I have observed the growth and development of many children over my life and have a healthy respect for their amazing capacity to learn. I was, in fact, rather disappointed when we got a young dog named Mac a few years ago and soon realized that my expectation of similar mental advancement in him was sadly misplaced!
I can talk to Mac any way I want to — in baby talk, in strange accents, and occasionally elocuting in a professorial style (for my own entertainment, obviously). He responds the same no matter what. His listening vocabulary of 10-15 words has remained constant. But then, he’s a dog.
When I hear other people speak baby talk to kids, however, I feel insulted on behalf of the kids. Yes, kids love silly voices and inflections and goofy rhymes, but I don’t believe there is any need to consciously speak in a dumbed-down way; doing so stands in the way of crucial language and vocabulary development.
When students present with reading comprehension difficulties, we often find that their speaking / listening vocabulary is quite limited. It’s easy to blame this on their lack of interest in reading, but that lack can be both a cause and a result of not having developed a wider vocabulary early on through being read to and spoken to using rich, precise language.
At its extreme, poor vocabulary development can be an obstacle to life success, particularly for students who are college-bound. Vocabulary improvement simply does not happen through cramming. When we help students prepare for the ACT or SAT, we can help them get familiar with the test format, review what they have learned over prior years, and show them where they might be hung up by tricky questions, but there is no way to download a rich vocabulary into their brains. That must develop over time through reading, hearing words in context, noting when a new word pops up, asking about it if confused, or figuring out what it means through context clues, then learning to use it themselves.
More to come on this subject… Stay tuned.