1. Use books to build vocabulary.
Ms. Kenzi is reading The Pout-Pout Fish to her class of four-year-olds. They are in the middle of a whole unit on the ocean, and the children are very excited about the book. As she reads, “‘Mr. Fish is most astounded,’”she pauses and asks, “Astounded? Does anyone know what that means?” Brian says, “Surprised?” Nikki says, “Shocked?” Ms. Kenzi says, “You’re both right! Astounded is another word for feeling really surprised!”
This first strategy is so simple—you’re probably already doing it. In many classrooms, reading time plays a central role in the rhythm of our days. A slight shift in focus with this regular classroom feature is all it takes to target language development. Toddlers are rather notorious for their love of repetition—embrace this drive by reading the same book again and again (and encouraging families to do the same). This helps children begin to understand the rhythms of language and absorb the structure of sentences and storytelling. Alongside the regular favorites, introduce new books, taking advantage of current interests as you branch out.
Older preschoolers benefit from hearing and reading books with a wide variety of vocabulary and story-telling styles. When you come across a word children might not be familiar with, take a moment to talk about it. Ask children if they have an idea what it means—you might be surprised by what they know. Children often learn best from each other, so taking time to talk about what you read is an important vocabulary building exercise, and it helps you tune into their interests as you choose your next books.
Be sure that the books that you choose are well written, free from bias, and represent broad diversity of gender, race, abilities, family structures, and so on. Your local children’s librarian may be able to help, and there are a wealth of resources online for finding diverse, engaging, and high quality books. Read the books yourself first to be sure they are a good fit for you and your classroom. If you love a book, your enthusiasm will draw children in and connect them to all those new words.
2. Incorporate indirect language stimulation techniques.
Another mindful strategy that teachers can use is indirect language stimulation. Developed by speech and language pathologists, these techniques focus on the language you use as you interact with children, within the context of your relationship. They are excellent ways to help children develop more complex language skills and build larger vocabularies.
The first technique is description. To use this simple strategy, narrate or describe what is going on in the child’s world. When you notice an interest, explain to the child what he or she is seeing. This is especially useful with children under three, second language learners, and children with language delays who are working on building their expressive vocabulary.
“Joseph is building a tall tower!”
“That’s Marissa’s stepmother. She’s here to pick Marissa up today.”
“There is broccoli, pasta, and strawberries on your plate.”
The second technique is parallel talk. Parallel talk is “you talk,” focusing on what the child is doing, connecting their actions to words in the form of a complete sentence, adding new vocabulary whenever possible. This also helps support your relationship, showing children you value them and are paying attention to what they are doing.
“You have a red shirt and plaid pants on today!”
“You are feeding your baby in the high chair.”
“You are digging a deep hole in the sand!”
Self-talk is the third language technique covered here. Self-talk focuses on your (the teacher’s) actions, explaining what you are doing and why—it is “I talk.” Self-talk is also good way to help children prepare for transitions, drawing their attention to the important cues you provide them about what will happen next. (For more about managing transitions, see here.)
“I am cleaning the table because it is almost time for snack.”
“I am packing up my bag because, in five minutes, it will be time to go inside.”
“I am writing a note to tell your dad that you rode a tricycle today all by yourself.”
One more indirect language stimulation technique is expansion. Expansion is an ideal strategy to use with children who are learning to put words together to express more complex ideas. This strategy takes what a child says and expands it—sometimes adding to it—to make a complete sentence, offer more nuanced vocabulary choices, and make the most of an opportunity to build connection with the child.
Max says, “Milk!” His teacher says, “You’d like some milk to drink! I’ll pour some for you.”
Leila says, “Mama bye-bye.” Her teacher says, “Your mom went to work. She’ll be back to pick you up after nap time.”
Amhed says, “Wow, big!” and his teacher says, “I see that truck, too! It’s enormous!!”
One key detail about indirect language stimulation techniques is that they require nothing of the child in that moment. Children are not required to repeat you or adjust their own language. Instead, they learn over time from your good example within the context of a warm and supportive relationship.