How Young Children Learn – Part 2

A Practical Application

In Part 1, we discussed the basic science of How Young Children Learn. Below are a few experiences a young child may enjoy as you help to strengthen his oral language pathways. Keep in mind that learning is strongly influenced by emotion. The more positive the experience, the more learning takes place. So laugh, be silly, be loving, be dramatic, be bigger than life.

Strengthening Oral Language: Children love to be read to (see Reading With Children). They also enjoy listening to poetry, tongue twisters, and rhymes. Write your own poems and read some of the classics.

Play with foreign accents, dialects, and tones using different inflections and emphasis. Create dialog for animals or inanimate objects. For example, point to a washcloth and in a high-pitched mouse-voice say, “EEEEEK, my towel, Theodore, it is itty-bitty!!!”

Remember that exercises like these are not trivial. Your child is receiving oral language cues that will strengthen and constantly reorganize neural pathways during these early years.

Use drama to demonstrate the different uses of tone. For example, when cooking pancakes, expressions such as “grilled to perfection, luscious, fluffy, and light-as-a-feather” add to the child’s oral language development.

The value of experiences similar to these may not be fully apparent in the young child. He may still be unable to use all that he is taking in – he is still in “receiving mode.” The full fruit of continued rich oral language experiences becomes more evident as the child approaches kindergarten age. It is then that the first four years of language development come to fruition, and the transformation is amazing.

Car conversations can both stimulate a child’s imagination and hone his language skills. At a long red light, take turns providing tourist information. “Outside your window on the right …” Or have the child play taxi, explaining where he is going and why. New York? Tennessee? California? Who does he plan to visit? What, where, when, why, and how?

It makes sense! Use the 5 senses to stimulate language. Take “sight walks,” discussing what you see. Articulate what you hear by playing “what’s that sound?” Make a “feel bag” taking turns filling it and guessing what is inside by touching the contents. Have a “tasting party.” Describe different smells by playing “name that fruit.”

Waiting in line at the grocery store, walking to the mailbox, and getting the newspaper also offer opportunities for rich language use. Through deliberate conversation, each dialog adds to a young child’s language neural pathway. It adds to his vocabulary vault. And it adds to his foundation for fluent language and skilled literacy.


“Language emerges from a child’s explorations of the world in a rich social setting.”

“The best way to encourage development of language is to provide many opportunities for a child to interact with objects and events ….”

“If children cannot master the fundamentals of language during their preschool years, they are greatly at risk for educational achievement, particularly for reading skills.”


Language Development by B. Power and R. Hubbard,
Merrill/Prentice Hall 1996 as adapted from
Children’s Language Acquisition by M.L. Rice.
American Psychologist, 44:2, pp. 149-156.
Copyright 1989 by the American Psychological Association

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