider young children who enter kindergarten with a small vocabulary inventory, reduced background knowledge based on experiences, a primary language other than English, reduced speech clarity resulting from speech sound errors, difficulty formulating sentences to convey ideas, or difficulty following directions with multiple steps. We support children and scaffold instruction to meet the needs and promote growth in young children with diverse and varied levels of communication abilities each day in elementary school classrooms. Scaffolded communication becomes a key part of classroom teaching in early elementary classrooms.

Vocabulary is a key factor of communication, combined with the background knowledge associated with various experiences. Taking the time to build and solidify a strong vocabulary base has the potential to support students in oral communication, reading comprehension, and written expression. I want to share an activity I have utilized often to support students in developing mental representations or pictures, as well as, to build a child's descriptive vocabulary inventory. I will describe an object to a young child and ask him or her to guess what I am thinking of after my description. For example, I am thinking of an animal that is soft, has whiskers, and says "meow," what am I thinking of? Hopefully, the child will respond "cat," or we can work to think through the descriptive components to help the child arrive at the answer. Once the child has developed a solid foundation in identification, I will then ask him or her to describe an object to me so that I can guess what the object is. It is a simple and fun game, but let's break down how it supports language, in the following ways: (1) the child is receiving input of descriptive words linked to a specific object or referent to build knowledge of descriptive vocabulary, (2) the child is processing the information and may develop a mental image that may potentially support reading comprehension, and (3) the child begins to use descriptive words building the complexity of oral communication with potential carryover to written communication. Additionally, shared book reading, text talks, and phonological awareness activities, such as rhyming, continue to build important vocabulary knowledge and phonemic awareness essential for reading comprehension, meaningful written expression, and oral communication. I believe the more opportunities children have to experience books, experiential learning opportunities, and communication exchanges the more skilled they will become. Like any activity, the more practice we have, the more likely we are to build our performance mastery. The early elementary years include an opportunity to continue to build the language base necessary for continued learning using oral expression, reading comprehension, and written expression. In Chapter 4, we will revisit the importance of vocabulary building and phonological awareness during the early childhood years, including the early elementary school years and identify strategies and activities focused on the development of these foundational skills. Before we explore these skills in more detail, we will discuss the relationship between the brain and the development of language in more detail in Chapter 3.

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