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Talk: The Foundation of Literacy
When my son Miles was three, I visited all the preschools in our town in search of the perfect one. I was particularly intrigued by a place about which I'd heard both rave reviews and critical comments. I couldn't wait to see it for myself. I arrived at the school very early that autumn morning. The classroom was almost empty, save for a cluster of little girls who sat at one table rolling and pummeling clay. The director was nowhere in sight, so I pulled my chair near the girls and listened.
One girl was drumming her fingers on the surface of what appeared to be a pond. "The wind is whooshing the waves," she said. The next girl plopped three blobs of clay onto the now-dappled surface of the pond. "The baby ducks are looking for their mom," she added. Then, in a high-pitched baby duck voice, she called, "Mommy! Mommy!"
At this point, the director of the school arrived and motioned for me to join her. Together we stood, eavesdropping as the three girls spun their tale of the lost baby ducks. "They looked in the tall grass," one child said, moving her three blobs to the pond's edge. Then she shook her head despondently and sighed. "No mother."
At this point, the director of the school pointed to the girls and stage-whispered, "This is where it all starts, you know. This is essential for their writing."
My heart leapt. "Yes!" I thought. "She knows, she knows, she knows." I could have hugged her. But my heart leapt too soon.
The director held up her hand, and began to move her fingers in the air as if she were kneading bread. "Yep," she said, "It all starts here. We begin exercising their fingers with soft playdough, then move on to the stiffer beeswax clay, then to the really stiff clay ... and by that time, their fingers are strong enough to work the pencil." I stared at her, aghast, silent. "Yep." She nodded with assurance. "It's all in the fingers, it's all in the fingers."
I didn't even stay the morning. And from that day on, as I traveled from one nursery school to another, I looked with a new sense of direction. Whether children were building towers with blocks, making masks with paper bags, or sculpting duck ponds with playdough, I listened to hear whether the adults who were there were celebrating the talk, the emerging stories. When children gathered for juice and crackers, I watched for signs that this was a time for teachers and children to muse over plans for the day, to share family stories, to retell favorite movie plots, to swap yarns. During recess, I checked whether the big people were bending low to listen to the little people.
In one school after another, I paid particular attention to the teachers' attitudes toward children's talk. I did this because yes, indeed, that duck story was foundational to those girls' growth as writers, and as readers, thinkers, problem-solvers, and world builders. Had the director of that school meant what I initially thought she meant, had she truly understood that the story those girls created around their three blobs of clay was foundational to their later writing, reading, and learning, I would probably have enrolled my son in her school.
Parents spend an enormous amount of time worrying about their children's reading and writing development for they know those capabilities are at the foundation of learning. But talk is also at the foundation of a child's learning life. Through language, meaning is built. Playing with playdough can be a time to hammer, roll, smush, and pinch, and nothing more; but it can also be a time to spin stories, to elaborate and reflect on them, to live inside them.
In the end, it's not what we do that matters, it's what we do with what we do that matters. A child can pat a ball of playdough flat, and simply be squashing that ball into a pancake, or she can be inventing, exploring, hypothesizing, planning, connecting, analyzing, imagining, and deducting. For young children, the difference is in the talk. A kindergarten teacher I admire often says, "I need my kids to talk. After all, these kids can't think with their mouths closed."
Yes, Ms. Nursery School Director. It all starts here, with those girls playing with clay, and with the rhythms and sounds of language. It all starts with those girls reenacting the age-old search for a place to call home; with them collaborating to make a story.
Oral Language in the Home: The Importance of Conversation and Shared Stories
Although I searched diligently for a nursery school that supported talk (and therefore, thought), I have always believed that, for oral language development, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz was right: "There's no place like home." When our children are toddlers, most of us are aware of this. When they are first learning to talk, we support, watch over, and extend their oral language development. When my sons Miles and Evan were beginning to use identifiable words and to put these words together into phrases and sentences, I would report on their progress in phone conversations with my sisters. I noticed what the boys said and how they said it.
I even had a list of resolutions when my children were very young for supporting their talk. I remember telling myself, "You've got to resist giving him that pacifier! He doesn't need to suck anymore, and it's senseless to be clogging up his mouth, silencing his voice." I also tried to give my babies time to respond whenever I talked with them. If I took off Evan's diaper and cooed, "How does that feel?" I tried to wait, expecting him to respond with a gurgle or a chortle. Then, and only then, would I answer back. "Is that right!" I'd say, just as if he'd played his part in the conversation and I was responding to what he'd said. "Why'd you say so?" I'd inquire. Again, I tried to wait and to look expectantly at him, as if confident that my bare-bottomed, kicking infant would soon clarify or elaborate upon his initial comment. I tried, also, to accompany and chronicle whatever we did together with talk. So if we made playdough and one of my boys banged on a playdough ball, I'd say, "Bang it," and join him. "Bang it. Smush it." Then, if he picked up a now-flat pancake, I'd say, "It's flat!" and run my hand over the flatness. If he wiggled his finger through the pancake, making finger-sized holes I'd say, "You are making holes." My verbalizing whatever I thought was probably going on in my baby's mind wasn't an unusual practice. Many of us do this for babies. As the language researcher Frank Smith points out, "People see a baby and automatically start talking to it. If we don't have our own baby, we borrow someone else's. `Hi there, Cutie!' we say."
Of course, every adult in every community does not behave this way, providing running commentaries that chronicle the events surrounding a child. Linguistics scholar Shirley Brice Heath studied how members of different communities talk with their children. She concluded that a family's "way with words" matches (or does not match) those of their teachers', and this has a lot to do with a child's eventual success in school. Children tend to do better in school if they live alongside adults who provide running commentaries of the child's experience. "So, let's get some breakfast. Here is some cereal. We'll need milk..."
Once a child can talk, it's also helpful for adults to solicit these running commentaries from children. "What are you doing with those pots and pans?" the adult asks. Later, when the child is older, we can solicit retellings of the day's events. "Did you and Daddy go for a walk? Did you go to the park? What did you do at the park?" Heath points out, "These requests for running descriptions and cumulative accounts of past actions provide children in these families with endless hours of practice in all the sentence-level features necessary to provide successful narratives or recounts of experience." By giving a foundation for our child's stories, we teach them languages and structures, which underpin what they do in school. "Gradually children learn," Heath says, "to open and close stories, to give them a setting and movement of time, and occasionally, even to sum up the meaning of the story."
With my sons, I wasn't conscious that I was chronicling our shared adventures or that I was speaking in the short sentences and exaggerated intonation that are so helpful to babies learning to talk. But I did know that whatever we did--setting the table, feeding the cat, grocery shopping, or washing our hands--was an opportunity for language development.
Interestingly, after our children learn to talk, this deliberate support for oral language development stops. Instead, we teach our children to talk quietly, to talk less, and to stay out of the way. One night, for example, we had friends over for dinner, and I asked Miles, who had recently turned nine years old, to clear the table while I chatted with the grown-ups. He was happy to clear the table but insisted on talking nonstop as he worked. He talked to himself even when none of us were listening. I interrupted him countless times to say, "Miles, Shhhhh! Do it without the talk!"
How the tables have turned! Whereas once I would have celebrated the running monologue that accompanied Miles's work, and his efforts to participate in our adult conversation, now I was essentially saying to him, "Children are to be seen and not heard."
This incident is representative of a larger pattern that takes place too often in too many of our homes. In his book, Talk with Your Child, Harvey Wiener reports on a U.S. Department of Education study that indicates that American mothers spend less than 30 minutes a day talking with their children; fathers spend even less. Some pollsters report that fathers spend an average of 15 minutes a day talking with their children. Others have found that the average father spends less than 30 minutes a week talking to his children. In his The Read Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease points out that the average adult in this country spends 6 hours a week shopping and 30 hours a week watching the television, in contrast to daily time spent in one-to-one conversation in homes with school-age children. One-to-one conversation averaged 9.5 minutes for at-home mothers, 10.7 for working mothers, and less for fathers.
Most parents find the time to put in a full workday, take a full complement of coffee breaks, eat lunch and dinner, read the newspaper, watch the nightly newscast or ball game, do the dishes, talk on the phone for 30 minutes ... drive to the mall, and never miss that favorite prime-time show.
Why then can't we also find time to talk with our children?
Part of the reason is that by the time our toddlers are of school age, we take their talk for granted. We have turned all our attention to their reading and writing, not realizing that talk is still the motor that propels their intellectual development. It is through talk that children learn to follow and tell stories, understand logical sequences, recognize causes, anticipate consequences, explore options, and consider motives. It is through talk that our children learn about barometers, mortgages, civil rights, psychotherapy, and the Roman Empire. It is through talk that our children learn that their observations, hunches, and insights are interesting and worth developing. It is through talk that our children learn about empathy, generosity, forgiveness--about walking a mile in another person's moccasins. Talk matters, and it's not happening enough in our homes.
I recently met with a group of second-grade teachers from a Long Island community. Ostensibly, we had gathered to brainstorm about ways we could encourage more parents to read to their children, but what really excited these teachers was the side topic, which focused on ways they might encourage parents to talk with their children.
"It'll be the day before vacation, and we ask a child, `What will you be doing over vacation?' The child shrugs and says, `I don't know. We're going on a trip somewhere.' `Oh, where?' we ask. The child has no idea. And afterward, the child has no clue where she went. Or we ask her, `Does your father have a job? What does he do?' And she says, `He goes to the office.' That's all she knows about what her father does each day."
Of course, it's entirely possible that a child in such a situation is simply not telling her teacher what she knows, that she is responding to the teacher with the same lack of detail she gives her parents when they ask, "How was school?" But these second-grade teachers are convinced that the problem is that parents aren't talking over trip plans with their children, showing them maps of their journeys, or sharing tales of their days on the job. The media is full of stories of "Johnny who can't read," but perhaps the problem is more basic than that.
And if we're not talking with our children, then no one is, because study after study has shown that schools do not support our children's oral language development. Researcher Gordon Wells monitored closely the talk 20 children from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds engaged in at home and school. He found that even children from the most "linguistically deprived" homes still got far more support at home for language development than in school. Wells writes, "Not only do children speak less with an adult at school. In those conversations they do have, they get fewer turns, express a narrower range of meanings, and in general, use grammatically less complex utterances. They also ask fewer questions, make fewer requests, and initiate a much smaller proportion of conversations.... At school children are reduced ... to the more passive role of respondent, trying to answer the teacher's many questions and carrying out his or her many requests."
Clearly, then, we need to value the talking we do with our children in our homes and to create more opportunities for conversation.
Establishing Rituals for Conversation within Our Families
Later in this book, I'll talk about establishing rituals for reading within our homes. I'll argue that if we want our children to read a lot, it's wise to create predictable opportunities for reading within each day. The same is true for talk. If we want to be sure that we engage in extended conversations with our children, then it's wise to build rituals for talk into our shared lives.
I know of a man who takes his granddaughter out for ice cream every Sunday afternoon, just to have time to talk with her. I know a family that takes a Sunday morning walk together each week; it's their time to reconnect with each other and the world. When my eight brothers and sisters and I convene each summer at our family cabin, we bring the year's family photographs with us, and we sit side by side for many evenings, assembling albums and lives.
For some families, conversations center around mealtimes. I know that I'm delinquent in this aspect of life. My husband, John, is a psychotherapist and sees his patients until late in the evenings. During the week, then, it's usually just Miles, Evan, and I who have supper together--and I'm on a perpetual diet. All too often, I set the table for the boys only, and spend my time at the stove or the sink, nibbling out of the frying pan. I know enough to give the boys a balanced meal, but I forget that Miles and Evan need a different kind of nourishment as well. They need me to sit at the table with them, to use shared meals as times to retell moments of the day, to reenact and critique and plan and imagine.
In the Foreword to the book, Awakening Your Child's Natural Genius Shari Lewis writes, "A couple of years ago, there was a study to determine what caused children to get high scores on the SATs (Scholastic Aptitude Tests). I.Q., social circumstances, and economic states all seemed less important than another subtler factor. Youngsters who got the highest SAT scores all regularly had dinner with their parents."
Of course, just sitting at the table to share a family dinner in no way guarantees shared conversation. Frequently, the rule, unspoken or not, is that adults talk only to each other. Children are expected to carry on their own separate conversation or to just be quiet. It makes all the difference in the world if children and parents expect that conversations will be shared. This means when I talk with my husband about my work at Teachers College, one of my sons will inevitably interrupt with questions. "What do you mean that the cost of benefits is going up? What are benefits?"
Miles's and Evan's incessant questions and their efforts to contribute solutions, can sometimes overwhelm me and others. When friends join our family for dinner or for a car ride, I know it's often surprising to them that Miles and Evan listen keenly to whatever we talk about. I admit, sometimes I find myself longing for my kids to be seen and not heard. But I know that John and I do a lot of educating simply by assuming that kids have the same right to participate in conversations as we adults.
Car rides, like mealtimes, can be perfect opportunities for conversations. The best are the long ones that go deep into the night. When my husband drove the boys on an 18-hour trip to our summer cabin in Traverse City, Michigan, I bought "trip toys" to punctuate their time; but more important, I set them up for long talks: "Miles," I said as they climbed into the car, "Have Dad tell you stories about when he was a kid. Ask him to tell you about his adventures taking the subway to school."
Earlier I had said to John, "Would you ask Evan to tell you his concerns about his friends at school? I know he's trying to figure out what to do now that Gregg has moved out of town."
In my family, we established traditions for talking on long drives. Whenever we drove home from our summer vacation in Traverse City, as soon as the sound of the wheels on the road changed, when we turned off the sandy dirt roads and onto the smooth pavement, our talk would change. "So what'd you like best?" my father would ask.
For the first hour or so of the long car ride, we'd spin stories about our shared memories. Of course everyone in the car had been present during most of the summer's highlights, but we still regaled each other with detailed descriptions of my sister Ellen's dramatic belly flop, the scary motorboat ride in the storm, the Scrabble tournament, the great kick-the-can game in the meadow. On one such family drive, my father, recalling a family wedding at the summer cabin, said, "What I loved most was the look on people's faces when they rounded the bend to the house and saw that elegant brunch all spread out. They were astonished, weren't they?" It's not an accident that my father selected a particular instant to extol. It's the tradition. One of us takes the tiniest moment and holds it in our hands, recalling it in all its particulars. Then the next person adds more details or more reactions.
I grew up listening to my parents swap stories at the end of each day. Dad would come home too late to eat supper with the rest of us, but he and my mother would review the day, recalling the little moments. John and I try to engage in a similar sort of talk when we go to each child's bedroom to say a final goodnight. This is long after the first goodnight, after the pajamas, and teeth-brushing, and storytime. The ostensible purpose for this final visit is to turn off the lights, but it often gives us a moment for one-to-one intimate talk.
I often lie beside Evan for a few minutes and we talk in a secret sort of way. It's private; it's intimate. It's no longer so easy with Miles, who lately has established a big-boy distance, compounded by the fact that he sleeps on a top bunk bed and is always lost in a book. Perhaps bedtime is no longer the right moment for this sort of talk with him. Still, my resolution as I write this is to work hard to find a ritual time for intimate conversations with Miles.
Shared Stories: Education of the Heart
When we talk over a vacation or the events of a day, we're not only supporting our child's language development, we're also demonstrating ways of responding to life. If our child says, "Robert is always tattling on me for things I didn't do!" our response should be carefully thought out. If we say, "Robert is wrong! Your teacher shouldn't let him do that! She's got to stop Robert," then our child can and will be all the more entrenched and vocal in his efforts to blame everyone but himself. "It's Robert's fault," our child will think, or "It's the teacher's fault." If we later hear from our child's teacher that he seems insolent even toward the teacher, we may not realize that our responses to our child's stories will have profoundly influenced his responses to the people and events of his day.
What a difference it makes when we acknowledge that every step we take along the way, every sentence we utter, every reaction we have, is part of the education we give our child. What a lesson we would have given had we said to our child, "You often blame Robert as if he's the only one who does things wrong. But I bet that if Robert tattles on you, there is some reason. Perhaps there's something you're doing. Instead of always thinking about what Robert does wrong, maybe you need to think about the part you play in this."
When we encourage our children to retell a day's events, we help motivate them to rethink those events and their responses to those events. What extraordinary teaching moments these interactions can be!
The stories that are told and retold in families everywhere also provide teaching opportunities; they are theories, lessons, parables. The great language educator, Margaret Meek, writes of the power of these stories. "Stories ... create our first memories.... From the stories we hear as children we inherit the ways we talk about how we feel, the values which we hold to be important, and what we regard as the truth."
Very often in my family the stories we share are those in which we've tackled adversity with great spirit. We're apt to swap fond memories about a cousin who dove overboard from a boat with all her clothes on in order to save the day, or about the youngsters who ran out of gas in the motorboat and had to row the length of the lake, but did so singing through the night.
Recently I took my youngest son out to dinner and found, upon arriving at the restaurant, that I'd left my shoes at home! "Oh, well," I consoled Evan. "We can eat at the McDonald's drive-through." Evan was aghast at the idea that our dinner date would be at McDonald's, so in the end, I walked through the parking lot in stocking feet and held my head high as Evan and I seated ourselves in a booth at a Chinese restaurant. We chose Chinese because we believed (mistakenly) that people don't wear shoes indoors in China. Throughout the evening, Evan and I consoled ourselves by imagining the "Trouble Story" our evening would produce.
That we share and celebrate these "Trouble Stories," as we've come to call them, has probably influenced my children as much as anything in our family. Optimism and energy, especially in the face of adversity, are defining characteristics of our clan. There isn't a relative who doesn't have a "Singing in the Rain" attitude toward life, and I have no doubt that this attitude comes from the powerful lessons taught through these family stories.
Stories are a family's way of saying "this is who we are." Stories about family heroes teach youngsters what it means to be heroic. Stories about mishaps teach youngsters that families and friends stay together through tough times. Stories about hard times teach the value of perseverance and hard work. Stories build and illustrate and recall family values. For some families, stories illustrate that no matter what, the family is always there to love a family member, even a prodigal son or daughter. In other families, stories reveal the resourcefulness of family members who have made do with very little.
When we and our children head off into our separate lives--to summer camp, to school, to jobs, to create our own families--we bring our family stories along. We are weaving the tapestry not only of who we have been but of who we will be.
Teaching the Art of Conversation throughout Our Children's Lives
When we return home after a vacation, to reunite with those who weren't with us, we encounter a great educational opportunity. Undoubtedly, someone will ask, "How was it?" For many children it might take some prodding to get a response beyond "It was great." But a moment like this can become a wonderful opportunity to support a child's language development. Try to narrow the question for your child. Ask her what in particular she liked best, and encourage her to give examples.
You've been on the trip, too. You could have answered the question yourself. You probably even knew what your daughter had enjoyed most. But I believe that children need to be inducted into the tradition of reliving and rethinking moments of their lives. This isn't a minor detail in a child's education; it's essential.
After conducting a 10-year-long study of oral language development in the home and school, Gordon Wells concluded that there is little doubt that in accounting for differences in children's mastery of literacy, the major influence is that of the home. He said there are many ways parents foster their children's development, but that "of all the activities that were characteristic of homes (that foster literacy), it was the sharing of stories that we found to be most important." He goes on to say,
Constructing stories in the mind--or storying, as it has been called--is one of the most fundamental means of making meaning. Whether at home or at work, in the playground or in the club, it is very largely through such impromptu exchanges of stories that each of us is inducted into our culture and comes to take on its beliefs and values as our own.
So invitations to tell stories matter. Openers such as, "How was your day?" and "What'd you do?" and "What have you been up to?" and "What's the news around here?" matter. Reminiscing about a family trip matters. Of course, the journeys that most need to be shared are the daily ones, and so we ask our children, "How was school today?" I don't think there is a child anywhere who gives us satisfactory answers to that question. Parents the world over agree, "She just tells me, `fine.' She never fills me in on the details."
You'd think we'd learn. If the question, "How was your day?" doesn't yield the details we're after, obviously we need to ask a different question, or to coach our children in ways of responding. Instead what we're apt to do is to shrug, and give up on the conversation. That's not okay. It's not acceptable to give up on an effort to hear about our child's day. Children live through so much each day. They may have been feeling rebuffed or humiliated or threatened by a classmate or teacher, and we don't hear about it. They may have felt intrigued by a subject, challenged by a way of reading or writing or calculating, exhilarated by a new sense of competency, comforted by a new friendship, and we don't hear about it.
A few fleeting years from now, our children will be confronted with major decisions about drugs, alcohol, sex, and violence, and we'll be desperate to find a way to talk things over with them. The conversational bridge must be built back in kindergarten, first, and second grades. Is it possible to convince a tenth grader who for a decade kept his or her school and social life private to suddenly talk about it? I doubt it.
It's a small decision, the decision to let a child respond, "Fine," when we ask about the child's day, but what profound implications! We need to hold tenaciously to our commitment to talk over the ups and downs of our days.
My boys have tried the standard "It was okay" answer when I ask about their days. Sometimes I tell them that such a response is not an acceptable answer. "`It was okay' tells me nothing. I'm dying to know what you did. What happened when you first got to the classroom? Then what?" I might say.
I doubt I help matters when I tell them it isn't acceptable to simply tell me the day was okay. Pursuing the conversation does help. I also rely on a few strategies to nudge my children into telling stories of their days. Journalists often say, "The more you know, the more you can learn," and for me this holds true. I try to visit my children's classrooms often, and even if my visit is just a tour of whatever is new, I always glean a sense of what's been going on in the room. I use what I know to help me learn more. If I know that Summer and Dillon have been working on a dramatic reading of a poem, then I can ask about that. If I know that recently one of the class fish was found dead on the floor, I can ask about that. If I know that the teacher always reads aloud to her students, I can ask, "What did Mrs. Grimes read to you today?" Then, if Evan says, "Nothing," I can say, "I guess it feels like she read nothing, Evan, but I'm pretty sure she reads aloud every single day. Why do you think it feels like she didn't read today?" It's often easier for our children to respond to particular questions than to summarize the day's events. It's easier for them to tell us who they played with at recess, what they ate for lunch, what happened in art class, and whether Robert got into trouble, than to tell us what happened in school.
Of course, sometimes our questions will feel like an inquisition, at which point, the more we question, the more our child draws into a shell. When this happens, John and I try to remind each other that we probably need to listen more to the little tidbits our boys do reveal, and try to value and extend these.
I learned the value of such everyday, ordinary, little bits of news when I was a child. Every Sunday morning at church there was an awkward, painful moment called "sharing of concerns." The minister would stand informally in front of the congregation and ask, "So, what's been going on?"
Silence. We'd stir in our pews. More silence. Finally, one person might stand and tell about a congregation member who'd been born or died. The minister would nod. "He will be in our prayers," he'd say. Then, looking out at us, he'd ask, "So, what else?" Using his most chatty, informal tone, he'd add, "What's up in your lives?"