An aunt recently wrote to an advice columnist saying that she didn’t know how to “talk down” to her preschool age niece. The columnist suggested that the aunt find things they can do together—and that the talk would come naturally. That answer was fine, but she missed a more critical point: There is no need to talk down to kids!
But what about baby talk, you might be thinking. Indeed, studies have shown that babies do respond to that sing-song style. It gets their attention and helps them develop an interest in language. But that baby doesn’t stay a baby for long. Toddlers pick up language at an amazing rate—and that’s when real talk becomes so important.
The most effective teachers I’ve observed or worked with, from preschool onward, never talk down to the students. They assume that the students will ask what a word means. I’d tell my students when I was reading aloud to cross their fingers when they had a question about a word or the story. Once we were at a good breaking point, those crossed fingers would help them recall the question.
As a parent, life with my sons felt like a running narrative. When out for a walk, I’d point out things around us—squirrels, the mailman, the cement mixer, and so forth. Once they could talk, they peppered the conversation with constant questions. Sometimes it was exhausting—especially when there was more than one child. But that investment in language development is critical for academic—and social—success.
Nowadays, I see parents talking on their cell phones or reading text messages while children ride silently in strollers. I once saw a father jogging while talking on his headset and pushing a stroller with the dog tied to it. The dog looked tired, and the toddler looked bored. What a lost opportunity.
One of my grandchildren is intensely interested in words. By age five, she could read—but not necessarily comprehend—almost anything in print. Like my sons did, she incessantly asks us to define words. My husband once turned this around, saying, “What do you think it means?” She thought for a minute, gave a good definition, and went on with the conversation. Depending on the circumstances, we now either supply the word or ask her to define the word, clarifying the meaning if required.
As almost-retired reading specialists, my husband and I are probably more interested in this process than most people. And we’re still learning, observing, and forming understandings, now with our grandkids instead of our kids.
So here’s our advice—forget about talking down to kids. Talk up—or at the very least, talk with them!
Suzanne Barchers, EdD