Acquisitions of language and literacy skills are important to be internalized as early as possible in the development of the child's early education. The child starts acquiring such language and skills as from the moment s/he is born and not as s/he starts school; which skills evolve and become more complex as the child matures. Hence the first major steps in language are taken at home and then built on and reinforced at school as the child mixes with other children, each from different backgrounds and under the teacher's guidance. The school and educators must strive hard in getting a glimpse of each individual child's background because only in knowing what baggage the child has brought with him to school, the educator is able to see the world from the child's perspective. This is very much in line with Piaget's theory of learning since he stresses upon the fact that learning depends on a number of factors which include the child's prior knowledge, age, maturity, social and family influences, contextual setting as well as ways of learning. The educator must therefore get in touch with such knowledge about each and every child in class in order to help and support children in organizing their prior knowledge, which is a product of family and background influence. The importance of the adult's or educator's role in the development of the child's language and literacy has been recognized since it is the educator who helps the child become aware of certain aspects of the language and in so doing helping and supporting the development of language and literacy. The adult should be the role model for the child to imitate and emulate since children learn a lot from imitation and hence help the child reinforcing language and literacy acquisition. According to Piaget this takes place through assimilation and accommodation of new knowledge which in turns leads to equilibrium. Other theorists, including the Nativists such as Chomsky and Constructivists such as Skinner amongst others, attempted to explain how the child develops language and literacy skills. Vygotsky and later Bruner, who refined his work, attempted to explain how language developes; language as a product of social interactions and environment. All different theories left a significant impact on our educational system.
What characteristics within the home environment promote strong development in these areas?
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Home background marks the difference amongst children since not everyone is brought up the same and exposed to the same environment. Wilkinson, (1980) argues that, "while the adult can offer a certain resistance to his environment, the child accepts it, drinks it in. Thus the whole environment of the child should be a positive, harmonious one." (as citied in Bruce, 1997, p.18). Implying that children are easily affected from everything that happens around them, especially in their home environment, but unfortunately not every child experiences a positive one. Early theories of development, including Jerome Bruner, argues that children learn a lot from imitation and in recognizing the others' different experiences. Same with language since children are all the time imitating others and in so doing imitating language heard and learning that different intonations and words create different meaning in different situations. Developmentalists, like Catherine Snow (1997) argues that: even 'the quality of living and social level contribute to the language skills the children are exposed to.' (as citied in Bee & Boyd, 2010 p.217).
The mother or primary care giver is crucial in the development of the child and by implication this person leaves a considerable impact and influence on the child's exposure to literacy and also in language development. 'Parents are children's first and most powerful teachers and most important role models.' (as citied in Carlyon, Carlyon & McCarthy, 1998). Particular importance is given to the way the mother interacts with the child since language skills are transferred to the child. This infant directed speech is called motherese; where the simplicity and repetitiveness of the adult's speech helps the child in language acquisition as well as in picking out the repeated grammatical forms used in speech. Research suggests that motherese plays a crucial role in language development; however these interactions start to interest the child mostly when s/he starts using language to communicate for him/herself. The child then would attempt to repeat and use words heard and forms in his own speech to communicate while the adult guides and supports the child by recasting sentences and modeling the correct grammatical forms.
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In a literate society just as learning to speak it is equally important to be exposed to and acquire literacy skills. However, such skills need much more effort for the child to tap into his/her cognitive and motor skills. Denny Taylor (1983) argues that "literacy is part of the very fabric of the family life" (as citied in Bruce, 1997 p.130). The home is the main and first source of literacy since it is where the child is introduced to functional literacy. The child sees the family members engaging in literacy activities and most of the time the child get involved actively in these experiences and thus grasping the functions of such literacy actions and skills. The child learns that literacy is everywhere and that it conveys meaning by noticing some writing from scraps of paper in the house, phone messages, texts in storybooks and much other situations where the child is exposed to symbols in a context. Most of the time parents unconsciously expose their children to text in their everyday situations and involving them in the literate society e.g. in doing shopping lists or choosing packets of cereal to buy. Parents are usually not aware that they are helping in the acquisition of literacy skills. Exposing children as from a very young age to printed text is extremely important e.g. being read-to, especially bed time stories. Bed time stories give the opportunity for one to one experience where the child is read-to and thus start making sense of text. Exposing the child to phonics would also help in reading and also in writing. Later on, the child starts learning about the multiciplicity of literate activities especially when the child start mixing with other children and participating in different social events e.g. Birthday parties.
Children should also be exposed to writing and taught some basics so that they will find it useful later on at school.
The parents should prepare the child for formal instruction e.g. in tracing letters and also in grasping the concept of words and spelling and helping the child get accustomed to the written language.
How can an early years' educator extend a rich language environment in an early years setting?
Providing the children with a rich language environment requires the school to work hand in hand and collaborate with the family and all the different backgrounds the children come from because this affects a lot the performances and approaches children have at school. Each individual child's background must be acknowledged as well as appreciated and the differentiation accounted for, since each child has his own individual abilities and needs, in providing same opportunities to all individuals for fostering language and literacy. Where possible, parents should be actively involved in the children's education since, "When parents are involved, children do better in school and go to better schools." (Henderson, 1987), (as citied in Carlyon, Carlyon & McCarthy, 1998).
In an early classroom the educator needs to provide a balanced literacy environment where the four vital areas of language are addressed; speaking listening, writing and reading. It is healthy to expose the children to a variety of strategies and resources to stimulate these four areas simultaneously and providing meaningful activities in a context where children are encouraged to explore and get results; thus exploring the world for themselves. Children need to be provided with opportunities for first hand experiences which involve the use of senses as well as adequate challenge so that they are actively engaged in activities as well as satisfying their curiosity to further their knowledge. Most importantly the children must be given opportunity to see the teacher engaged in the reading and writing situations because in so doing they can see the adult as their role model. In class the children must be accustomed to read and write alouds which help them get a sense of audience. Independent reading and shared reading help the children as well in acquiring those skills needed later on in their life as well as in interactive reading and writing. In school a continuant promotion for reading and writing must take place; in fact in 1983 Health proposed a list of social oriented purposes for engaging children in reading and writing; which list is still applicable today.
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There exist a lot of methods and strategies to be employed in class which help the children to be exposed to a rich language environment. One of which is through language games since they tap in their cognitive development while having fun. Looking in different books and dictionaries as well as role plays are also very useful because it helps the children get into the context, explore and rehears language.
Children should be exposed to a variety of text to help them expand and gradually build their vocabulary to a rich language development. Moreover, exposure to printed material helps a lot the children in developing a positive attitude to language and literacy. It also helps the children to learn different attitudes and concepts which provide personal and language gains. Children must be exposed to the writing simultaneously with other language skills although writing is in fact a longer and more deliberate process. Writing helps the child clarify and confide thinking by hypothesizing and recording feelings while also creates amusement through one's own writing. In class the teacher must offer all the help and support needed in helping the child throughout in his writing, especially when the child attempts to write something new on his own. Realistic opportunities and adequate environment for stimulating writing must be provided which furthers the child's confidence in experimenting with language. Children learn writing through trial and error and by experimentation but approach and purpose for writing depends on the child's age. In class children must be involved in writing which meets everyday activities e.g. in writing the shopping list since for some children this may be a totally new experience thus opportunities for role playing such experiences must be accounted for e.g. writing to the classroom's post office or going to the bank amongst others help a lot the children to make use of language in a functional meaningful way. According to Jo. Weinburger, "writing does not just happen....since development occurs within a cultural and social context, children from different backgrounds will necessary have different experiences of writing." (as cited from Bruce, 1997 p.128). In class the teacher must cater for these differences as well as providing them with opportunities for individual activities. Acknowledgement of the emergent literacy, which the children builds on before starting formal education, must take place while engaging them in shared activities where children are encouraged to speak and share their own experiences in relation to the text. There are different methods for encouraging writing, mainly through; letter shapes, phonics, letter blending or word building amongst others.
In the past school was all about reading and writing and very little on listening and speaking; a reality which I faced myself during my school days. Nowadays we have seen a gradual change in our educational system where the importance of listening and speaking in language development have been recognized, acted upon and catered for inside our schools. July Fisher (1996) emphasized that, "one of the most important elements for young learners is the provision of opportunities for children to talk together and with adults" (as citied in Bee & Boyd, 2010 p.218). This highlights the importance of interaction and in practicing the spoken language to communicate and share ideas while listening to each other. In 1977, Tough came up with a list of functions and purposes for which children should be engaged in oral language.
The adult role also places a significant role because it guides and supports communication throughout. The importance of being read-to at home can and should be extended in the classroom as well since this is extremely important and cannot afford to be missed from the child's education thus children must be read-to on a regular basis even in school. Read-to in class provides the children with the attention which they might not be provided at home. It also provides the opportunity for children to listen to language used in different contexts. Through different strategies, e.g. phonics, letter words and look and say method amongst others, the child's learning is facilitated. Development of phonological awareness as early as possible would help in learning to read; the faster this is learned, the faster the child learns to read fluently. The Importance of reading has been recognized; in fact the International Reading Association (IRA) suggests that children have a number of literacy rights which aims for excellent reading instruction.
What are the short-term and long-term implications of a language rich-environment from a child's perspective?
The child in his early education needs to be exposed to a variety of fruitful opportunities in order to introduce him/her to the language and also to acquire literacy skills. Throughout this journey of language development the child builds goals for himself; some of which are for the immediate future and others for more long term future attainment. Continuous support and praise help the child a lot in building goals since they boost his/her self esteem and confidence needed for working on the attainment of such goals. The adult presents himself as the role model for the child whom to imitate and emulate by presenting himself as a writer, reader, listener and also a speaker. The child builds short term goals for things which he hasn't been able to do on his own but he is sure and most probably can in the near future. He would also build future long term goals for things he wishes to attain in his future. Scaffolding helps the child building his confidence in attaining such goals.
Motherese helps a lot in the spoken language because through communication with the adult and in recasting the child's sentences the child is able to initiate words and formulate sentences. Skinner (1957) argues that the child shapes his process of speech through imitation and systematic reinforcement. The child is continuously imitating and pretending to be someone else and in so doing appreciating and exploring others' experiences and speech in different contexts. Helping the child participate and get involved in conversations and discussions makes the child use his spoken language skills for communication. Being read-to and in letting the child choose his own books gives the child a sense of security which is needed for him/her in setting short term goals in attempting to join in the reading through prediction and repetitive patterns. Exposing children to different stories help the children get accustomed to pictures and text and in matching the word with texts. It also helps the child expand his vocabulary and encourages the child to learn more words. The child builds long term goals for himself for learning to read on his own just like the adult does. Shared reading helps the child a lot because children help and learn a lot from each other. Letting the child discover his/her own writing and in helping to explore different forms of writing encourages the child in taking part in the writing process. Keeping a record of the children's work and displaying them in the classroom help children to be proud of their work. Children must be encouraged to be their own authors and in sharing their work which helps in building self-confidence.
There are other goals which the child sets in an indirect way, e.g. through sharing experiences and in shared reading the child learns the value of trust and respect. The child also learns the value of tolerance and accepting cultural differences through different stories. The child learns that everyone is different and must be appreciated for these differences. The short term implications affect the child in the immediate form that s/he is faced with every day in class. While the long term ones affect the child throughout his life because it's a life-lesson which the child will remember all his life and help him in his future.