The Importance of Oral Language by Robin Wilkins, Puriri Teacher

Being able to write clearly and effectively is an essential skill. As we all know, written language is a key focus in the NZ curriculum and ākonga have targeted expectations to meet. In order for ākonga to develop written language, they need a solid background in oral language. I have been doing a lot of reading on the subject and would like to share some of this with you.

Language shapes culture; language shapes thinking; and language shapes brains. Conversation helps tamariki learn to reason, reflect and respond to the world. The brain is intensely ravenous for language stimulation in early childhood. Many neuroscientists today are saying that the quality of young children’s language is declining and that this is affecting their cognitive development.

The results are declining literacy, falling test scores, faltering oral expression and ineptitude with the written word that extends from early childhood to the ranks of working adult professionals.

Much of the blame inevitably falls on TV, but some argue that is actually only a symptom.  There is increasing research that talks about the long-term effects of headphones, computer games and technology, and how these are affecting language development and social play.

Today’s world is such a fast-paced, over-scheduled and helter-skelter place.  If it is like this for us as adults, it is doubly so for our children. It is so important therefore, to be mindful of allowing quiet times for our children; to learn to analyse, to reflect and ponder and to learn to use quiet inner conversations to build personal realities and sharpen and extend their verbal reasoning.

Dr Jane Healy, an internationally recognised authority on learning and brain development and a speaker at Montessori conferences, suggests that good language is gained only from interactive engagement. Children need to talk as well as to hear. They need to play with words and reason with them. They need to practise talking about problems, to learn to plan and organise their behaviour. They need to respond to new words and stories to build a broad personal base of meaning.

There are concerns that children are not receiving enough daily doses of talk either at home or at school. It is critical that adults pay special attention to a child’s need to talk, to have language experiences of all kinds and to have good-quality conversation. Telling stories over and over, expanding on characters, events and ideas, help children to learn to think carefully and critically.

A child’s early experiences with oral language have powerful long-term effects on school achievement. One research study found that “frequent, responsive mother-child language interaction” was the most critical factor in raising mental ability. Studies show that mothers instinctively shape and expand their child’s language, tailoring their own responses precisely to each child’s developmental need. They seem to know just how to pull the child’s language up a notch by using forms in their own speech, that are one degree above the child’s current level. They do this automatically.

If we want growing brains to build the foundations for successful learning, we must examine the habits of our culture that are negatively impacting on the quality and the quantity of our children’s conversations and the effects of this on the written word.

Simply put, if we could all add a little more conversation and a little less action into daily life, we’d be onto a good thing!