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Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 4, No. 3 - May/June 2012

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First Books & Early Language Development

By Jo Burnell

There is low awareness of the connection between normal language development and children's choice of books.

As a speech pathologist working with children for more than twenty-five years, this information is second nature to me.

Language skills point directly to the sorts of books that children will love. Matching 'ability' to 'language content' is what makes children's eyes widen with delight and lures them back for more.

First words emerge in typically developing children between 12 and 18 months.

Prior to this explosion of single words, tiny tots are literally language sponges. Babbling and animal noises made in play herald a world of words that will soon follow.

Enter the board book. Durable pages of cardboard or plastic withstand chewing, dribble and other unmentionables. Each page often highlights a single word or several objects. Bold colours and clear outlines are essential for this age group. "My First Toys, My First Actions" and the like appear and disappear from bookstores regularly. The same core intent remains - to increase vocabulary through stories about daily activities.

Toddlers from about 2 years old work hard at combining two words. Their favourite books model how this is done. Toddlers delight in the power of words like 'my' and 'don't'.

They give control. One of the best characterisations of this age is "All By Myself" by Mercer Mayer. Toddlers take charge with an emphatic 'I can'. The illustrations tell a different story, adding depth and humour.
As little hands become more adept, play and language collide in the form of flap books. Children love to discover for themselves. What better way to learn the meaning of prepositions ('in', 'on', 'under', and 'behind') than through hide-and-seek games? "Bears in the Night" by Stan and Jan Berenstain and "Who's Behind the Door? Series" by Michael Salmon are great starting points.

A simple question leads children on their quest for an answer. This is an age-old recipe for enjoyable learning. Wrapped between book covers, the result is a life-long invitation for learning fun with pictures and words.

"Where's Spot?" was first published in 1983 and has enjoyed continuous print ever since. The Maisy Series was first published in 2004 and enjoys similar popularity. "Are you my Mother?" and many others follow this quest format with great success. Rod Cambell's "Oh Dear", "Dear Zoo" and "Farm Chase" flap books are other timeless favorites.

As the third birthday approaches, language explodes. Two word utterances give way to short sentences. 'Want bear' transforms into: 'I want my bear'.

Parents blink in surprise. Language learning has just begun. Expectations of politeness are soon imposed.

There are new ways to talk to Grandma that are different from the way we talk to the cat. Some delightful books, such as "Say Please Louise" by Keith Harvey and Lauren Beard and "The Berenstain Bears say Please and Thank You" by Stan Berenstain, depict the humour of socially acceptable and unacceptable interchanges.

It's important to note that books on manners are often parents' favorites while their children tend to prefer other stories.

Grammatical structures such as 'he', 'she', 'they', verb tenses, plurals and possessives emerge from 3 1/2 years of age. Many picture books focus on one aspect of grammar, but the ones that do this best capture the imagination with a riveting story.

Many lead the listener with a rhythmic beat, but timeless treasures also sneak in a healthy dose of humour.

The following is a 'getting started' list of books for 3 years +.

  • Question asking - "Who Sank the Boat?" By Pamela Allen
  • Negatives -"I'm not Cute" by Jonathon Allen
  • Plurals - "Too Many Pears" by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley
  • Adjectives, plurals & prepositions - "Bears, Bears Everywhere" by Mara Bergman & Helen Craig
  • Adjectives - "My Dad!" By Charles Fuge
  • Possessives - "Whose Nose and Toes?" By John Butler
  • Verb tenses - "I Went Walking" by Sue Williams & Julie Vivas

Speech Pathologists fill their shelves with books that promote oral language and support language development and recommend these books to parents and teachers.

Of course, many bestselling children's books are not based on language development. This peek at early childhood from a language development perspective is just another angle.

About Jo Burnell

Jo is a speech pathologist who enjoys working with children. She reads and reviews childrens' literature in all formats. Hooking the reluctant reader into the world of books is her dream.

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