Language is one of the first and most important tools used by young children to learn about the world around them.

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Language is one of the first and most important tools used by young children to learn about the world around them. It facilitates cognitive development, as children build a spoken vocabulary that expands with age.

A study by researchers at the University of Kansas determined that children in different socioeconomic groups are exposed to vastly different numbers of words (and quality of phrases) and encouragement versus discouragement, before their fourth birthday. Among their conclusions was, “When the daily number of words for each group of children was projected across four years, the four-year-old child from the professional family will have heard 45 million words, the working class child 26 million, and the welfare child only 13 million. All three children will show up for kindergarten on the same day, but one will have heard 32 million fewer words—which is an enormous difference” (Hart & Risley, 1995).

More current studies have reduced that number substantially. Researchers published a near-replication of the Hart and Risley study in 2017, only this study had 329 families, nearly 8 times more, and 49,765 hours of recording, from children 2 months to 4 years. Their conclusion was that the “word gap” between high-income and low-income groups was about 4 million by the time the children turned 4 (Gilkerson, 2017). Even though their findings were significantly lower, the study still supported the premise that children in disadvantaged homes have less opportunity to develop vocabulary at an early age.

Self-regulation

Language is important not only in communicating and interacting with others, but in the development of self-regulation within an ever-expanding environment as children learn how to relate to and work with others. Self-regulation emerges throughout early childhood, and predicts later success in socially and cognitively challenging situations. Vygotsky proposed that symbols, particularly words, serve as mental tools to be used in service of self-regulation. Cross-sectional research indicates a positive but inconsistent association between language and self-regulation skills throughout early childhood.

Research on the impact of spoken vocabulary and talkativeness on the growth of self-regulation among children aged 14, 24, and 36 months, reveals gender differences in self-regulation trajectories, and the impact of language on self-regulation (Vallotton & Ayoub, 2011). This study found that vocabulary is a better predictor of self-regulation than talkativeness, and both concurrent and prior vocabulary positively predicted children’s levels of self-regulation. Even in early development, words are tools that can be applied to the task of self-regulation, and may be a more necessary tool for boys than for girls at this age.

In conversation, children develop the language needed to make sense of print (decontextualized language). Narrative skill – being able to recount a story or event – is an important aspect of oral language development. Narrative links actions to consequences, allowing children to make sense of the social world (Pelletier & Astington, 2004). Studies have shown that skill in narrative comprehension and production relates to academic performance in school, especially to learning to read and write (O’Neill, Pearce, & Pick, 2004).

In play, children try out new ways of combining thought and language, using language to represent new ideas not tied to reality. Dramatic play is symbolic in nature and can provide a bridge to printed language. Dramatic play enhances children’s comprehension of stories through reenactments. Children’s language abilities are enhanced when adults and older children scaffold their play, particularly in complex socio-dramatic play, when children must keep in mind the roles they play. This kind of play also fosters self-regulation.

Children are curious about print in the environment and pay attention to it usually before they become interested in print in books. When adults help children to attend to environmental print, children’s attention gradually shifts from pictorial clues – such as symbols, shapes and colors – to the letters embedded in the sign, logo or other form of print. In this way, it is argued, environmental print is a genuine reading resource.

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