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Redleaf Press: When Adults Speak, Children Listen by Carol Garhart Mooney

When Adults Speak, Children Listen

By Carol Garhart Mooney, author of Use Your Words

Use Your Words My granddaughter loves words. As a preverbal child, she raced from object to object pointing and expecting grown-ups to put names to things. From the moment she started to talk, she wanted clarification and meaning. "What does that mean? What did she say? Why did he call it that?" she asked repeatedly. By age four, she already had a huge vocabulary.

I remember a family gathering when she was about three. We were waiting for her uncle and aunt to arrive. I looked at her dad and said, "Will you please dial up your brother and see if he is on his way?"

My granddaughter looked at me and said, "What did you say, Nana?"

"I want your dad to call Uncle Brian and see if he is on his way," I replied. "No! You said something else," she insisted.

I had no idea where she was going with the conversation. Suddenly, it occurred to me what the source of her confusion was. I had said "dial up," which I've been saying all my life. My own children probably vaguely remember dial phones, but certainly my granddaughter had never seen anything but a touch-tone phone.

It reminded me of saying to my own mother years ago, "They don't know what an ice box is, Mom. We call it the fridge!"

Words are important to us for many reasons. But as the above example illustrates, words are critical to helping young children understand and define their world and the things in it.

After the "dial up" incident, I couldn't stop thinking about words. I started noticing how much we say every day that confuses children instead of clarifying things. That realization formed the basis for my new book, Use Your Words.

There are many times when we have to laugh at ourselves. If we really think about it, much of what we say, if taken literally, makes no sense at all. I take a tongue-in-cheek approach here and there throughout Use Your Words. I think we all need more humor in our lives. However, I'm quite serious about the importance of the impact of our words on how children learn. I think most of us could do a better job expressing ourselves than we do.

Those of us who work with young children know that they take most everything literally. As such, saying things to young children that literally make no sense is no laughing matter.

By focusing on the language we use when talking to children, we can support cognitive development and develop receptive language (words children can understand) and expressive language (words children can say). At the same time, choosing and using our words carefully can help avoid and address behavioral issues in the classroom. It's my hope that the mix of humor and seriousness will make Use Your Words enjoyable reading for those who work with young children or who want to learn more about language development and learning.

Here are ways for teachers to approach their conversations with children (excerpted from chapter 1 of Use Your Words):

• Make sure you have the child's attention before you begin to speak. This is easier if you are close to the child and down on her level.
• Always get down to the child's level when talking to her. If sitting on the floor or squatting is uncomfortable for you, try using a chair.
• Remember that body language, tone of voice, and facial expression affect the message you deliver. A phrase can be reassuring or threatening depending on how you say it.
• Use simple words and short sentences. Try to say exactly what you mean as clearly as possible.
• Don't be wishy-washy. If you mean no, say it. If you say no, mean it!
• Don't ask a question or offer a choice when there isn't one. Let children know clearly what you need from them.

Carol Garhart MooneyCarol Garhart Mooney is a child care services manager at Belknap-Merrimack Head Start in Concord, New Hampshire. She is a former preschool, kindergarten, and elementary-school teacher. For twenty-five years, she has been an instructor of early childhood education and sociology of the family for the University System of New Hampshire. Her book, Theories of Childhood, is one of Redleaf Press' best-selling texts.

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