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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!

How to Set Up a Summer Routine That Keeps Kids Productive

With school out and summer upon us, I find myself wondering how I can make the best use of time with all of my children. Yes, I want to sleep in late, be outside as much as possible, go to the beach, make forts, be silly, and have the freedom to do whatever we want at a moment’s notice, but by having routines in place, I can ensure that my children continue to learn and grow while we have fun together.

The Importance of Routines

I am a huge fan of routines, and as a teacher and now a parent, I have seen them work wonders in many situations.

When routines are in place, especially ones that allow for flexibility, kids feel safe and can run on autopilot without constant hovering and redirection.

After my daughter has been in kindergarten all year, and will now be spending her summer days with her three younger siblings, I knew that a routine for her and her four year old brother especially would be very beneficial to keep them productive, to minimize the fighting, and to minimize them wanting to just watch TV or play on their ipads all day.

Using Charts

I am also a big fan of making charts, and I love how making them with my children gets them to buy in to what I’m trying to teach them. I usually set up the structure for the charts on my own, then get their input as I begin to fill it out, fill in most of the rest of it on my own, and then get their final input. They especially like to get their help with the coloring!

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

Ruby Helping Me Color Our Charts

For the purpose of this summer routine chart, I knew that I would need to provide my kids with routine, ideas, and flexibility, so I decided to include our daily routine, ideas for activities they could do, and a separate goal chart to remind all of us of what they needed to work on.

homeschool summer school and goal chart

Summer School and Goal Charts

Your charts have to work for you and your kiddos. They have to reflect both your needs and theirs. I have a lot of work to do around the house on a daily basis, and I need to spend a lot of time with the younger two, so my charts reflect this. I also want to be able to guide and scaffold my children during teachable moments, and these charts serve as a good reminder for how I can use my time wisely with them.

Setting Up a Learning Environment

I know that my teaching experience may make it easier for me to get into “teacher mode”, but the things that I do are so simple and easy that anyone could do them.

The number one thing that I do is create a stimulating learning environment.

I believe that children like to learn, they like to be challenged, and they like to stay busy. By setting up little learning stations all over the house, I can ensure that my children can do all of these things independently. This also allows me to jump in at opportune “teachable moments” to help scaffold them to the next level. (Check out how I set up a learning environment in my blog: How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independent Play and Learning.)

Activities

I am a big advocate of giving children choices, and the charts allow children to see what all of the possibilities are. Sometimes I like to make a big list of all possible activities so my kids know what all of these are and sometimes just need a reminder of all that is possible. When thinking about new activities for my children to do, I like to create learning goals to guide the activity choices. (To read about how I write learning goals, check out this article, and to read some examples of learning goals that I have created for my children, click here.)

Examples of Activities:

  • Imagination games
  • Dress up
  • Reading
  • Coloring
  • Write a story
  • Favorite things books
  • Play music
  • Build with Legos or blocks
  • Board games
  • Play outside
  • Rock garden

Usually, my children know how to use their imaginations to entertain themselves (because I’ve worked really hard on this with them), but if they ever falter, then I just drop what I’m doing and get down on the floor and play with them to help scaffold them to independence.

Daily Routine

After writing out a list of all of the activities, I created our daily routine.

I wanted to create a routine that would get them to use the best parts of their brain first thing in the morning.

I have found that we can all be most productive if we get up and get dressed right away. My oldest daughter is so used to this anyways from her school routine and both her and my four year old (who will be attending preschool next year) will need to do it again, so I think it’s best to leave it in place. I also needed something that would allow me to do some direct instruction, but also allow me some flexibility if I need to be with the younger two. You’ll need to tailor your daily routine to meet your specific needs, but here is what works for me.

  1. Get Dressed/Bathroom
  2. Eat Breakfast
  3. Brush Teeth
  4. 2 Workbook Pages – Handwriting, ABCs, basic math, cursive, mazes, etc.
  5. 1 Chore – Pick up, clean room, help with laundry, cooking, etc.
  6. 3 Activities – The workbook pages, chore, and activities can occur in any order.
  7. Lunch
  8. Choice Time (Rest Time) – When the little ones take a nap, the big kids can watch a movie (any length), watch one hour of an educational program, or play an educational game on the computer for one hour.
  9. More Activities
  10. Free Choice – If the big kids are good and do all of their workbooks, activities, and chores, then they can have 30 minutes to do whatever they’d like. (Lately it’s watching Digimon on Netflix or toy videos on YouTube)
  11. Daddy’s Home!

*I updated this routine June 2016 after we decided to take a break from ipads, touchscreens, and video games for a bit. (Find out why here.)

Goals

I like to tell my children specifically what they are good at (Check out by blog: When You Tell Your Children They Are Smart, It Actually Makes Them Dumb to see how I use specific praise.) and in addition to that, I like to talk to them about what they should be working on next. So with Ruby, for example, who at 5 is reading fluently at a 3rd grade level, we are going to start focusing more on writing. With Elliot (4), we will be working on reading skills and basic math, with Ophelia (2) we will be working on reading as well as language development, and Julian (1) is all about beginning reading and vocabulary development.

While it is helpful for the children to know what their goals are, it is even more helpful for me so that I can keep my mind aware of where each child is and what he/she is working on.

Then, I can design learning stations, create activities, and look for resources to support each of their goals. Click here to see my blog about learning goals that I set for my children.

Other Tips and Tricks

  • It will seem really hard at first, but it will get easier. The first day always seems impossible and like an incredible amount of work, but the longer you stick with it, the easier it will get. After about a week, they will get the “feel” for their new routine, and you will be surprised how well they do with it.
  • Find time to fill their tanks first. I love trying to find one on one time to play and cuddle with each child as soon after they wake up as possible. Once their tanks are full of love and cuddles, it’s much easier for them to play independently.
  • Create an independent environment. Make sure that there are games they can take out, toys they can play with, and activities they can be engaged in that don’t require your direct involvement or supervision.
  • Be consistent. Be really strict and consistent in the beginning, otherwise they will know that the routine is merely a suggestion instead of “just the way things are”. No matter how much you want to take a shower or get some free time, don’t turn on the TV no matter how much they beg! If you give in even once, it will set a prescience for future behavior.
  • Be patient, you’ll get some time for you…eventually. When the summer first comes, I initially say goodbye to any free time I ever had, but once we settle into our new routine, I start to find more pockets of time for myself.

When Things Aren’t Working

It’s inevitable that problems will arise even with the best laid plans.

One of the best lessons I ever learned as a teacher is that if you see a routine not working, don’t try to change it right away.

For example, one day in my 3rd grade classroom, I noticed that as we got lined up to go to lunch it was too chaotic, too noisy, and it was just not working. It was a gradual progression that all of a sudden came to a head, and I knew that something would have to be done.

Rather than talk to the students about the way they were lining up and how it was not okay in the moment, I bit my tongue and I waited. When they came back from lunch, I planted a seed by asking them how things went. Kids started sharing about how it was noisy, how it took a long time, and how we were late for lunch. I simply told them that we’d try to do better the next day.

The next day, I had a chart ready. I made the title “Lining Up” and then made two columns. One said, “Looks Like” and the other had the words “Doesn’t Look Like”. Then, long before we needed to line up for lunch, I had the kids act out what it would look like to do a really bad job of lining up. We wrote down on the chart paper all of the things they observed. Then, I had them act out what it should look like, and we wrote down on the chart what that looked like too.

When we lined up for lunch that day, it went so smoothly, I could hardly believe the difference. After lunch, we talked about how it went, and they were very pleased with themselves.

Every day for the next week, I reflected on the chart, and then after awhile, I didn’t need to anymore. Every once in awhile, they needed a reminder, but for the most part, things ran smoothly for the rest of the year.

We make a huge mistake when we simply bark orders at children to do better without really showing them what that looks like. If we can take the time to be very clear with our expectations and make sure that they understand what those expectations look like, then children will have a much easier time of doing what we expect them to do. This is why I think it’s very important to be clear about your summer routine and be consistent with your expectations.

How Our First Day Went

The biggest struggle we had was getting dressed. Whenever Ruby doesn’t have to go to school, she loves staying in her pajamas and will often want to stay in them all day. This is all well and good on the weekends, but during the week, I want to create a sense of formality and a sense of pride about our day that transcends pajamas. By getting dressed, brushing our teeth, and brushing our hair even if we won’t see anyone else, I feel that it instills a sense of pride and purpose. At any rate, it makes me feel better, and I like doing it, but try explaining this to a five year old! *Update: One year later, June 2016, Ruby and Elliot get dressed on their own without complaint every single morning. Yeah!

After that, the kids were really excited to all be together, and they loved the idea of “Homeschool Summer School”. They were very motivated to do their activities, and they worked very well independently. I think this was because this is so similar to what we do on a normal basis anyways. Because they are so used to independent play, they didn’t need much guidance from me. I would help them get started on new projects, scaffold them a bit, and when they were done, give them a reminder to clean up. It was a great day, and it’s going to be a great summer!

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name

Elliot is Learning How to Write His Name


Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet

Ruby Coloring Her 1st Grade Writing Packet


Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs using leapfrog abc games

Ophelia Loves Learning Her ABCs!


Julian Doing Tummy Time

Julian Doing Tummy Time


Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book

Elliot Reading a Star Wars Book


IMG_3394

Ruby Reading “A Book with No Pictures” by BJ Novak


Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books

Ophelia Loves Reading Dora Books


Julian and I are Having a Conversation

Julian and I are Having a Conversation


Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures

Elliot Playing with His Mini Figures


Ruby Playing the Keyboard...and Feeling It!

Ruby Playing the Keyboard…and Feeling It!


Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play

Elliot is Using Unifix Cubes During Imaginative Play


Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps

Ophelia is Mesmerized with Balls and Ramps


Making healthy oatmeal cookies with kids

Making Cookies!


Elliot Playing with Legos

Elliot Playing with Legos


Ruby Collecting Leaves

Ruby Collecting Leaves


Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together

Ruby, Elliot, and Ophelia Playing Together


Elliot is King of His Domain

Elliot is King of His Domain

In Conclusion

If you have children, summer is a fun time for them to take a break from school and enjoy playing outside in some much needed sunshine and fresh air. (Especially if you live in a place like Michigan where you are trapped inside by the weather for at least 9 months of the year.) But I believe that children need more than just undirected play all day. I feel like they thrive most when they are challenged and can see themselves grow. If you are fortunate enough to be able to stay home with your children over the summer, then I think that devoting a bit of time in the morning towards learning will be beneficial for everyone involved.

Happy learning, and here’s to a great summer!

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.

Using Magnet Letters to Teach the ABCs

How to Teach the ABCs with Magnet Letters

Teaching letter names and letter sounds is a crucial component of reading. When children learn the alphabet at a young age, it lays a strong foundation for learning how to read. I have four children five and under, and I have been blown away by their capabilities and desire to learn. As a former elementary school teacher with a Master’s degree in Language Acquisition, I have always been fascinated with teaching and learning, but it wasn’t until I became a parent that I realized the true potential of a child’s brain.

If I could recommend one thing for anyone with small children, it would be to focus on teaching the ABCs. In my blog, Tips, Tricks, and Resources for Teaching the ABCs, I have outlined everything that I have done that has worked for me and my children (who are all very different). My oldest daughter Ruby is five and in kindergarten; she reads fluently at a 3rd grade level. My son Elliot is four, knows all of his letter names and sounds, and is reading basic words, phrases, and repetitive text. My daughter Ophelia is 21 months old and knows all of her letter names and sounds, can read memorized words and phrases, and is starting to sound out words. For more details on how children really learn to read (hint: it’s not about starting with phonics), check out my blog: How Children Really Learn to Read.

Using Letter Magnets to Teach the ABCs

We have had these LeapFrog Letter Magnets on our fridge for just about as long as we have had children. The style has changed a bit since our original purchase, but the concept is the same. Basically, each capital letter fits into the player and when pushed with say a little chant with the letter name and letter sound(s). There is also a little music button that will either play, “The Wheels on the Bus” or “The Alphabet Song”. There is also a volume control for loud or quiet play and an off switch (for when you just need a little peace and quiet).

The other magnet letters that I really like are these Melissa and Doug Wooden Magnet Alphabet letters. The bold colors and simple design are fun for kids and easy to use as a teaching tool.

Here is a 3:28 video compilation of our 21 month old daughter Ophelia using letter magnets. Notice how I do very little direct teaching. I like to let my children explore and use these types of learning toys however they want, and then I find ways to gently guide them along the way.

LeapFrog Letter Magnets

There are many different ways to use these LeapFrog Letter Magnets. Sometimes I like to line all of the letters neatly up on the fridge in alphabetical order for my children to discover, but they never stay that way for long! My daughter Ophelia, who loves order and neatness, will play with each letter one at a time in a patient and intricate way. My son Elliot, on the other hand, who loves movement and chaos, will smush all of the letters together, build towers out of them, or personify them in some imaginative play.

Ophelia Plays Neatly with Magnet Letters

Ophelia Plays Neatly with Magnet Letters

Each method has merit and is a reflection of the inner workings of their minds. As their mother, I love being a quiet observer as I take note of their different methods of play and think about how I can support their different learning styles. Just having educational toys available and allowing children to play with them however they choose is a huge benefit. The next step is to reinforce their learning along the way by verbalizing what they are doing and repeating what they are saying. Then the real icing on the cake is figuring out how to challenge them to just go slightly above where they are with guidance. This is known in the educational world as working within their zone of proximal development and scaffolding them as they work towards the next level.

Elliot Smushes the Magnet Letters Around in Imaginative Play

Elliot Smushes the Magnet Letters Around in Imaginative Play

 Wooden Magnet Letters and Tins

One activity I love doing with the kids involves using the magnet letters and tins. This is a great way to stretch their knowledge of letter names and letter sounds to the next level. By turning these muffin tins upside down, they make great templates for sounding out CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant) or four letter words as with Elliot’s tin on the left.

Elliot and Ophelia Play with Magnet Letters and Tins

Elliot and Ophelia Play with Magnet Letters and Tins

What I do is pick a simple word like cat, sun, or dog, and then show them how to sound out each letter /c/ /a/ /t/ by touching each letter and saying the sound. Then I show how I say all of the sounds together quickly to make the word cat. They’re not ready to practice this skill independently yet, but it’s good to keep introducing things to kids that are just barely out of their reach so that they can get used to it through lots and lots and lots of repetition and as much time as they need.

Independent Learning Station

Once we have played with something like these wooden magnet letters and tins together, I like setting it up at an independent learning station. While here, the kids can practice what we’ve done together at their own pace.

Ophelia is Playing with Magnetic Letters at an Independent Learning Station

Ophelia is Playing with Magnetic Letters at an Independent Learning Station

Ophelia Loves to Have Little Stations to Play At

Ophelia Loves to Have Little Stations to Play At

There is No “Right” or “Wrong” Way to Play

I love it when the kids using these learning manipulatives as toys in a fun and creative way that works for them. I spend time setting up these learning stations and enjoy watching the kids use them however they like. When Ophelia takes the letters out of one box and says their names as she puts them in another box, this is an excellent way for her to practice her letter naming fluency.

Ophelia Puts Magnetic Letters in a Box

Ophelia Puts Magnetic Letters in a Box

Lakeshore Learning Alphabet Letters

Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

If you really want to take things to the next level, these Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters are a wonderful teaching tool. If you have a child with a lot of patience, you can sit down side by side and build words together on magnetic white boards. This is something I used to love doing with my oldest daughter Ruby when she was younger.

Elliot and Ophelia Play with the Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

Elliot and Ophelia Play with the Lakeshore Learning Magnetic Letters

In Conclusion

Magnetic letters can be a wonderful educational toy and teaching tool. By spending a little bit of time working on letters when your child is young, he or she will be much better prepared for preschool, kindergarten, reading, learning, and more. By making playtime fun and educational, children thrive as their brains are given permission to learn and grow at their own pace.

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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.