Our son has a hearing loss. For him this means that as he was learning language in his early years, the experience of incidental learning wasn’t as available to him. Incidental learning is the kind of learning the rest of us take for granted – the learning that happens just by soaking up language in a language-rich environment. This is how we gain our implicit knowledge of grammar, sentence structure and those silly rules (and exceptions to the rules) of our language: through listening, imitating and being supported in our learning by the modelling of language from others. It is language that is not taught, rather it is gained through our social and cultural interactions. With his hearing loss, our son has had to struggle his way through this incidental learning, and with his hearing aid, therapy, and correct (and patient) modelled speech at home and school, by 6 years of age he was beginning to form sounds and structure his sentences in a way that demonstrated a deeper understanding of language. He has always been so keen to learn, he patiently self-corrects after hearing words modelled, and he is so extremely proud of his achievements in learning.
The process of learning language consciously is challenging for a child. It took our son a long time to begin enjoying himself at his speech and hearing lessons, because he had to put so much energy into listening and also had think so hard about what he was saying and how he needed to say it. It is pretty exhausting (and emotional) to struggle through this process. His speech lessons were tiring and more than once he would just refuse to participate because of the effort it took. I hated putting so much consciousness on his speech, but for him to be understood, and to be able to share his wonderful ideas, and to understand all that is going on around him, it has been necessary – and worth it.
The shift came for him when he changed teachers to one who understood him as a little boy, and who appealed to his interests and structured lessons in a way that didn’t require him to ‘respond’, but rather to ‘create’ with her. What a change did we see in him! It was a wonderful break through. We’ve had a few different teachers since then, but that one person, through her creativity with stories and making the tasks come ‘alive’ for him made him excited about the possibilities of language … and what a story-teller has he since become!!
Some of the resources used in these lessons are available at our toy library – and many of these resources would have been so utterly boring and pointless to use if it were not for a great and creative relationship between teacher and learner. When my husband came home from the toy library with a game designed to help children learn about verbs I recalled how important creative relationships are when teaching. It was a set of photographs with people of different ages and ethnicity doing things. It is a great set of cards, and good to get some discussion going about what each of the characters are doing in the photographs, and my husband chose it because it was the kind of work our son was moving through in his speech and hearing classes at the time – but the instructions for the game were so DRY:
Question- What is she doing?
Response – She is sweeping the floor
(Extension) – She is sweeping the floor with a broom
Alternately you can choose a few cards to build up a sequence to ‘tell a story’. For example a sequence can be built about the preparation for a party:
The girl is sweeping the floor and washing the dishes.
The woman breaks eggs to make the cake …
BORING! Whenever a game like this has been introduced to our son he has refused to participate … and I don’t blame him. Why would you want to tell someone something that is plain for you both to see – he was probably thinking “I don’t need to tell you! Look at the pictures and see for yourself!”
The experience of this activity reminded me of a set of cards I made while I was teaching grade ones. They were cards that I had made by cutting out interesting pictures from magazines, and laminating them on to cardboard. They were pictures of everything: food, clothes, people, cartoons, vehicles, rooms in houses, parks, plants, animals. The idea was for the children to challenge ME with the cards! At the end of every day, or moments when we needed to settle for some quiet time, the cards would come out and the children would select six different pictures and it would be my challenge to make up a story with the pictures they had chosen.
We had so much fun, making up wild stories each day with six unrelated pictures – if I was stuck for ideas then the children always came up with some amazing and hilarious connection to the next picture. Sometimes we had adventures that would lead on to the next day, and sometimes they would last a week or so.
Of course, my hidden agenda was the same as the instructions on the game my husband found: to use the cards to build a story that demonstrated different forms and uses of language. It was subtle and effective. The cards would always be left in an accessible place and it gave me such joy to see the children playing the game by themselves in free time.
I do understand the need for some children, like our son, to focus consciously on their language and their speech, so that they can think about how to form their words and sentences before they speak. My form of storytelling relies heavily on the modelling and the incidental learning I spoke about in the beginning of this article. There were also children in my class who needed more attention with their language acquisition, and so I would do some supported storytelling with these children, which involved creating the story together from the pictures with a bit of call and response mixed in: I would ask open questions about the pictures that the children would answer, or encourage them to create their own possibilities for the events the characters were involved in. I would then repeat their replies with modelled speech and encourage these children to briefly self-correct their speech (with praise!) before we moved on to the next part of the adventure. Of course there are lots of writing experiences that can be involved in this activity also … plenty of rich follow-on experiences.
With all this in mind, I reached for the cards from the toy library, and sat together on the couch with my children and began storytelling. The children joined in happily and excitedly and together we created a grand adventure. And throughout the story we used appropriate verbs and tense:
She wanted to climb the ladder.
She began climbing the ladder.
She climbed so high!
She climbed right up to the clouds in the sky!
We snuggled together on the couch, found a picture of a baby and a ladder and began laughing and creating a wonderful adventure about a baby who wanted to climb as high as she could. The baby tried stacking things from the kitchen to climb on:
She found a pot and a cup. She put the cup on the pot … but it wasn’t high enough!
She went back into the kitchen and found a bowl and put that on top of the cup, on top of the pot … but it wasn’t high enough!
She went back into the kitchen and found a cake tin and put the cake tin on top of the bowl, on top of the cup, on top of the pot … but it wasn’t high enough!
This example above uses verbs, past tense, sequencing and memory … if I used the cloze sentence technique by pausing before I list each item the baby found, then my son had to rely on his memory finish the sentence and to repeat to me all the items in the correct order. He didn’t even know I was testing him. I could support my son’s language, and my younger daughter’s developing language and we all got lost in a magical world of words, and were swept away with the hilarious antics of an adventurous baby.
Isn’t this a lovely way to spend time with your child? To sit close with one another and bond over stories is a beautiful way to ‘wake up’ together after a nap, or to settle before bedtime or after a hectic day … and isn’t it much better to learn language by learning to love what language can do for us?
Copyright Jennifer McCormack, August 2010
Please do not copy or reproduce this article without my permission.