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Language expert urges nursery practitioners not to simplify their language for children

Article By: Sue Learner, Editor

Nursery practitioners are being advised to boost children’s language skills by using words they don’t understand instead of deliberately using simple words.

Early years language expert, Michael Jones

Early years language expert, Michael Jones, believes there is a huge need to improve children’s vocabulary.

He says: “Many children across the UK are starting school with limited language skills, and their limited vocabulary in particular is a key factor linked to later educational failure.

For three years he led the Every Child a Talker (ECaT) projects in Luton, Bedford and Thurrock and reveals he is still on a mission “to increase all children’s ‘Word Power’”.

He says: “One of the ways we can help all children is to help them learn, and use, a rich vocabulary. Why call a young horse a ‘baby horse’ when we can call it by its proper name: a ‘foal’. Why say ‘baby lion’ when it is really a ‘lion cub’. Why be satisfied that children know basic fruits and vegetables when they could learn many more?”

By the time they have reached the age of four most children are already using thousands of different words in their daily conversations, and understand thousands more. This enables them to express their ideas and feelings, and to understand other people. It is also the foundation for developing effective reading and creative writing, according to Mr Jones, who has over 30 years’ experience working as a speech and language therapist, teacher, advisory teacher, and trainer.

Expanding vocabularies

He believes we should help children expand their vocabularies by “being precise when we talk with them. Instead of saying, ‘Put your top on’, why not be precise and say ’Put on your cardigan/jumper/hoody top/’”.

“He also recommends using “a variety of different words. Instead of saying, ‘Teddy’s feeling sad’ why not say ‘Teddy’s feeling miserable/fed up/unhappy/’

“Think of ‘five for one’. For every word a child uses regularly, aim for him to learn five more. So if he knows ‘horse’ can we help him to learn ‘foal/donkey/saddle/reins/hay’? If he knows ‘chicken’ can we help him learn ‘cockerel/rooster/hen/chick/eggs’?”

Other ways of helping children widen their vocabulary are by sharing non-fiction books, sharing story books, singing and rhyming, small world play and acting out stories.

Words must be interesting to be memorable

However words have to be interesting in order to be memorable. So for example, interesting words can be people’s names or objects that are exciting for children such as food or toys or something that grabs their attention such as aeroplanes, cars, animals, the moon or birds.

“Most importantly, they need to hear these words as part of conversations, where adults have time to listen to them, and respond to their efforts to name everything that is going on around them. This also applies to older children with additional language learning needs, who need more time and encouragement to be involved in these conversations,” he says.

Training to be a speech and language therapist

While studying to be a speech and language therapist, Mr Jones attended a lecture where the lecturer’s opening line was “Of course you all realise that a child has to hear a word 500 times before he can start using it”. He says: “We were very impressed, but I remember thinking, ‘that’s a huge amount of talking I’ve got to do to help children with language learning needs’.

“So impressed was I with this idea, that I instantly took it to heart, and for a few years after I qualified lived by the idea that the more you tell children the name of things, the quicker they will learn them. (It was only later that I began to listen and respond more, and talk less, but that’s another story.)”

Soon after qualifying he gave a talk to a parents’ group at a local playgroup on an estate in North London. “That’s where I met little Stacey’s gran, Betty. Betty was described as a ‘well known character on the estate’. This was my first attempt at public speaking, so I had my first line ready: “Of course you all realise that a child has to hear a word 500 times before he or she can start using it.”

“What a load of !” interjected Betty.

“The other day I was pushing Stacey’s little brother Ronnie in his buggy through the market. I heard this geezer shout to his dog,” Come hear you stupid er!!” Well Ronnie only heard that swear word once and he hasn’t stopped using it since!”

Some words have more impact than others

Mr Jones explains that Betty made a very valid point as “you only have to hear some words once, and they instantly stick in your mind. Other words just seem to be instantly forgettable. Some words are exciting because of the emotion behind them, the impact they have on other people and the response you get when you say them: e.g. a little child swearing!”

“In those days we wouldn’t have had the nerve to ask an esteemed visiting lecturer to quote the research evidence to back up his ‘500 times per new word’ claim. But had Betty been training to be a speech and language therapist, the professor would have told her that children up to about 15 months do need to hear words a lot of times in context before they start using them: as part of everyday life, in songs and when sharing books. It seems that they need to have between 50 and 75 words that they know and use really well. Then they reach a ‘word spurt’, where they only need to hear certain words a few times before they start to use them.”

Chatting to children is crucial

The benefits from talking to children should not be underestimated as children learn a huge amount from conversations. “You could almost say that they learn everything they need to know about talking... by talking with other people. If we believe this, then chatting with children suddenly becomes very important,” says Mr Jones.

He adds: “Above all, children love us taking an interest in their lives, their likes and their dislikes, and the more we talk about these, and tell them about our lives and likes and dislikes, the quicker they will become the best talkers... and the best learners.

This is why “children need as many adults around them as possible at nursery, who have time to engage them in chat; eg. sharing a book or responding to what they are saying and giving them more words to get excited about.”

Michael Jones is the author of a book on language development called ‘Talking and Learning with Young Children’. He also has lots of resources and advice on supporting children’s language, communication and learning at


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