Having worked with young people under the age of seven for the past twenty years, I continue to be amazed by the speed at which they can learn. The more time I spend in their company, the more I understand that it is not necessary for me to explain all the social norms of a community. They walk into a classroom at the age of three (sometimes a few months younger) and waste no time in assessing how things are organized, who has patience, who chews with their mouth open, where the tissues are stored and why it is important to use effective verbal communication from the get go.
Even the shyest, youngest or most socially awkward child devotes a huge portion of their day to watching others. As human beings, this is how we learn most of the useful information that allows us to exist within society. If I see Jill picking her nose and am grossed out by it, I can make a mental note at the age of three not to try that trick. On the other hand, if I am fascinated by the way William carefully writes letters on a page, I may devote more of my own energy to learning to write than to not picking my nose. These choices will not necessarily be the same the next day, or even the next hour–they will change according to my mood, energy level, and developmental interests. The same variables will influence the language and literacy skills that I engage with.
Providing young children with a variety of language building activities to choose from allows each child to follow their interests, however, changeable those may be. When a child selects an activity out of interest, the information is much more likely to be retained. I once had a four-year-old student who learned to identify most of the United States in one week. It made me wonder why has it taken me twenty years to do the same. Granted, I grew up studying the map of Europe, but after all these years I still refer to the cheat sheet (a labeled map of the US,) ahead of a lesson presentation of that United States jigsaw map, just in case I mix up Alabama and Mississippi. Again. (I felt so guilty about that when it first happened, I dreamt that I attended a therapist to confess my inadequacy as a teaching professional. In my dream, he told me to wise up and get to understand my clients better. Young children, he claimed, are going to pick that information up so much easier than adults simply because their brains are wired differently.) From time to time, I find it helpful to reread the pedagogical philosophy that explains the special value of early literacy building. Young children are predisposed to absorbing spoken language; that is why it is optimal to expose them to a varied vocabulary from birth.
By the time a child is three, they can pick up new words at remarkable speed. For example, Colorado, Wyoming and Texas are fun words to repeat. Some children are attracted by the unique shapes of each state, which help them retain the state names. One former student told me he could always identify West Virginia very easily as it looked like an upside down octopus. The shape was a point of interest for him. He had made a connection with something meaningful…..and there I was constantly frustrated at my inability to discriminate one state from the other, particularly when all the pieces had been taken from the puzzle and smushed up in a gigantic exhibition of geographical chaos, as is typical in a preschool setting.
Once, as I was fumbling about with several rectangular pieces in an effort to help someone put the puzzle in order before the end of the day, I was offered a few kind words of advice by a sage five-year-old. “No”, she said, “You are confusing Iowa with the Dakotas.” I picked up another puzzle piece from the jumbled mess. “Thank you”, I smiled. There was a moment of hesitation as I realized that my European-born brain might never be able to help me get this right. I marveled yet again at the young absorbent mind. “Look….” she offered. “Why don’t you go into the walk-in closet and get that control chart you always look at before you give this lesson?” She meant the cheat sheet. Young children watch everything, don’t they. No wonder they can learn quicker than I can.