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Baby Conversations Are an Important Part of Language Development

Baby Conversations are an Important Part of Language Development

Oral language development is a HUGE part of a child’s development! But the rate at which oral language develops is not merely about immersion and exposure. You can’t just turn a TV on or talk around babies in order for them to develop oral language, it’s all about being RESPONSIVE with interactions.

In an amazing book about children’s development called Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain in their chapter titled, “Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t” that,

“it’s not what a child hears from a parent, but what a parent accomplishes with a well-timed loving caress” (p. 207).

Babies developing oral language need us to notice when they are trying to communicate, to give them eye contact, to engage with them, and to respond to them. I like to call these moments baby conversations.

Baby Conversations

These mock conversations involve touch, eye contact, facial expression, and turn taking. Bronson and Merryman provide an example where,

“the baby coos, and daddy responds, ‘Is that so?’ The baby babbles again, and the daddy in jest returns, ‘Well, we’ll just have to ask Mom'” (p. 212).

Being a responsive parent means that you notice and pay attention to the cues that your baby is giving you and respond to them with vocalizations and touch.

In studies of language development, Bronson and Merryman discovered that,

“How often a mother initiated a conversation with her child was not predictive of the language outcomes – what mattered was, if the infant initiated, whether the mom responded” (p. 208).

When your baby is awake, alert, and looking around, get into a comfortable position about 12 inches from his or her face and simply make eye contact. Notice what your baby does. Does he kick his legs excitedly? Do his eyes light up with joy? Do you notice a hint of his first smile? Is he ready to make his first sound?

If he makes a sound, respond to it by nodding your head, smiling, rubbing his head or back, give his hand a squeeze, and say, “Good job!”. Then pause to give him a chance to talk again. Instead of chattering nonstop yourself (which I’ll admit, is tempting to do), continue this pause and respond conversation loop.

Bronson and Merryman also noticed that,

“While most parents seem to intuit their role in this turn-taking pattern spontaneously – without being told to do so by any handbook – they don’t all do so equally well. A remarkable study of vocal turn-taking found that when four-month-old infants and their parents exhibited better rhythmic coupling, those children would later have greater cognitive ability” (p.212).

Having better rhythmic coupling means that you are really in tune with your child, giving him or her an abundance of eye contact and plenty of chances for conversations.

Progression of Sounds

Baby babble may all sound like gibberish, but it follows a progression of overlapping sounds and each type of babble becomes more sophisticated than the one before. When parents notice that their babies are trying to make new sounds and respond to them, it encourages them to progress further.

It takes a year or more for babies to be able to control their vocal tract with no less than 80 muscles to control. There are five major stages of babbling development.

  1. Phonation Stage – In the first two months of life, newborns will cry, cough, grunt, and sneeze, but these sounds do not involve the vocal cords like speech does. The larynx (or voice box), begins to practice the type of vibration necessary for true vowel sounds while the rest of the vocal tract is at rest. You’ll start to hear quasi-vowel sounds from your baby as this develops.
  2. Gooing Stage – From 2-3 months of age, babies start to move their lips and tongue and consonant sounds start to emerge. At this stage, babies start to coordinate their gooing sounds with eye contact and are ready for baby conversations.
  3. Expansion Stage – Beginning at 4-5 months, we start to hear fully resonant vowel sounds and babies explore pitch and intensity with squealing, yelling, growling, whispering, and my favorite…laughter!
  4. Canonical Babbling – Around 6-7 months, the articulators, resonance, and voice become fully coordinated, and you’ll notice sounds that are real syllables. It starts out as repeated syllables but will soon transform into a mixture of consonant and vowel sounds. (It’s not so much that they are trying to say words as they are trying out sounds.) Sounds not in the child’s language will drop away while the commonly heard sounds are mastered. (This is why children who live in a bilingual household benefit from hearing both languages at a young age.)
  5. Integrative or Jargoning Stage – The last stage typically begins between 10-15 months when real words mixed with complex babbling form jargon (or words that make sense in the context of what is happening). Intonation (the rise and fall of the voice while speaking) also develops so nonsense gibberish will sound like comments, questions, and commands. Gestures, body language, and eye contact are also involved. At this stage, children can understand far more than they can say.

Speech and language pathologist Deborah L. Bennett, M.S. CCC-SLP recommends that,

“If the stages of babbling are delayed or absent, or if first words do not emerge by 15 months, the baby should be referred to an early intervention speech and language pathologist for evaluation.”

In Conclusion

When you’re caring for a new tiny human, you’re also probably sleep deprived and worried about things like feeding, diaper changes, and keeping your baby from being fussy, but as babies leave the so called “4th trimester”, they crave more and more stimulation. By giving babies our full attention, eye contact, and presence during these very important baby conversations, their oral language development will grow quickly and progress from one stage to the next and before you know it, you’ll be hearing the beautiful sound of non-stop chatter.

The Importance of Learning the ABCs

Learning the ABCs is something so intrinsic to childhood that as adults, we might hardly recognize the importance, but learning the ABCs is more than just singing a song, it’s understanding that each letter has a name, each letter makes a sound, and that these sounds come together to make words. Having a strong understanding of this concept at a young age will make learning how to read seem to happen “as if by chance” (which is how Finnish children typically learn to read).

What Does It Mean to Learn the ABCs?

  1. Letter Names: Learning the names of the 26 letters is pretty basic and straightforward. When children learn what each letter is called, it paves the way for learning the sounds that the letters make.
  2. Letter Sounds: Learning the sounds that the letters make is a bit more complex…probably due to the fact that our 26 letters actually make 44 different sounds. Knowing the different sounds that the letters make is called phonemic awareness.
  3. Letters Come Together to Make Words: Before children start putting letters together to make words, they need to understand that words represent something…a person, action, thing, idea, etc. Then, they learn that the letters “c”, “a”, and “t” can be sounded out as /c/-/a/-/t/ to make the word “cat” and this is the gateway to reading. This is what is known as phonics.
  4. Writing Letters: I often hear of children learning how to write their letters at the same time they are learning letter names and sounds, and I believe that these are two very different skills that should not be taught simultaneously (unless the window for learning has been missed, and there are no other options). Learning how to write letters requires an advanced level of fine motor skills that children do not typically possess until about 4 or 5 years of age, but learning the letter names and sounds is something that can begin as young as 6-8 months of age.

How Children Really Learn How to Read

There is a misconception in the United States (and other countries too) that children are not ready to learn how to read until they begin formal schooling. The U.S. Department of Education actually supports the notion that Louisa C. Moats coined in 1999 that,

“Teaching reading is rocket science.”

They go on to explain that,

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

This type of rhetoric perpetuates the stereotype that only qualified professionals are equipped to teach children such a complicated skill as reading. And while yes, teaching the letter names, sounds, and simple phonics does require a wee bit of direct and explicit instruction, it mostly occurs naturally when a learning environment is created that encourages the teaching of these skills.

If you look at the way they do things over in Finland (which boasts some of the highest reading scores in the world), you’ll see that children there are immersed in reading skills from a very young age and learn how to read “as if by chance”. (Read more about the differences in the U.S. and Finland’s educational system here in my blog: 15 Reasons Why Schools in Finland are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States).

In my blog, How Children Really Learn to Read..in 10 Steps, I explore the true progression that occurs when a child learns how to read based on what I’ve learned during my seven years as an elementary classroom educator and ESL teaching coach, throughout the acquisition of my Master’s degree centered around language acquisition, and from raising our four children who have all learned their ABCs from a very young age and then went on to read “as if by chance”.

Basically, learning how to read is about acquiring a battery of skills that starts at birth. It begins with feeling safe and loved and having all basic needs met, then it progresses into vocabulary development in a language rich environment that includes lots of songs, nursery rhymes, and repetitive reading, after that children need a solid foundation in letter names, sounds, an understanding that words have meaning, and explicit guidance to see how letters come together to form words. It then all culminates with a massive amount of word memorization that occurs almost effortlessly when a love of reading is nurtured and allowed to grow.

Brain Development

In my article, “How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning“, I explain in depth how children’s brains are wired to learn A LOT from a VERY young age. If you look at graphics like this one and this one that show the number of neurons and synaptic connections in between neurons, you’ll see that there is an EXPLOSION of connections beginning at about 6 months, culminating at an unprecedented height between the ages of 2-3, and then dwindling beginning at the age 4 when synaptic pruning occurs. During this process, the connections that are used become reinforced and the connections that are not used go away.

What does this have to do with the ABCs? When children begin learning about the ABCs at a very young age (like 6-8 months), the brain learns that this is something VERY IMPORTANT, something that needs to be reinforced, and something that will be used to help lay the foundation for all further connections that will be made in the brain.

Understanding the letter names and sounds from a young age is absolutely crucial to being able to sound out new words and add them to the memory bank of words. When this knowledge is solidified at a very young age, it makes learning how to read happen “as if by chance”.

Research Supports Early Learning of the ABCs

In every bit of research I have ever studied about early literacy, there is insurmountable evidence that a strong foundation in phonemic awareness produces amazing results. Take a look at this meta analysis of 71 intervention control groups in studies reporting post test and follow up data looking at the long term effects of phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and reading comprehension interventions. What they found is that,

“Comprehension and phonemic awareness interventions showed good maintenance of effect that transferred to nontargeted skills, whereas phonics and fluency interventions…tended not to.”

This reinforces the fact that learning phonemic awareness (the letter sounds) in conjunction with comprehension (so not just isolated phonemic awareness drills, but phonemic awareness in the context of learning say, vocabulary) is extremely important and WAY MORE so than phonics and fluency.

The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) research has studied 10,000 children over the past 15 years and found that the one of the main reasons why children struggle with reading comes down to their inability to do one simple thing, and that is to connect letter names to letter sounds. The research shows that children need to be explicitly taught the letter names, the letter sounds, and how to decode words, and that these are not skills that children will just “figure out” on their own with exposure.

The bottom line is that it is MUCH easier for children to learn things correctly the first time around. According to the research in “Learning to Read: A Call from Research to Action” by G. Reid Lyon, Ph.D 85-90% of all reading disabilities can be corrected if early intervention occurs (like in kindergarten). But unfortunately, many kids don’t become identified as having a reading disability or being behind in reading until they are 9 years old and by then, their brains aren’t as ready to accept new pathways of learning, and only 25% will be able to reach average reading levels with interventions.

The biggest disservice we are doing for children is that we are waiting WAY too long to teach them reading skills in the first place. If we can start to build the foundation for reading as parents when our children are young, then we won’t have to wait until it might be too late.

Observations with My Own Children

When our first daughter was born, being an educator, I naturally had great plans to stimulate her mind and help her grow, but after using portions of Your Baby Can Read and teaching her letter names and letter sounds I have been continuously BLOWN AWAY by all that she can do. When she knew all of her letters at 15 months, I was astounded, when she was reading words (that she memorized) well before the age of 2, I was blown away, and when she was full on able to read at the age of 4. Now, at the ripe old age of 6, she absolutely loves reading chapter books. (See more videos of all of our children learning how to read here.)

With all four of our children, we have taught them the letter names and letter sounds from a very young age (starting at about 8 months). At the same time, we have used repetitive reading and my own videos teaching vocabulary and the concept that words have meaning. After we taught my three older ones (now ages 3, 5, and 6) how to decode simple three letter words and continued reading to them regularly, we noticed that they all started to read (each in their own good time) “as if by chance”.

In Conclusion

By teaching children the ABCs from a young age, not only will they enjoy it and be entertained by the challenge, but they will move into the next phase of learning how to read with such strength, confidence, and ease without any of the challenges that come from not knowing the letter names, sounds, or how they work together.

Check out my reading program where I provide resources and explain in explicit detail how to teach your child how to read at a young age.

15 Reasons Why Finland's Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States at Embracing Motherhood

15 Reasons Why Finland’s Schools Are Performing Better Than Schools in the United States

Unless you’re really interested in education, you might not be aware of what’s going on in Finland’s schools. If you are, you may have read a few click bait articles about more recess, delayed kindergarten, and play based learning, but the whole story is much more interesting…and complex.

In this article, I hope to shed some light on why Finland has become such a buzzword for educational experts, how they got to be where they are, and all of the parts that make up the whole of their successful educational system. Throughout this article, I will compare what is working in Finland to what is currently being done in the United States to help paint a complete picture.

PISA Results

Let’s begin with the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) that put Finland on the map (as an educational buzzword that is) in the first place. PISA in an international test given every three years to 15 year olds in the areas of reading, math, and science with the 65 countries that have chosen to participate.

Below, I have listed the most recent scores (from 2012) from Finland and the United States in the three categories that the test covers. Below that, you will find their overall ranks listed with all of the other countries who participated. *Also note that Finland was ranked 1st in reading, 4th in math, and 3rd in science in 2000, 1st in reading and science and 2nd in math in 2003, 1st in reading and 2nd in math and science in 2006, and 1st in reading, 6th in math, and 2nd in science in 2009.

Finland

  • Reading – 6th
  • Science – 5th
  • Math – 12th

United States

  • Reading – 24th
  • Science – 28th
  • Math – 36th

2012 PISA Results

  1. Shanghai-China
  2. Singapore
  3. Hong Kong-China
  4. Taiwan
  5. Korea
  6. Macau-China
  7. Japan
  8. Liechtenstein
  9. Switzerland
  10. Netherlands
  11. Estonia
  12. Finland – 12th
  13. Canada
  14. Poland
  15. Belgium
  16. Germany
  17. Vietnam
  18. Austria
  19. Australia
  20. Ireland
  21. Slovenia
  22. New Zealand
  23. Denmark
  24. Czech Republic
  25. France
  26. UK
  27. Iceland
  28. Latvia
  29. Luxembourg
  30. Norway
  31. Portugal
  32.  Italy
  33. Spain
  34. Russia
  35. Slovakia
  36. US – 36th
  37. Lithuania
  38. Sweden
  39. Hungary
  40. Croatia
  41. Israel
  42. Greece
  43. Serbia
  44. Turkey
  45. Romania
  46. Cyprus
  47. Bulgaria
  48. UAE
  49. Kazakhstan
  50. Thiland
  51. Chile
  52. Malaysia
  53. Mexico
  54. Montenegro
  55. Uruguay
  56. Costa Rica
  57. Albania
  58. Brazil
  59. Argentina
  60. Tunisia
  61. Jordan
  62. Colombia
  63. Qatar
  64. Indonesia
  65. Peru

Since PISA began in 2000, Finland has held 1st place for reading year after year after year (which is why it initially gained such notoriety). The 2012 testing year saw Finland fall in rank from it’s usual top spots; read the theories about why that happened here. One of the theories is that countries like China, who are now showing up in the highest positions, emphasize rigorously preparing for tests via rote memorization which leaves children lacking in social and practical skills, self-discipline and imagination, and curiosity and passion for learning (source). Another theory is that Finland has been so preoccupied with being in a fishbowl while everyone analyzed what made them so great instead of focusing on their continuous progression. Always room for improvement, right?

1. Finland’s Reform

It is important to note that the educational system in Finland hasn’t always produced such pleasing results. In his article in the New Republic, “The Children Must Play“, Samuel E. Abrams, a visiting scholar at Teachers College, explains how Finland turned it’s educational system around in the 1970s.

“Finland’s schools weren’t always so successful. In the 1960s, they were middling at best. In 1971, a government commission concluded that, poor as the nation was in natural resources, it had to modernize its economy and could only do so by first improving its schools. To that end, the government agreed to reduce class size, boost teacher pay, and require that, by 1979, all teachers complete a rigorous master’s program.”

By recognizing the need for change and taking radical steps to do so, Finland is now performing near the top of the list. They faced a lot of scrutiny about their methods until the PISA test results came out in 2000, and now everyone is trying to figure out what makes Finland’s schools so successful.

In the rest of this article, I’ll focus on the hallmarks that have contributed to Finland’s successful educational system with a brief comparison to the educational system in the United States. Please keep in mind that it is all of these components working together that contribute to Finland’s success.

2. Being a Welfare State

As one of the world’s best functioning welfare states, Finland takes care of all of its citizens equally. With a poverty rate of just 5.3%, you won’t find huge disparities between the rich and the poor. Even if you grew up in poverty here, however, you would still get the same resources including high quality education as someone who grew up with more privileges.

Some people say that Finnish people are paid like doctors, but it’s not because teachers get paid more, it’s that doctors get paid less. In Finland, the amount of money you pay for a speeding ticket is all relative to your income. One millionaire was fined the equivalent of $103,000 for going 40 mph in a 35 mph. In Finland, the playing field is made as level as can be.

United States: In the United States, there is not the same sort of equality. The poverty rate in the U.S is 15%, but it’s even higher for children at 21%. That means that there are 15.5 million children, or roughly 1 in 5, that live in poverty. (Check out this poverty map to see the huge variance of poverty statistics from state to state.) In the United States, there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor, and if you grow up in poverty, you will NOT be afforded the same opportunities as those who grow up with more privileges. In fact, the United States is the ONLY nation in the world where the quality of public education is based on local wealth

So, in the end, Finland’s economy promotes social harmony, but the competitive nature of America’s economy has fueled many innovations…but at what price?

3. A Culture of Literacy and Learning

Finland is a country that prides itself on their love of learning and literacy. Check out this great PowerPoint created by the Finnish National Board of Education that explains what they do as a society (not just as an educational system) to create successful students.

One way that Finnish society supports literacy is by having one of the world’s best library systems. They are constantly getting new books and there is a high check out rate. Most homes subscribe to at least one newspaper, and the typical Finnish family starts the day at breakfast reading the morning paper and commenting on the day’s news.

About half of all Finnish TV is broadcast in a foreign language (mostly English) using Finnish subtitles (rather than dubbing). So when children are watching foreign TV, they need to read everything in Finnish! Bedtime stories are also a very important ritual.

United States: What are the priorities of the United States as a whole? This was kind of a hard one to sum up because the United States is so much bigger than Finland, but I think that this guide to living in America for foreigners gives a very revealing portrayal of what foreigners should expect when trying to fit into “American culture”. First of all, it explains that Americans are individualistic and time oriented as well as friendly and direct. It goes on to say that Americans love their sports, love their hobbies, and are fastidious about their appearance. It also warns of the prejudices and racism found mainly in small towns and in the south often expressed in off color humor where the presenter maybe doesn’t realize that they are sounding racist. 

In my opinion, I feel that there is this pervasive (yet erroneous) notion of the “American Dream” fostered by stories such as Abraham Lincoln living in a log cabin and rising to become president just because he worked hard enough when the reality is best expressed in the story of “The Death of a Salesman”  which gives a much more realistic (and grim) portrayal of this ideal. The majority of American culture that I have encountered (throughout my brief exposure to the entirety of the United States) can be summed up by our stereotype of nerds. They are often portrayed in sitcoms, movies, and life as being very smart yet socially awkward, not into fashion, not invited to parties, and thus a less desirable position to be in. Then you have those who slough of school, who don’t need to work hard, and who have all the friends and popularity portrayed as the ultimate achievement leading to true happiness. The fact that the notion of “nerds being unpopular” even exists reveals that our true opinions are of learning and literacy are that it is more important to look cool than to be smart and that the two don’t typically mix.

4. Teacher Training

I think that one of the most important things that Finland did to reform education was to create highly qualified teachers. They did this by not just requiring all teachers to get a Master’s degree, but by paying for it as well. Not only is college in Finland free, but when teachers are enrolled in the graduate level teacher’s program for three years, they get a stipend for living expenses so that they don’t go into debt while they’re going to school.

Getting into this graduate level program is tough with only 10-15% of applicants being accepted, so the teacher education program is truly getting the top of the pool. Being a teacher in Finland is considered a highly prestigious position because the entire Finnish culture supports learning.

United States: In the United States, most states require teachers to have a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, but because of teacher shortages, there are many alternative routes to becoming a teacher and private schools do not often require teaching certificates at all. Also, there is no free college here. You may get some financial aid for a bachelor’s degree, but the average debt of a Master’s level degree in education is $50,000.

5. Taken Care of From Birth

One of the hallmark’s of Finland’s success is how they take care of their mothers and children. All working mothers are provided a 4 month paid maternity leave in addition to a free Finnish baby box (or cash value) that includes everything needed for a newborn. Then, either the mother or father can take a paid parental leave until the baby is 9 months old. This benefit is extended to adoptive parents as well.

If a parent chooses to stay home with their child until he/she is 3, they will get a Child Care Allowance in the equivalence of $385/mo. Approximately 50% of all mothers take full advantage of this. *This is in addition to the $107/mo. Child Benefit package that is given until the child reaches 17.

United States: The United States is pretty much the only country that doesn’t provide maternity leave for mothers…or fathers, except for assuring twelve weeks of unpaid paternity leave without losing their job. The Child Tax Credit does take approximately $1,000 off your tax bill per child, a recent increase which is actually pretty cool. 

6. Early Childhood Education (Day Care)

When parents in Finland choose work and send their children to day care, it is not at all considered to be a babysitting service. There are National Curriculum Guidelines that discuss such things as the child’s well-being as the target, the role of the educator, the joy of learning, the role of language, how young children learn through play, parental engagement, and content orientations in the areas of mathematics, nature, science, history, aesthetics, religion, ethics, religion, and philosophy. This is because day cares fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. In addition, most teaching and guidance staff in day cares hold a bachelor’s degree.

About 80% of mothers with their youngest child between the ages of 3-6 are working and most take advantage of the municipal day care system which is heavily subsidized based on family size and income. There is also a private day care allowance if that is the route parents choose.

United States: In the United States, it is a completely different story. First of all, there is no unifying system for day cares, no guiding curriculum that focuses on the “whole child” or any sort of educational or enrichment standards whatsoever, and the Department of Education is not involved in any way shape, or form. Instead, day cares are overseen by the Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that merely provides a massive checklist of possible health and safety violations. (Check out this example from Michigan.) Even though every state is slightly different, most day cares require only a high school diploma for employment. 

A 2007 survey by the National Institute of Child Health Development found that the majority of day care facilities were either “fair” or “poor”, and only 10% were found to provide high quality care. The recommendation is that there is one caregiver for every three infants between the ages of 6-18 months, but only one-third of settings meet that standard. Horror stories like these are way too common in day cares across the United States.

The overall statistic says that 61% of all children ages 3-6 are in some sort of center-based care. The reality is that for poor families, this looks more like 45%, and for wealthier families, it looks more like 72%. And even though the government subsidizes up to $3,000 per family for daycare (regardless of income), this only covers a fraction of the costs which can be upwards of $15,000/year.

7. Pre-Primary Education (Pre-School and Kindergarten)

While kindergarten may not start until children are 7, mandatory preschool starts when children are 6. Before this became mandatory in 2015, 97% of children were already attending preschool.

Just like with the day cares, the preschools are governed by the Ministry of Education and use a very holistic pre-primary curriculum (used for preschool and kindergarten) that focuses on the development of the whole child. This document discusses the purpose of pre-primary education, general objectives of education and learning, the concept of learning, what constitutes a good learning environment, and more. And while yes, they do include paragraphs detailing the big ideas for language and interaction as well as mathematics, they also have sections explaining the instruction of ethics and religion, environmental and natural studies, health, physical and motor development, arts and culture, and more. It is a very well rounded curriculum guideline.

United States: In the United States, preschool starts at the age of 3 or 4, and it is not mandatory. A 2015 report by the Department of Education called A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, explains how only 41% of 4 year olds attend preschool and that there are racial and socioeconomic disparities that prevent access to high quality preschool programs for all children. It also explains how we know that the preschool education provided is abysmal and that steps are being taken to correct that…but are they the right steps?

Grants were recently given to 20 states to design better plans for teaching young children, and states like Missouri did a nice job of creating Early Learning Standards, but the problem is that the focus is just too narrow and too specific. Instead of presenting a narrative that gives the big idea while still allowing for teacher and student autonomy and flexibility, everything is broken up into core subjects and then extremely specific descriptors are given for every possible skill that anyone could ever imagine covering. The document is so large and overbearing that there is no way someone could teach all of this without carrying around a little guidebook telling them what to say and do every step of the way.

8. A Curriculum That Focuses on the Whole Child

Here are the Finnish standards for the basic education, which covers grades 1st – 9th. Like with pre-primary education, they focus on the whole child and cover a wide variety of topics that extend far beyond just what is measured on standardized tests. While art, music, and PE are being cut for budgetary reasons in the U.S., Finland still finds time to teach crafts, home economics, foreign languages, health, religion, ethics, music, visual arts, physical education, and more. This focus on the whole child is one of the hallmarks that makes their educational system not just work, but thrive.

The Center on International Education Benchmarking, an organization dedicated to learning from the world’s high performing education systems explains how,

“Finnish classrooms emphasize the importance of learning through doing, and place particular emphasis on group work, creativity and problem-solving skills. From primary school onward, students are expected to work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects. In many cases, students are expected to contribute to the design of these projects as well. In upper secondary school, students are expected to contribute to the design of their course of study.”

They also describe how,

“In the early years of school, Finnish students often stay together in a class with the same teacher for several years. That way, the teacher can follow their development over several grade levels, and they are able to learn in what many consider to be a family-like environment.”

United States: In the United States, we have federally created Common Core Standards that most states have adopted and then adapted for their own personal use. Since I live in Michigan, here are Michigan’s standards. I encourage you to at least browse through their categories. You’ll notice an emphasis on core subjects with standards that give very specific examples for how each grade level should progress through each standard. Check out these English Language Arts Standards for K and 1st grade to see exactly what I mean.

There is this sense in the United States that we have to teach skills to mastery and that it is facts and skills that will lead to knowledge and success, but Finland has touched on something that I have found to be highly successful in my own teaching experience both in the classroom and with my own children, and in my opinion, it is this:

Children are not empty vessels to be filled. They are curious, inquisitive, and imaginative beings that only need to be given the tools to reach their given potential. Our role as teacher should be to guide them towards their interests, to provide them with the skills and resources necessary to take their learning to the next level, and to be an audience as they share their discoveries.

If we can do this, our children will reach greater heights than anything we could ever design for them.

9. How Finnish Children Learn to Read

There is a misconception that because Finnish children don’t start going to compulsory school (kindergarten) until they are 7, they don’t start learning how to read until then, but that is simply not true.

Because the National Ministry in Finland is in charge of the day cares and preschools, it designs a curriculum that supports the literacy growth through all developmental phases. In day care, children are engaged in play based learning that prepares them for preschool. In preschool, they teach phonological awareness and vocabulary through a variety of genres and types of literature.

And this is why the Finnish National Board of Education states that,

“half of the pre-school pupils learn to read as if by chance.”

There is also a lot of support for struggling students. 37% of first-graders get some kind of additional support, but the students who struggle rarely do so because of a lack of basic skills. (i.e. Students enter school with a strong foundation in basic skills.) Early intervention is strongly emphasized, and all teachers have knowledge and expertise on learning difficulties. The cooperation between parents, teachers, and other experts is intense and is a HUGE part of student achievement.

Finally, Finnish is actually one of the easiest languages to learn how to read. The Finnish alphabet is similar to the English alphabet but with only 21 letters (that are used anyways) and no weird exceptions (like the hard and soft g and c and diagraphs). In addition, every Finnish word is pronounced exactly as it’s written, and there are simple rules for everything with very few exceptions. This makes it very easy for children how to read “as if by chance” and explains why the vast majority of Finnish students enter school with strong reading skills.

United States: Children in the United States are taught to read according to the five components of reading.

  1. Phonemic Awareness: Letter sounds
  2. Phonics: The relationship between letter names, sounds, and how they work together
  3. Fluency: Reading with accuracy, speed, and expression
  4. Vocabulary: The meaning of words
  5. Comprehension: Understanding what is being read

The instruction is systemic (meaning that it is carried out by the entire system), and systematic (meaning that it is carried out in a step by step process).

When it come to reading, the U.S. Department of Education supports the notion that, 

“Becoming a reader is not a natural process, but requires direct and explicit instruction.”

Remember how in Finland kids were learning to read “as if by chance”? Well, not so in the U.S. Here, students must patiently wait until their empty little brains are filled with all of the facts and skills that teachers can cram in there.

And how well is this working? Not so well. According to the most recent 2015 national reading test as reported by the NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) otherwise known as the “Nation’s Report Card”, only 36% of 4th graders and 38% of 8th graders were proficient in reading. Yikes!

10. No Standardized Testing

One of the biggest hallmarks of Finland’s educational system is that they have no standardized testing whatsoever. The only test they are required to take is when they graduate high school if they wish to go on to a university. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“While nations around the world introduced heavy standardized testing regimes in the 1990s, the Finnish National Board of Education concluded that such tests would consume too much instructional time, cost too much to construct, proctor, and grade, and generate undue stress.”

United States: In the United States, we spend $1.7 billion on standardized testing every year. In her article in Education Week, “Why Bipartisanism Isn’t Working for Educational Reform“, Ann Stuart Wells, a professor at Teachers College points out that since NCLB, we now spend five to six times more funds on testing with 90% of this going to private testing companies. In this environment, teachers can’t help but feel inundated with testing that seems to drive every aspect of their teaching day. Even Obama says that he regrets “taking the joy out of teaching and learning with too much testing”. 

11. Teacher (and Student) Freedom and Autonomy

Not only are all teachers in Finland highly qualified, they are trusted to do what is best for their students. Samuel E. Abrams explains how,

“Teachers in Finland design their own courses, using a national curriculum as a guide, not a blueprint, and spend about 80 percent as much time leading classes as their U.S. counterparts do, so that they have sufficient opportunity to plan lessons and collaborate with colleagues.”

In his article, “Inside of a Finnish Classroom“, Tim Walker, an American teacher teaching in Finland shares his observations of what Finnish classrooms look like.

“In Finland, it’s common to find classrooms that are very different from each other. This makes sense given that a teacher’s individuality is deeply respected.”

He goes on to explain the slow pace of the classroom where the teacher is calm instead of, “anxiously pacing around the classroom, checking in on everyone”, which is so often the mood in the U.S. schools, especially during testing time. Teachers also dress casually, are called by their first names, and students don’t even have to wear shoes.

Check out this video of a teacher in a Finnish school where you’ll notice her calm demeanor, the freedom and autonomy that the children have, the lack of discipline problems, the way that the students are engaged and on task, and the way that each child is given time and attention. At no time does it feel like a script is being followed.

United States: Check out this video of a teacher in the United States teaching literacy. This is pretty much the exact same thing you will see in just about every primary literacy lesson because teachers in the United States must follow a very scripted method of teaching which leaves little room for freedom and autonomy for teachers or students. The teacher is typically either addressing the entire class as a group or working with small ability groups.

12. Less Time in School

In Finland, school starts between 8 and 9 am and ends between 1 and 2 pm. During this 5 hour school day (7-8 year olds attend half days), there is lunch (hot lunches are provided free for every student) with a 75 minute long recess and 15 minute breaks every hour where kids must go outside to play. Their playgrounds are also elaborately designed (sometimes with the help of the children) in ways that encourage lots of movement as well as creative and imaginative play.

In his article published in Education Week, “Classroom Shock: What I Am Learning as a Teacher in Finland“, Tim Walker explains how not only are the kids getting a break every hour, but the teachers are as well. During their 15 minute breaks, teachers are encouraged to catch up with their colleagues while drinking coffee in the teacher’s lounge rather than frantically trying to prepare for the next lesson.

Finnish teachers work on average 570 hours a year, nearly half of the 1,100 hours that U.S. teachers do. In addition, they also have little to no homework.

United States: Students in the U.S. spend about 7 hours a day at school with a 30 minute lunch recess and maybe a 15 minute morning recess for the younger grades. 

13. Smaller Class Sizes

In 1985, when authorities in Finland postponed tracking from 7th to 10th grade (meaning the separation of students based on ability), they knew that they would need to make class sizes smaller to accommodate these heterogeneous groups. Now, the average class size in 1st and 2nd grade is 19 students and in grades 3 through 9, it is 21 students.

United States: It’s very hard to find reliable data about class sizes in the United States because we are governed by a 16:1 student to teacher ratio, meaning that specialist teachers from speech therapists to music teachers who might not be in the room every day count towards this ratio leaving some classrooms to balloon to 30+ students. We saw this in our daughter’s kindergarten class before we switched schools.

14. Play Based Learning

Finland encourages play based learning as the foundation of day care, preschool, and kindergarten.

In an article published in the Atlantic by Finland education blogger Tim Walker, he explains how kindergarten students only engage in desk work, like handwriting, once a week. He goes on to explain what he noticed while observing classrooms:

“Instead of a daily itinerary, two of them [teachers] showed me a weekly schedule with no more than several major activities per day: Mondays, for example, are dedicated to field trips, ballgames, and running, while Fridays—the day I visited—are for songs and stations.”

During his observations, he noticed kids singing songs and chants, attending stations such as fort-making with bed sheets, arts and crafts, and running a pretend ice cream shop.

United States: In select preschools in the U.S. there is a remarkable programs being used Tools of the Mind that uses play based Vygotsky-inspired learning that encourages creative and imaginative play, but this is the exception, not the rule.

15. Cooperation not Competition

In his article, “The Finnish Miracle“, published in Great Kids!, Hand Pellissier, a freelance writer on education and brain development, explains how,

“Americans give lip service to the notion that ‘all men are created equal’, but our appetite for competition creates an intense focus on ranking low and high performers — whether they’re schools or students.”

Without standardized testing in Finland, schools aren’t ranked against each other, teachers aren’t evaluated primarily by the test scores of their students, and the curriculum isn’t organized around these tests. This creates an environment without the pressure to “perform” on one single measure of assessment, but to allow for more open ended model of learning.

Students aren’t ability grouped, and the advanced students work alongside the struggling ones. There isn’t a sense of one group looking down on another, they realize that they all have different strengths and weaknesses, and they work together to help each other out.

There are also no private schools, no schools of choice, and no sense that the best students are being skimmed off the top. Also, most schools don’t even provide organized sports.

In Conclusion

Since their reform in the 1970s, Finland has turned around a stagnant economy by focusing on the improvement of their educational system. As a result, they have a thriving economy and one of the world’s most respected educational systems. They didn’t do this by just having children start kindergarten at a later age or providing more recess time (which are the two big buzz topics that always get all of the attention), they did it by focusing on the entire infrastructure of education from the ground up…from funding, to training, to best practices, to seeing results.

In the end, what makes Finland work is a mindset. They love learning, they enjoy it, they see each child as an individual, not a test score, and they provide an open ended method of instruction that leaves the sky as the limit. By adopting this mindset within our families, within our homes, and within our communities, maybe that can be the first step in a long journey of educational improvement in the United States…and around the world.

*Check out my free resources, tips, and tricks for teaching children how to read here.

To Learn More:

In my article, I have provided links where appropriate to all of my sources. These links below are either resources that I didn’t link to in the article or that I thought provided a very thorough and complete look at this topic.

Embracing Motherhood Teaching Children in Their Zone of Proximal Development

How to Set Learning Goals for Young Children

As a former teacher and now parent, would you expect anything less than me setting learning goals for my children? 🙂 But this isn’t about me trying to breed academically superior children (although they probably will be), it’s about me wanting to give my children the best childhood possible…and guess what? Children actually LOVE learning!

What Are Learning Goals?

As a teacher, my learning goals were tied into grade level expectations and state standards (Common Core), but now as a parent, I have the freedom to look at where my children are…not where they should be. By teaching my children in their zones of proximal development, I am able to create learning goals and activities to accompany them that match the exact strengths, interests, and developmental levels of each individual child.

Learning goals can pertain to a desired behavior, the next steps in an academic progression (reading, writing, math), an artistic or musical goal, a concept or idea, a new understanding, movement, or anything.

Setting and Using Learning Goals

Here are a series of steps that I follow to set and use learning goals for each of my children. If you would like to see examples of these learning goals check out my blog: Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children.

1. Know Where They Are

Being a stay at home mom has truly been a blessing in my life. I love being home with my little ones and having the time to really get down on the floor with them and play. Sure I have my hands full with laundry and preparing healthy meals, but my favorite parts of the day are just spent immersed in whatever my children want to do.

On any given day, I can be found building Lego towers, tickling and wrestling, reading piles of books, playing catch outside, using our imaginations and dress up clothes to transport ourselves to new worlds, playing music on the keyboard, making Play-Doh creations, doing flashcard activities, playing Starfall, or any other number of things. I just love to let my children lead me to what they want to do and then get lost in their worlds with them.

When I get down on the floor and play with my children, it really helps me to know first hand what things they are good at, what things they enjoy doing, what they are curious about, where their passions lie, and what things they are struggling with.

For example, when I play imagination games with Elliot, I can see how crazy obsessed he is with getting into these imaginary worlds where good versus evil, and I think, “How can I bring this idea into reading? Could I make some favorite things books with his favorite characters and give them word bubbles? How can I help him to expand his imaginary world? Are there some new problems and solutions that I can show him that he can use in his made up world?”

2. Discuss It

It’s one thing to just think about it, but these thoughts can get lost in the daily minutia if we don’t express them somehow. I am constantly talking to my husband about each of our children. We love talking throughout the day and into the night after the kids are all in bed about all of the cute, funny, and amazing things they are doing. We also like to discuss the things they are struggling with along with possible solutions.

I also love keeping journals where I record the milestones and special moments of our daily lives, and sometimes I will even make charts with each child’s learning goals. Through thinking, writing, and/or communicating in some form about where my children are, it helps me to be able to visualize where to take them next.

3. Set Learning Goals

Each child is completely unique and different. I don’t think about what they need to learn before kindergarten, I don’t worry about what other kids their age are doing, and I don’t go to the Internet to look up “preschool activities” or something overly general of that nature. I just look at them, listen to them, observe them, think, get in their minds, and let my creative juices flow as I ponder,

“What would excite them? What would engage them? What would they love to do over and over and over?”

Sometimes, we have a technical goal to work on like correcting a backwards letter in writing or pronouncing a word correctly, but mostly, I like to set goals according to each child’s strengths and interests.

*To see examples of specific learning goals that I’ve set for each of my children and what I do to to help them achieve them, check out my blog here.

4. Share with the Children

Whenever I set a learning goal, I like to share it with each child. For the younger ones, I don’t explicitly say, “This is your learning goal”, but with my 2 year old, I might say something like,

“You’re reading all of the words on the whole page! I’m so proud of you for reading so well! You’re learning how to be a reader!”

With my older ones, I’ll either write down their learning goals or just talk to them about it. For Ruby (6 years old), I would say,

“I’ve noticed that you’re really interested in meiosis and mitosis. What would you like to know more about? Would you like to make a poster or a book to show what you are learning?”

Or with Elliot (4 years old) I would say,

“You are really good at addition and subtraction. I think you’re ready to start learning about multiplication! What do you think?”

When we praise children for vague and general behaviors simply giving the old standard, “Good job!” they lose sight of why they were doing a certain activity. “Is the ultimate goal to get praise?” they might wonder. But by praising them for specific actions, ideas, or behaviors, we are using praise to actually help their brains give a name to what they are learning, and this helps them to form their identities. (To read more about children and praise, check out my blog: When You Tell Children They are Smart It Actually Makes them Dumb.)

I like to encourage my older children to set their own goals too. Sometimes I’ll just say,

“What would you like to get better at?”

Or I might give them a little more guidance and say, “We’ve been learning a lot about the body and how it works, what would you like to learn about next?”

4. Find the Time to Teach

It can be hard finding specific teaching times, especially if you’re like me with a bunch of little ones, but instead of designating certain teaching times of the day (or year), I simply find ways to embed teachable moments throughout each day.

Many people have asked my why I don’t homeschool my children. Read my blog here if you want to read the long answer, but the short answer is that I’m doing homeschool all the time. From the moment they wake up until the moment they go to bed, during summer break, winter break, spring break, and even on the weekends, I am always looking for teachable moments. My entire home is set up for learning, and I’m always looking for ways to make our environment conducive for learning in a fun and engaging way.

Throughout the day, I balance getting things done, dealing with basic needs, and finding time for teachable moments.

It’s like I have this little dial in my brain that keeps track of who had one on one time last, who needs it next, who seems to need more of it, who needs a little nudge, who is doing wonderfully on their own, and so on.

While I try to balance things out during the day, sometimes my balancing is a little more long term. For example, I might feel like there’s one particular child who needs my attention more than the others, and so I’ll really work to make that child the focus for an extended number of days.

5. Teaching

Teaching in my home as a parent looks very different from what teaching looked like in my classroom. As a teacher, I would see all 28 students like one gigantic mega blob student that I had to keep under control at all times. When I would get ready to teach a lesson, I would either gather everyone up to circle time or have them sit in their seats as I would begin with an anticipatory set to get their attention. I would then launch into a mini-lesson where I would make the learning goals very clear. Next, I would model what I expected, give students guided practice (working with me in a small group, working with others in small groups, working in pairs, working with an aide, etc.), and then give them a chance to practice what they learned independently.

Now, as a parent, all of these steps are intermingled and actually, most of the learning takes place with the two of us side by side going through things together. In this way, the learning always stays in their zone of proximal development, and I’m able to scaffold appropriately where needed.

As Elliot and I are sitting on the floor together playing with Legos for example, I’m modeling how to build a multi-dimensional tower as he works on his own. He might look over at mine and use some of my ideas, or he might continue on his own path. As we play, I encourage him to talk out loud about what he is doing, and I listen asking questions along the way. Every once in awhile, I might suggest something new, like I might take a toy figure and have him climb on Elliot’s tower saying, “Hey, what’s going on up here?”

The bottom line is that as a parent working one on one with my child, I’m able to make the learning outcomes open ended. As a teacher, it was very hard to design lessons and activities where the students could have the freedom to go in their own direction while trying to hold both them and myself accountable. I think that the learning is far more engaging when children can decide their own direction. It also takes a lot of the pressure off from me to try to guide them to just regurgitate the right answer.

I’ll share another example with Ruby and a writing project. I know that she’s really good writing single words and short phrases, but she hasn’t been able to write complete sentences or paragraphs independently very well. So the other day I suggested we do some writing about her favorite topic, Digimon. “Would you like to write a story or make a favorite things book?” I asked her. She chose to make a favorite things book and excitedly gathered all of her materials.

As she glued each of her favorite characters down and wrote about them, I actually didn’t really do or say anything to guide her along. I just listened. I was an audience. I asked her questions or talked about what was interesting and I helped her to spell a few words, but I wasn’t trying to force her to do something my way.

I knew that whatever she created would be amazing…and it was.

6. Independent Practice

Once I sit side by side with my children and help them navigate through a new activity, it then becomes something that they can do independently.

When I work with my children on new learning goals and new activities to support these learning goals, I like to think about guiding them towards activities that they can do independently for extended periods of time.

In this way, my “homeschool not homeschool” day usually functions with everyone working on independent centers which frees me up to work one on one with a child, with a few children, or to get caught up on some cooking, housework, or take care of the baby.

We don’t have just one playroom or one designated homeschool room where all of the learning takes place. Instead, I have little areas set up around the house where learning can take place, and let me tell you why. First of all, even though my four children do like to all play together sometimes, other times, they like to be alone. I often hear an older one scolding a younger one for taking his or her toys and I always have to remind them, “You used to be just the same way until _____ (us, older sibling) taught you how to play.” At any rate, it’s nice to have things spread out so that they can be spread out.

Another benefit for spreading things out is that I usually have work to do in just about every room (particularly the kitchen), and I like to have them nearby me so I can hear what’s going on. The final and most important reason I like things spread out is that I find that children seem to do more with less. They like little spaces with a minimal amount of toys where they can use everything. Sometimes a gigantic playroom with lots of toys can seem overwhelming. As an added bonus, as kids migrate from room to room, it’s easier to pick up after them.

In Conclusion

By setting individualized learning goals for our children, I can be ready to jump into teachable moments as they arise. When children are gently scaffolded in their zones of proximal development and given the freedom to learn in an open ended environment, I think they can make the most amount of growth in the areas that are of the most interest to them. The amazing thing about setting learning goals (like these) is that instead of performing “at grade level”, your children will blow all of your expectations out of the water and take you to places you would have never even dreamed possible.

Happy learning!

Embracing Motherhood Setting and Achieving Learning Goals for Young Children

Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children

I love setting learning goals with my children so that I can keep track of where they are and what I can do to help facilitate their growth to the next level. Teaching children in the zone of proximal development helps me to achieve this. By scaffolding their learning to where they are, not where they should be as deemed by grade level and age level expectations, I can help each child grow in a way that fits their specific needs.

Even though we are involved in public education, I still design a homeschool atmosphere for my younger ones who are home with me all the time and the older ones who are learning at home after school, on the weekends, during breaks, and over the summer. During the summer months, I am especially focused on their goals because it helps me to establish a successful and productive routine.

Examples of Learning Goals

How I set learning goals is just as important as what the learning goals are, but I thought it best to separate these topics into two separate posts. By seeing a brief description of each child along with their learning goals and how I can facilitate their learning, I hope to provide a clear picture of what it means to set learning goals.

These goals are always shifting and changing depending on their interests and moods, my interests and available time, the time of year, whether or not everyone is sick, how much sleep I got the night before, and so on. Sometimes I write them down, but usually I just tuck them away in the back of my mind. I don’t follow some strict daily schedule, but rather try to incorporate these learning goals into our daily routines and into the one on one time I spend with each of them throughout the day.

*Note: I wrote this article a year ago, and am finally publishing it now, so my current learning goals are different.

1. Julian (11 Months)

Julian is the happiest little baby you’ll ever meet. He gets to have his mom at home all the time and breastfeeds on demand. After he gets lots and lots of love and cuddles from me, he loves to crawl around like crazy and explore his world. He is very fascinated by whatever his siblings are doing, and he loves chasing around our cat! He also loves watching Your Baby Can Read videos (which sadly aren’t available anymore so we are currently making our own videos) and cuddling up on my lap to read interactive books.

Julian’s Learning Goals

  • Learn about his environment
  • Crawl safely
  • Go up and down the stairs
  • Walk
  • Babble and talk
  • Learn how to make different sounds
  • Learn about the names of things that he interacts with in his environment
  • Say words
  • Turn the pages in a book
  • Interact with books
  • Grasp objects
  • Play with toys
  • Interact with others
  • Play independently

What I Can Do to Facilitate Julian’s Learning Goals

  • Babyproof the house so he can explore freely
  • Sit behind him as he learns about the stairs
  • Hold his hands to help him walk
  • Sit him on my lap and let him explore my mouth as I make exaggerated sounds
  • Have conversations with him where I speak, then pause waiting for him to speak, and so on
  • Say certain words over and over (His favorite words are clap, mouth, and daddy. I’ll say, “Clap. Clap. Can you clap your hands? Clap your hands like mommy. Good clapping Julian!” Or I’ll say, “Mouth. Mouth. Can you open your mouth? Mouth. I can open my mouth.”)
  • Talk to him about his environment, whatever we’re doing, and tell him the names of things (Check out my blog about oral language development for more tips and tricks for developing oral language.)
  • Repeat what he says
  • Watch Your Baby Can Read videos WITH him and talk to him about what is happening, use these words often when not watching the videos (Here’s a video we made to teach our children vocabulary.)
  • Sit him on my lap and read cloth books, board books, and any other kind of interactive book that he can touch and feel (Check out my blogs: How to Engage Your Baby with Reading and Best Books for Babies)
  • Help him to turn the pages of a book
  • Set up baskets of toys that he likes and can explore by himself
  • Set up furniture so it is easy for him to pull himself up to stand
  • Show him how certain toys work and play with him

2. Ophelia (2, Halfway to 3)

Ophelia needs to have her tank filled with lots of cuddles and love, but after this happens, she’s ready to be independent…extremely independent. She loves language like crazy and is already reading quite well. When she finds something that she likes to do, she will do it over and over and over again. She also loves putting things into things (like marbles into a metal tin), sorting objects, and stacking things.

Ophelia’s Learning Goals

  • Read words she knows automatically
  • Read words in sentences
  • Read words in books
  • Picture read books
  • Read flashcards independently
  • Review letter names and sounds
  • Sound out words
  • Learn new vocabulary words from her environment
  • Learn new vocabulary words that are abstract (in books, etc.)
  • Sing favorite songs and learn new songs
  • Expand her imaginative play
  • Learn Spanish words and phrases (and maybe other languages)
  • Count to 20, count higher
  • Demonstrate one to one counting principle
  • Say the names and descriptors of shapes (number of sides, etc.)
  • Do puzzles independently
  • Continue stacking and sorting
  • Color on paper with multiple colors

What I Can Do to Facilitate Ophelia’s Learning Goals

  • Make flashcard rings of words and phrases she knows
  • Make flashcard rings of words and phrases that she is learning
  • Set out her favorite books in easy to reach baskets
  • Read books with her, model picture reading, point to words as I’m reading, read simple level 1 books and point to words that she can read on her own, give wait time (You might like this blog: How Children Really Learn to Read or this one too: How to Raise Children who WANT to read.)
  • Make mini-books with her favorite words and phrases
  • Make favorite things books with lots of pictures
  • Talk to her about her world as we play together
  • Sing songs together, teach her new songs that have hand motions
  • Model imaginative play, play with her
  • Find some intro to Spanish videos to watch
  • Make counting books, practice counting objects and pointing to them
  • Make shape books with descriptors
  • Set up an independent puzzle station
  • Set up stacking cups, add some small objects like golf balls that she can put into cups
  • Color together

3. Elliot (4, Almost 5)

Elliot marches to the beat of his own drum, literally. He absolutely loves rhythm, music, dancing, and any type of music. He is very empathetic with a big heart and desperately needs his daily dose of cuddles. He has an incredible imagination and loves making toy figures come to life during imaginative play. He also loves anything that has to do with building like Legos, blocks, and especially Minecraft.

Elliot’s Learning Goals

  • Play the keyboard
  • Play the drums
  • Play on the guitar
  • Dance to music
  • Learn how to dribble a soccer ball, and shoot a basket
  • Play different games that involve lots of running and motion independently
  • Build elaborate structures with a variety of materials
  • Pick out books that he would like to read together
  • Read his favorite things books independently (picture reading, basic words)
  • Read words that he knows when we read together
  • Read simple 3 and 4 letter word flashcards
  • Read all Your Baby Can Read words
  • Read all Dolch words
  • Read simple sentences
  • Draw pictures of his choosing
  • Learn about science topics he’s interested in: dinosaurs, weather, rocks and minerals, etc.
  • Do science experiments
  • Play imagination games with elaborate and complex themes
  • Play independently with activities of his choosing for extended periods of time
  • Learn about basic math functions: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division as well as learn a variety of math vocabulary
  • Memorize basic math facts
  • Count as high as he can
  • Count by 2s, 5s, 10s, 20s, and 100s

What I Can Do to Facilitate Elliot’s Learning Goals

  • Teach him how to play simple songs on the keyboard
  • Teach him how to read music using a color coding system
  • Teach him how to play drum beats using both hands and a foot for the bass drum
  • Teach him how to make different guitar sounds
  • Set up music playlists that he likes to dance to, have dance parties
  • Do yoga, play basketball, play soccer, fly a kite, play tag, run races…anything to help him move
  • Show him how to use different building materials (Big Legos, small Legos, wooden blocks, small colored blocks, K’nex, etc.) to make new and elaborate structures
  • Make sure his favorite books are accessible in our book baskets
  • Set aside time to cuddle up and read his favorite books
  • Work on his favorite things book
  • Make flashcards with his favorite characters and add little phrases for each one that he can read
  • Cut up flashcards with pictures on one side and 3-4 letter words on the other, practice reading, play little games like flipping them over, putting them on my head, etc. (or something like this)
  • Quiz him on Your Baby Can Read words
  • Practice Dolch word flashcards
  • When reading together, pause and let him read the words he knows
  • Read Basher books together and make the characters talk to him
  • Encourage him to draw pictures using a variety of colors, draw together, print out and color his favorite things together
  • Play imagination games with him, introduce new problems and solutions, new characters, new settings, use props, etc.
  • Play board games together, let him make up whatever rules he wants
  • Do science experiments together, start with vinegar and baking soda ones and move on to others, find some online, Usborne Science Experiments book
  • Play Starfall math during breakfast time, let him choose whatever he wants to do and talk to him about what he is doing (Here’s a video of us doing Starfall Math together.)
  • Quiz him with math flashcards
  • Find times to count throughout the day

Ruby (Just Turned 6)

Like Ophelia, Ruby also started reading at a very young age, and now in 1st grade, she is reading at a 3rd grade level. Being able to read really helps her to do many different independent projects. She likes getting really deep into a certain show (right now it’s Digimon) and then printing out pictures, writing stories, and making drawings with that theme. She is very creative and crafty and she is always working on drawing, art projects, and a variety of crafts. She is also really fascinated by science. My mom talked to her about biology from a young age, and I have fed her curiosity ever since.

Ruby’s Learning Goals

  • Find and read beginning chapter books on her own
  • Comprehend longer texts
  • Write complete sentences
  • Write a paragraph
  • Make mini books
  • Make Digimon books
  • Create a variety of craft projects
  • Color using a variety of mediums and styles
  • Free draw using drawing templates
  • Complete needlepoint projects
  • Learn about meiosis and mitosis
  • Learn about biology, chemistry, and any science topic she is interested in

What I Can Do to Facilitate Ruby’s Learning Goals

  • Take her to the library and show her how to pick out beginning chapter books
  • Encourage independent reading during “rest time”
  • Read chapter books together and talk about the story
  • Sit with her while she’s writing to encourage her to write more about a single topic
  • Make more blank mini books and write stories together
  • Make Digimon favorite things books together
  • Find drawing videos and drawing templates for Digimon characters and draw with her
  • Teach her how to free draw by erasing and adding more
  • Sit with her while she does needlepoint so that she doesn’t get frustrated and give up
  • Make a new YouTube Channel for the science topics she wants to learn about
  • Make mini-books about the science topics she is interested in, print out pictures and leave room for her to write about what she is learning

In Conclusion

I know that children are children and should have the freedom to explore nature, use their imaginations, be wild and free, and to even yes…get bored. But their brains are growing at a rapid rate (especially until the age of 3), and by the time they enter school, the pathways of their brains are established and ready to be specialized. By constantly and consistently nurturing them with new learning opportunities from a young age that match their strengths, interests, and developmental levels, we can give them the best chance to reach their fullest potential in life.

And let me make it very clear that I am not suggesting learning goals as a way to make our children academically superior (although they probably will be), I am advocating for them because children actually LOVE to be challenged, they love to learn, and they love to be engaged, especially when it means that they get to spend more time with their favorite person in the world…you!

Embracing Motherhood Why Teaching in the Zone of Proximal Development Matters

Why Teaching in the Zone of Proximal Development Matters

Teaching in the zone of proximal development is important because so many times, children are presented with material that is either way too challenging (and they get frustrated) or way too easy (and they lose interest). In either case, no real learning is taking place. Teaching in the zone of proximal development means that the teacher (a parent is a teacher too) is presenting material that is just challenging enough so that it is interesting, engaging, and only requires the teacher/parent to give a little nudge.

The Zone of Proximal Development Explained

The zone of proximal development, often abbreviated as ZPD, basically measures the difference between what a learner can do on his or her own and what he or she can do with guidance.

Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of Proximal Development (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Decoatzee,2012)

In this mindset of teaching, the learner is the center of the equation..not the curriculum, not the standards, and not the grade level expectations. It’s all about finding out where the child IS, what the child is interested in and motivated by, and then providing just a little nudge in the right direction to help him or her get to the next level. Then the cycle continues and repeats over and over again.

Scaffolding

Scaffolding is a key component of teaching in the zone of proximal development. Much like scaffolding will support a building as it’s being built, a teacher (or parent, peer, etc.) supports the learner as he or she is learning something new. When the learner is ready to complete the task independently, the supports are removed, and he or she is able process the new information without any assistance.

Scaffolding doesn’t need to happen with just a parent or teacher, it can happen with a peer as well. This is why I love, love, love having so many children! They teach and learn from each other! And quite honestly, they seem to enjoy learning more from each other than they do from me. 🙂 *Here’s a cute (although blurry) video of Ruby and Ophelia reading together that I think is a beautiful example of teaching in the zone of proximal development with scaffolding.

Lev Vygotsky

The theory of teaching in the zone of proximal development and using scaffolding is credited to Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896 – 1934), and I wanted to talk about him for just a minute because he’s a pretty fascinating guy.

Lev_Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky, 1896-1934 (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Pataki Márta, 2013)

When I was getting my teaching degree, Vygotsky was mentioned in nearly every class because so much of our current philosophies of teaching are credited to him. But in Vygotsky’s lifetime, his ideas were considered quite controversial and didn’t even become widely accepted until the 1970s in western society.

He became ill from tuberculosis at the age of 25 and died from tuberculosis at the young age of 37, just when he was beginning to flesh out his ideas about children and how they learn. Truth be told, critics argue that he barely even mentions the terms “zone of proximal development” or “cultural-historical theory” (two of the things he’s widely credited with) throughout his entire six volume collection.

Vygotsky was intrigued by how we process higher cognitive functions associated with memory, attention, decision making, and language comprehension. His research focused on the three following areas:

  1. How we use objects to help us with memory and reasoning
  2. How children acquire higher cognitive functions during development
  3. How development is shaped by different social and cultural patterns of interaction

I think some of the most interesting aspects of his theories center around children and how they learn. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Internalization: By interacting with their environment and observing others in it, children learn social norms and cultural traditions that help to shape who they are.
  • Children Learn Through Play: When children play in their environment, they are using their imaginations to make sense of abstract thought, which is a function of higher level thinking. They often times use objects from their environment as props (like a stick for a horse). Through playing house and other such role playing games, children practice social and cultural norms and then internalize them. (Tools of the Mind is a method of teaching preschool that uses Vygotsky’s theories as the foundation for their play centered preschool program. Read about how I encourage imaginative play with my children here.)
  • Social Cognitive Theory of Learning: 
    • Zone of Proximal Development: The range of tasks that are within a child’s cognitive ability to learn with assistance.
    • Instructional Scaffolding: The process of adjusting the amount of support based upon the needs of the child.
    • Collaboration: The person doing the scaffolding can be the teacher, a parent, a sibling, a peer, or anyone who has more knowledge than the learner in the area being learned. This sort of apprenticeship style of learning occurs as the learner is completely immersed in the task with someone more knowledgeable.
  • Language Acquisition: In his most influential book, Thought and Language, Vygotsky explains how children acquire language by interacting with their environment. He explains how language acquisition starts as an external social tool with the goal being communication with others. Then, during the toddler years, children develop inner speech, or self talk, that is expressed out loud and used to self regulate and self direct. Eventually, the inner speech becomes silent as children use it internally. (I talk more about this in my blog titled Oral Language Development: More Important Than You Think.)

Stephen Krashen’s Comprehensible Input

I can’t talk about the zone of proximal development without mentioning Stephen Krashen! While studying language acquisition as part of my Master’s degree program, I learned about linguist Stephen Krashen who created the input hypothesis. This hypothesis is very similar to the zone of proximal development in that it states that learners (specifically children learning a 2nd language) progress in their knowledge of language when the input is slightly more advanced than their current level. Krashen called this “i + 1” where “i” is the learner’s interlanguage and “+1” is the next stage of language acquisition. As a teacher, this helped me to see that the goal was to provide my English language learners (and all students really) with comprehensible input that was one level above their current understanding.

In Conclusion

Teaching in the zone of proximal development, scaffolding, and keeping the input comprehensible are just fancy ways of saying to teach in a way that’s:

  • Not too easy,
  • Not too hard,
  • But juuuuuust right!

This concept is certainly beneficial for teachers, but as parents, we actually have the time, patience, love, and devotion to really implement it with integrity. By getting down on the floor, playing with our children, thinking about where they are, thinking about how to take them to the next level, and finding ways and the time to make it happen, we are teaching them how to be independent, engaged, motivated, and on task. By stimulating their minds with content that is “just right”, they will not only be learning and developing those budding neurons at a rapid rate, they will be something even more important…they will be HAPPY!

*Check out my blog How to Set Learning Goals for Young Children to see tips for how to apply the zone of proximal development into your daily life and Examples of Learning Goals That I Use with My Children to see how I have done it.

Embracing Motherhood Why Leaves Change Color in the Fall

Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall?

A few years ago when we were playing outside in the fall leaves, Ruby asked me, “Why do the leaves change color?” So I started telling her about how the earth tilts in the fall making us get less sunlight which affects the amount of sun that the plant gets from photosynthesis and so on, but truth be told, her attention had wandered to something else before I could even finish my explanation. So we gathered a variety of multi-colored leaves, and I made a large mural on our wall to teach her more about photosynthesis and its role in the leaves changing color, but still, the answer was too complex.

Teaching Photosynthesis Wall Art

Teaching Photosynthesis Wall Art

I continued learning more and more about photosynthesis all the while thinking of the Einstein quote,

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

After watching countless videos (like this amazing one), reading numerous articles (like this very scientific one), and making a large photosynthesis mural in our new house, it finally dawned on me when I was invited to teach an art lesson in my daughter Ruby’s 1st grade class.

Photosynthesis Mural

Photosynthesis Mural

For the art lesson, I chose to have the students make trees out of multi-colored leaves. I also wanted to do a mini-lesson about, you guessed it, why leaves change color! As I was thinking about where to start, this other Einstein quote was on my mind,

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

It finally dawned on me that I needed to start with chlorophyll.

Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll

Chlorophyll is what makes leaves green, it is basically the heart of photosynthesis, and the absence of it in the fall is what makes the leaves change color. Eureka! This was it!

Chloroplasts

The hexagon shapes are the plant cell walls. The little circles inside are chloroplasts. Cholorophyll is what makes chloroplasts green.

So I began my mini-lesson by showing the students one green leaf. I explained how chlorophyll is what makes leaves green. They all said the word chlorophyll, and I showed them my chlorophyll poster. (Click here to see a really cool video of chloroplasts moving to music.)

Then, I explained how chlorophyll was a part of photosynthesis. Now, I know that photosynthesis is a complex system that even I struggle to fully understand, but I believe that children learn things in layers. By really understanding chlorophyll and then being introduced to photosynthesis, they are creating new pathways in their brains that will continue to be strengthened over time through repeated exposure.

Why Leaves Change Color

Why Leaves Change Color

I had all of the kids take a deep breath in and I asked them what they just breathed in. “Oxygen,” explained one student. I then had them exhale and asked them what they just breathed out. Ruby was the only one who could tell me carbon dioxide. (She had an unfair advantage!)

I then explained how we breathe out carbon dioxide which is just perfect for trees because even though they don’t breath, they need to take in carbon dioxide to make their own food. As I explained the rest of photosynthesis and how trees take in carbon dioxide, water, and light (which is absorbed by the chlorophyll) which they use to make glucose (also known as sugar or sap) and then give off oxygen as a waste product (which is perfect for us!), I knew that I was going over their heads. I even told them, “I know that photosynthesis seems like a really big idea for a first grader to learn about, and I know that it seems like a confusing big new word, but the more you hear about it, the more you will understand it. All I want you to really remember right now though, is chlorophyll.”

Then I talked about how in the fall when the days are shorter and there’s not as much water, the trees don’t make as much chlorophyll and photosynthesis slows down until it completely stops. Chlorophyll is what makes the leaves green and as it goes away, we start to see some of the colors like orange and yellow that were in the leaf all along. The leaves that turn red and purple are from sugars that get left behind.

As the tree gets ready to hibernate for the winter, the veins in the leaves that carry the sap into the tree start to close by forming a separation layer. When the leaves finally detach and fall to the ground, they start to decay and turn brown.

Then I showed the children how to make their tree art. As I passed out the green leaves, I had them look at the green color made from chlorophyll, feel the veins that carry the sap from the leaves into the tree, and look at the stem where the separation layer is formed. As I passed out the orange and yellow leaves, I explained how these colors were already in the leaves and once the chlorophyll left, we could finally see them. When I passed out the red leaves, I explained how some leaves leave sugar behind, and it turns the leaves red. (Warm sunny days and cool, crisp, but not freezing nights make the most sugar get trapped in the leaf as its vein closes and makes the most brilliant of red leaves.) Finally, we put some brown leaves on the ground, and I explained that they are brown because they are decaying.

The students that finished early were able to do some leaf rubbings with crayons. This is an excellent way to really see all of the veins in the leaves.

IMG_2306

At the end of the lesson, I brought all of the children together again and asked them, “So why do leaves change color in the fall?” Hands shot up all over the place and kids told me how it was because of chlorophyll. We all said chlorophyll again together, and I told them to remember that chlorophyll is what makes leaves green, that chlorophyll helps the leaves absorb light during photosynthesis, and that in the fall without as much light and without chlorophyll, the leaves change color.

In a Nutshell

Chlorophyll is a green pigment that allows plants to absorb light during photosynthesis. It is what makes leaves green. In the fall, when there isn’t as much sunshine and water, the leaves don’t produce as much chlorophyll, and so they lose their green color. The yellow (from xanthophylls pigments) and orange colors (from carotenoid pigments) were there all the time in small amounts, we just didn’t see them because they were covered up by the green chlorophyll. The red and purple colors we see are made from sugars that were left behind in the leaf (called anthocyanins). When leaves fall from the trees and start to decay, they turn brown (tannins are the last pigments to decay and they are brown). (Source)

In Conclusion

So now, when the next one of my children asks, “Why do the leaves change color?” I will simply explain that it’s because of the chlorophyll. When I have their attention and curiosity, I will explain more and more layer upon layer, lesson upon lesson, day by day until their curiosities are fully satiated and we are ready to move on to the next question!

Further Resources

  • Fall Leaf Art Projects – by me!
  • Autumn Leaves and Fall Foliage: Why Do Fall Leaves Change Color? by Science Made Simple (This article gives two explanations, one with a really simple explanation and one with a more complex explanation.)
  • The Science of Color in Autumn Leaves by the United States National Arboretum (A very comprehensive explanation that I used as a resource for this article.)
  • Why Leaves Change Color by the USDA Forest Service (Another very comprehensive article that I used as a resource.)
  • Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall? YouTube video by Super Scienced (A 2:43 minute video that provides a simple and accurate explanation with cartoon animation that also explains the difference between coniferous and deciduous trees.)
  • Why Do Trees Shed Their Leaves In Autumn Season? YouTube video by T-Series Tree Hut (This is an excellent 2:43 minute video. All of the videos in this series do an amazing job of answering typical questions posed by children in a way that includes the scientific information presented in a simple and easy to understand way with entertaining cartoon graphics. The speaker has an accent and there are some translation mistakes, but it’s still the best thing out there and my kids love them!)
Embracing Motherhood How Children's Brains are Wired for Learning

How Children’s Brains are Wired for Learning

As a former elementary school teacher and now mother of four young children, I have always been fascinated by the brain and how it works. One of the most interesting things I’ve learned and observed with my own children is the how capable they are of learning at a very very young age with just little nudges in the right direction when they are ready (i.e. teaching in the zone of proximal development).

We often think of children being ready to “learn” when they are old enough for formal schooling, but by the time children are old enough for kindergarten, the frameworks of their brains are pretty much set for life. The crucial window of brain development begins at about 6 months and peaks at 2-3 years of age. I think this is a window that is largely ignored, but if can recognize its importance and provide stimulating experiences during this golden opportunity of time, we can help our children to develop their best brains.

Romanian Orphans

Before we start getting into some of the nitty gritty about how the brain works, I wanted to point out what happens at the other end of the spectrum when it doesn’t work. In this example, you’ll see what happens to childrens’ brains when they are ignored, neglected, abandoned, and mistreated.

In his NPR article, “Orphans’ Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child’s Brain“, Jon Hamilton explains how when the corrupt Romanian government was overthrown in 1989, the world was shocked to learn about the more than 100,000 children in government care that were left alone in their cribs, wallowing in their own filth, and with nothing but the white ceiling to stare at and the cries of the other babies to keep them company…for days and days and days. There was no one there to soothe their cries, no one there to hold them and give them affection, and no one there to talk to them and help them to interact with their environment.  The result was stunted growth and a range of social and emotional problems.

The odd behaviors, language delays, and range of other symptoms suggested problems with brain development, and so researchers began studying the children using a technology known as electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain. What they found were disturbingly low levels of brain activity. As the children grew, there were able to conduct MRIs on them, and it showed that their brains were actually smaller and that they had a reduction in grey and white matter. (The grey matter is near the outer part of the brain and is mostly all of the neurons bunched together. The white matter is on the inner part of the brain and is mostly the myelinated axons that connect the neurons together.)

fresh brain sliced open to show gray matter and white matter

White Matter and Grey Matter – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2007) Suseno

In another experiment conducted after the orphaned children had been adopted, it showed that their brains could not discriminate the face of a stranger from the face of their adoptive mother. Because their brains were not able to identify with a loving caregiver at a young age, that part of their brain wasn’t developed, and then when someone was ready to give them love, they didn’t know how to accept it.  This is called reactive detachment disorder, and with lots of patience and love, it is possible to rewire the brain, unfortunately it’s just not very probable. Today, the system in Romania is still corrupt, and there are currently 70,000 children waiting for adoption. 🙁

How the Brain Works

Okay, so now that we’ve established that the environment is a crucial factor in brain development, let’s take a look at why that it. I love this video clip below because it shows how the brain is an interconnected web of not just the neurons, but the connections (synapses) that are between them.

Neural_signaling-human_brain

How the Brain Transmits Signals – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2013) Gif created from Inside the Brain: Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease

Understanding Neurons

When you look at an individual neuron, you’ll notice that it’s made up of three main parts.

parts of a neuron

Diagram of a Neuron – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2005)

  1. Cell Body: This is the main part of the neuron, It’s where the nucleus is and it directs all activities. This is what makes up most of the gray matter in the brain.
  2. Dendrites: These short fibers sticking out of the cell body receive messages from other neurons. If you were to zoom in close to look at the tip of a dendrite, you would see that it never actually touches another neuron, but connects via a synapse (more on this in a minute).
  3. Axon: This long single fiber carries messages away from the cell body to other cells. It might send a message to a nearby neuron or to a far away muscle fiber. Axons that are used over and over get coated with a myelin sheath which helps messages to transmit faster and is what makes up the white matter in the brain (more on this in a minute too).

Synapses are Where It’s At

Neurons on their own can’t really do much, but when they are connected, that is what creates brain activity. When neurons connect, they actually don’t ever touch each other, but instead communicate across a gap called a synapse. One single neuron can have anywhere from hundreds to thousands of synapses.

Chemical_synapse_schema_cropped

How Synapses Work – Wikimedia Commons (2009) US National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging created original

How Synapses Work:

  1. First, A neuron fires an electrochemical signal from its cell body that travels through the axon and out to the tip of the dendrites.
  2. From here, neurotransmitters cross the synaptic cleft and are met with receptors on the other side that welcome it to the next neuron.
  3. This happens from one neuron to the next in a sort of a domino effect.

Synapses As We Age

We are born with about 100 billion neurons, which is pretty much the same number of the neurons the brain will ever have. The number of synapses, however, is a number that does change over time. In the first decade of life, a child’s brain can form trillions of synapses. The number of synapses peaks at about 2-3 years of age. (source)

When children are born, they have about 2,500 synapses per neuron and by age 2 or 3, they can have about 15,000 synapses! (source) From the time a child is about 6 months old until they are about 2-3 years of age, there is a SYNAPTIC EXPLOSION!!! Because children are not very mobile or explicitly expressive about what they are learning and what they need in addition to the fact that parents are often overwhelmed with sleep issues, teething, and other parenting concerns (With four children 5 and under, I am WELL aware of this! :), I feel like the importance of this learning period is often overlooked and undervalued.

There are an ENORMOUS amount of connections that are being formed at 6 months and 2 years of age. Click here to see a really cool chart showing the synaptic explosion happening between 6 months and 2 years.

Experiences Make Neural Connections

Genes provide the basic framework in the brain, but experiences determine which neurons are used and which pathways are formed and strengthened. When children are very young, their brains are very “plastic” (malleable), meaning that they are easily able to learn something new through experience, but this changes over time and the brain becomes less “plastic” and it becomes more challenging to learn something new from experience.

Click here to see a really cool graph that shows how when we are 2, experiences are easily able to shape the brain, but the ease with which this happens declines with age. When we reach our 20s, we’re kind of at an even plateau, and then as we age from there it gets progressively harder for the brain to change from experiences.

The reason why it’s easier to learn something new at a young age is because the brain is like a blank slate. This tabula rasa allows for children to shape their brains about their environment and experiences, but as we age and our brains become more established, learning something new requires rerouting the information through existing pathways rather than simply creating new ones.

Myelination Speeds Up Connections

Neuron

Structure of a Neuron – Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons (2011)

It wasn’t until fairly recently that we realized the true importance of myelination. Myelination can be seen as the white matter in the brain and is comprised mostly of the fatty substance called myelin that coats the axons. This myelin sheath is made out of schwann cells that over time and with continued use wrap around the axon like a spiral. (Check out a cool video here to see this in action.)

The myelin sheath serves two functions:

  1. It protects the axon so that it doesn’t lose the electrical impulse.
  2. It increases the speed at which the electrical impulse travels. In an unmyelinated axon, the electrical impulse travels in a wave, but in a myelinated axon, the electrical impulse sorts of hops through it.

The first time a child tries to walk, the pathway hasn’t been myelinated yet, so he only takes a few shaky steps and then falls down. But over a long period of time and lots and lots and lots of repetition, he will take two steps, and then three, and before you know it, he’ll be running everywhere! The pathway that controls walking becomes myelinated so that he doesn’t even need to think about it anymore, it just happens. It’s why they say, “You only need to learn how to ride a bike once.”

Whatever experiences a child has over and over and over again will determine which pathways will become myelinated. The myelinated pathways are the ones that will remain, the rest will become pruned away.

Synaptic Pruning

Much like a painter likes to work with more paint than is needed for the job and a builder likes to construct with more materials than is needed for the project, a child’s brain is provided with far more neurons and synapses than are functionally needed and/or preferred. Synaptic pruning is the process by which these extra neurons and synapses are eliminated. This is what increases the overall efficiency of the neural network.

The entire process begins to happen at a significant and rapid rate when a child is approximately 3 years old. By the time, a child is 10, most of the synaptic pruning has occurred. In fact, when a child is 10, 50% of the synapses that were present at 2 years of age have been eliminated.

We talked about the synaptic explosion earlier, but now let’s take a look at what happens when the synapses are pruned. (Click here to see a graph that I wish I could include, if only it were on Wikimedia Commons!) When you look at the brain of a 2 year old, it kind of looks like a jumbled mess compared to the brain of a 4 year old. In the 4 year old’s brain, there is more organization and cohesion. The neurons that exist and the pathways that have been used over and over again to connect them are making the brain more efficient. This continues to be more obvious in the 6 year old’s brain.

By the time a child is 10, the framework for the brain is pretty much set, and the brain continues to focus on specialization. The adult brain is similar to the 6 year old’s brain but with fewer, yet stronger, neurons and connections. (Click here to see another image I wish that I could include!)

In one of my education classes, my professor explained it by saying that the brain is like a giant house with hundreds of rooms. Whatever rooms the child goes into over and over and over again, those are the rooms that will remain, and the rooms that are unused will become closed off and die.

So what rooms does your child want to go into over and over again? What experiences and opportunities will you help to provide repetitiously? I believe that every child is different and that every child’s brain should be given the freedom and opportunity to develop as it is meant to. For me as a parent, that means that I provide multiple opportunities for all of my children to achieve this goal.

In Conclusion

This “use it or lose it” concept is fascinating because it gives so much more meaning to the younger formative years as the brain is forming. People assume that because little babies aren’t physically able to engage with their environment, that they are not mentally capable of it. But that’s just not true. Before babies start talking, they are immersed in language and exposed to it over and over and over again. Their brains are busy forming pathways before they even speak!

In this way, each child’s brain becomes specifically wired to adapt best to the environment that he or she is in. If the child is to grow up in a stimulating environment with lots of learning possibilities, then they need a brain that is primed and ready to thrive in that type of environment.

I think that by just being aware of how the brain functions, it can help us to better understand what is going on in the minds of our children. By providing a loving, nurturing, and stimulating environment full of lots of learning opportunities, we can help our children to develop their best possible brain.

To see how to put this information about the brain into practice, check out some of my other articles:

Resources for Further Research

Throughout this article, I’ve linked to my resources where appropriate, but I also read the following articles and watched the following videos that helped me to get a broad understanding of this topic. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I highly recommend checking out some of these videos and articles.

Oral Language Development is More Important Than You Think Embracing Motherhood

Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think

Oral language development has fascinated me ever since my time as an elementary school teacher, while getting my Master’s degree in Language Acquisition, and especially now as a mother to four young children.

Oral language development is one of the most important aspects of a developing young child’s brain. According to SEDL’s (an affiliate of the American Institute for Research) Reading Resources, it is “highly correlated with later reading proficiency”. The research also shows that, “Most language development occurs indirectly through language exposure rather than through explicit instruction,” meaning that as parents, we don’t need to teach our babies and toddlers specifically targeted language lessons, we just need to give them lots of exposure to quality language experiences.

But what are quality language experiences? Does this simply meaning talking more or leaving the TV on? I love how people say that if you want to be a better reader, simply read more. So thusly, if you want to make a child better at oral language, simply talk more. But these statements are so overgeneralized and the truth lies instead in the details of what those statements mean.

Children are not just passive receptors of their environment. They want to engage, they want to be stimulated, challenged, and acknowledged every step of the way. Many people look at children as though they are not ready to learn until they are much older, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They are ready to learn from birth, but it’s all about meeting them where they are and providing the language experiences that best fit their stage of language development. (This is called teaching in the zone of proximal development where learning is slightly challenging.)

First, let’s take a look at the stages of language development to see what is appropriate at each age level. Children may not fit into these categories perfectly, but it gives you an idea of how the focus changes from learning how to make sounds to asking questions.

Stages of Language Development

Newborns (0-3 months)

During this “4th trimester”, their brains are finishing the growth that couldn’t happen in the womb. They need you close. They need to feel your heartbeat and drink in your scent.

0-3 months newborn held by mommy and surrounded by siblings

Basking in the Glow of Newborn Julian

They need to look in your eyes and feel you smooth their head and coo to them that everything is going to be all right. They need to feel safe, comfortable, fed, and warm. This is the bonding time where it all begins and your heart will completely melt when you start to hear them coo their first sounds. They have a voice!

Infants (3-6 months)

It’s so amazing to see infants leave the newborn stage. The memory of birth is just starting to fade as you hold your child with wonder and fascination instead of just shock and awe. Their eyesight is just starting to become fully functional and they are now a bit more comfortable with this world outside the womb. They have been soaking up the sights and sounds around them and are now ready to start mimicking what they see and hear.

3-6 months mommy holding 4 month old baby

Bonding with 4 Month Old Elliot

They love to look at your mouth and it’s fun to make exaggerated sounds. You can enjoy having “conversations” by saying something sweet and then waiting for them to respond. If you wait, you’ll hear them try to coo and copy you. When they are done, say something sweet again and then pause to let them respond. It is the cutest darn thing ever.

Babies (6-12 months)

Just look at the diagram below to see the explosion of synaptic connections by 6 months! This is when babies’ brains are in an optimal place for learning.

 

SynapticPruning

Synaptic Pruning

There is a big misconception that because babies cannot produce language at this point – that they aren’t ready for it, but they are! They are just in the listening and learning phase for a little while. Because mylenation is just starting to form (the fatty sheath around the synaptic connections that helps the signals transfer faster) it takes lots and lots of repetition of the same thing in order to make this connection speedy.So pick things that are important to repeat.

6-12 months 7 month old baby on mommy's lap

Watching Your Baby Can Read with 7 Month Old Ophelia

This is when I like to start showing Your Baby Can Read videos, reading familiar books over and over again, and teaching the ABCs. This is a very crucial window, don’t miss it!

Emerging Toddlers (12-18 month)

 

You will notice that they will now start to produce what you have been repetitiously teaching them. It will seem as if they just suddenly learned it, but really, it started building when they were 6 months old.

12-18 months one year old loves reading books

One Year Old Ruby Loves Reading Books

As their vocabularies start to explode, I’m often reminded of Helen Keller when she has that magical moment with her teacher Anne Sullivan and everything just clicks and she feverishly wants to know the names of everything. This is what it’s like at this stage. They understand that words have meaning and they want to know the names of things. So tell them! Tell them the names of every single thing their curious little minds discover.

Toddlers (18-24 months)

At this stage, they will actually be able to start communicating with you in ways that you can understand. They will start to use short phrases and they will be able to repeat simple nursery rhymes, songs, and chants.

18-24 months, 19 month toddler writing

19 Month Ophelia Loves to Learn

If you have been working on the ABCs and nursery rhymes all along, your heart will just melt when you hear them sing them. During this stage, I find it very helpful to repeat whatever they say to provide clarity. You’ll know when you get what they were trying to say right or wrong depending on their expressions.

Two Year Olds (24-36 months)

This stage is what some refer to as the “terrible twos” and I believe that this is because their brains comprehend and want to articulate way more than they are capable of expressing. You just need to help them find the words for what they are trying to say as they begin to assert their independence.

 2 years, two year old ruby smells the roses and learns about her world

2 Year Old Ruby Learning About Her World

At this time, I like to use a lot of teaching tools to bring as many different modalities of learning together such as ABC fridge magnets, flashcards, and puzzles. Doing activities with your children and talking to them about what you are both doing is one of the best ways to facilitate language growth at this point.

Three Year Olds (36-48 months)

This is when children seem to take special interest in certain characters, topics, and toys. Use their interests to help them develop more specialized vocabularies based on whatever they are fascinated by.

Elliot (3)

3 Year Old Elliot Playing with his ABC Transformers

It could be anything from superheroes, to dinosaurs, to space exploration, to princesses. Help them to learn the specialized vocabulary that aligns with their interests as they continue to expand their vocabularies.

Four Year Olds (48-60 months)

At this age, any content that interests them can be used to teach vocabulary. They will be full of curiosities and questions and it is so very important that you don’t brush their questions aside, especially if it’s because you don’t know the answer. Show them what you do when you don’t know the answer to a question, like use google on your phone, look in a book, or ask an expert. It might be a good idea to have a real or electronic notepad to keep track of all of their questions. We enjoyed having a question wall for awhile because they were asking so many questions that I couldn’t keep up and I wanted to remember to get to them.

4 years, little girl exploring outdoors, language development

4 Year Old Ruby Exploring Her World Outdoors

I love this Einstein quote: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” When children ask why the leaves change color, use words like photosynthesis, carbon dioxide, chlorophyll, and oxygen. Sometimes your explanations might be a little over their heads, but the more you talk about it and learn about it, the more it will make sense. And for you religious folks, when your children ask you something like, “Why do we have colors?” simply saying, “Because God made it that way”, is a really good way to get them to stop asking questions.

Tips and Tricks for Optimal Oral Language Development

1. Vocabulary

Start by teaching your children the names of things. Everything in this world is new to them and the best place to start is to teach them what everything is called. Start with family members, things about them (body parts, clothes, etc.), and things in your house, then move on to things in the outside world. When you’re changing diapers, talk about the clothes you are putting on them, when you’re eating, point out the foods that are in front of them, when they are playing with toys (especially educational toys such as alphabet blocks and shape sorters), talk about what they are and what color they are, and how you are using them. The best way to teach vocabulary is in the moment, so be there in the moment to teach your children the names of things when they want to know what they are.

2. Monitor Your Speech

Speak clearly, speak slowly, and carefully enunciate your words to ensure that you are understood. Get down to their level, make eye contact, and really talk to them. Especially after babies are 6 months old and older, you want to avoid the goo-goo-ga-ga baby talk. You’re not going to talk to them like you’d talk to another adult, but you don’t need to use a made up language with poorly crafted words either. The most important thing is to make sure you have their attention. When or if you lose it, just adjust your speech until you have it again. You might need to use a funny voice, really over enunciate what you are saying, or speak with fewer or simpler words, but just keep trying something until it clicks or wait until a better time.

3. Zone of Proximal Develompment

When you’re speaking to children in order to teach them something, you first of all need to know developmentally where they are. Are they starting to make sounds? Are they asking about the names of things? Are they starting to put together sentences? You want to start with where they are and then go just one level above that. So if children are speaking just one or two words at a time, you’ll want to start modeling more complex sentences and phrases that are just slightly more complex than what they are saying. For example, if they point to your cat and say, “Kitty.” You can repeat the phrases, “Kitty sleeping. Pet the kitty. Nice kitty. Gentle.” You wouldn’t want to say, “Yes, that’s our cat Ferguseon and he’s 14 years old. He’s diabetic and in the beginning stages of feline leukemia so we will just let him continue sleeping.” This is so over their heads, that they will lose interest and no learning will take place. And if you just repeat “Kitty”, you’re keeping it too easy and not providing them with enough of a challenge.

4. Get Down on the Floor and Play

Get down on the floor to play with your children and talk about what you are doing. For example you might say, “Do you see the blue ball? Can you roll it to me? Good job! You found the blue ball! Now I’m going to roll it to you. Ready, set, go! Good job! You caught it!”

playing with legos with a toddler

Daddy and Baby Ruby are Playing with Legos

This is one of the most simple things you can do and it’s a fun bonding experience as well. By getting down on the floor with them you are entering their world in a way that helps you to help them navigate it. The worst thing you can do is to talk down to your children when you’re not at their level and expect that they will understand you. The distance from your towering voice and their little world down below is a gap easily bridged by a little crouch. And hey, it’s time you worked those quads anyways! Here’s a video of me and Ophelia playing on the floor in a great example of some oral language development play.

5. Talk About What You’re Doing

Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, just talk to them about everything and anything. Talk about what you’re doing as you get them dressed, buckled in the car, and on the drive to the grocery store. At the store, describe everything you see. Talk about the food you’re putting in the cart, point out the numbers on the aisles, and stop to look at the lobsters and the swimming fish. Anytime you do something, talk about it. These experiences are the best ways to build background knowledge and learn language.

6. Listen and Repeat

Encourage your children to talk about whatever they are doing. To get children to talk more, you can start by repeating the last thing they say and then pause. This encourages them to speak openly without you dictating what they say with overly specific prompts. If they don’t have much to say, you can prompt them with simple questions like, “What’s this? What color is it? How many ____ are there? Can you find the triangle?” Pausing after a question is very important with children. During this “wait time”, they are processing the question and formulating a response. Far too often, we answer our own questions after we incorrectly assume that the child wasn’t capable of answering it, when the reality is just that he or she needed more time. Here’s a video of Elliot talking to me while playing his Minecraft game. Notice how I just kind of rephrase what he says as a way to encourage him to keep saying more.

7. Nursery Rhymes, Songs, and Chants

Learning new things is all about memorization and memorization is all about associations. The more associations you have with something, the more embedded in your memory it will become. This is why the repetition of nursery rhymes, songs, and chants are so easily embedded into long term memory. The more children can memorize, the stronger the neural pathways in their brain will become and they will be primed for learning how to read and doing math. (Especially if they can memorize the ABCs and how to count. See my blog: Tips, Tricks, and Resources for Teaching the ABCs.)

Nursery rhymes are a great place to start because really young children do not have a very long attention span and so anything that engages them is a great place to begin. Nursery rhymes with hand motions like the Eensy Weensy Spider, I’m a Little Teapot, Ring Around the Rosy are a great combinations of simple repetitious chants with basic movements that help make memorization easier. Check out my YouTube Playlists for nursery rhymes, simple songs, basic vocabulary, and more.

8. Read Books

Books, of course, are great ways to engage children with language and experiences that they might not otherwise be able to have. I love reading everything from word books, to magical fantasies, to books about favorite TV shows like Dora, to nonfiction books. Whatever is exciting to both you and them is a great place to start. Keep in mind that it’s not just about reading the books, it’s about engaging with them. You can do this without reading a single word. Look at the pictures and talk about what you see. By encouraging this picture reading, you will familiarize your child with how to hold a book, how to turn the pages, and how to be a reader. (See my blog: How Children Really Learn to Read.) Here’s a video of Ophelia picture reading a Dora book with me encouraging her by repeating what she says and posing simple questions.

9. Answer Questions

Share your curiosities and passions with your children and provide a model for what it means to be a life long learner. Show them that you value questioning by listening to them and honoring the importance of the questions they ask. Encourage them to ask why and answer their questions in detail. If you don’t know the answer, tell them so and then look up the answer together.

10. Favorite Things Books

 

When they are ready, make favorite things books. Print out pictures of their favorite things or print out pictures of them doing things. Then, look through it together and write down what they say next to each picture.

letters v and w from favorite things abc book

Favorite Things ABC Book

I love having a little pile of blank books laying around and letting the children decide how they want to use them. Sometimes we write stories, sometimes we make books about whatever they’re passionate about, sometimes we make ABC books, and sometimes we make books about the things we’re learning about.

In Conclusion

If you spend a lot of quality time with your children, then oral language development should happen without giving it a second thought. Oral language is the foundation for all further learning. The earlier children’s brains can be stimulated, the more connections they will have in their brains and the stronger they will be. So get down on the floor and play with your child, talk with your child, and listen, really listen every chance you get.