Developing Pragmatic Language Skills
Oral language is the ability to comprehend receptively, to process and understand heard speech, such as a story read aloud or a question prompt. It also includes expressive language which is the ability to verbalize and communicate to others. These abilities include listening comprehension, conversation skills, vocabulary development, grammar and phonological awareness skills.
Pragmatics are the functional use of language in social contexts; essentially the conversation skills.
This is when appropriate use of language is used to communicate effectively in many different situations and for many different purposes. This involves how something is said, the intention of the speech, the relationship between those in conversation, and any cultural expectations that influence the meaning.
Very early on, babies learn the beginnings of pragmatics. Eye contact, little smiles and gurgles are all early pragmatic skills that babies acquire much like other milestones in their development. Through responsive interactions with others, children learn how to engage with others and take turns in conversation.
Children must learn the social scripts that adults use subconsciously: greetings, conversation openers, the rhythms of questioning and answering, and so on. Effective interpersonal communication is learned through practice in large groups, small groups, and one on one. By talking with others, children learn to:
- Share ideas and experiences
- Develop new insights
- Dispel misunderstandings
- Build relationships
- Answer and ask questions
- Wait for their turn in a conversation
- Use body language that shows interest in a speaker’s message
- Use appropriate volume and intonation for different situations
In the eCIRCLE course “Setting the Stage for Children’s Talk” emphasis on creating a classroom environment in which children feel comfortable—even eager—to talk is a critical part of developing and promoting conversation.
Every teacher must find their own style, their own way of engaging children in talk. That said, research tells us that children are most compelled to talk when there is a reason to do so, when opportunities for talk are presented in meaningful or authentic contexts (for example, asking children to describe their pets, or what kinds of food they like or dislike).
On a related note, children’s talk cannot be forced. When children are pushed too hard they tend to shut down, become less responsive, and at times develop a negative attitude toward speaking. Rather than push, teachers should always try to find new, fun contexts in which young learners can talk because they feel compelled to say something.
The following three components make up a teaching style that supports and scaffolds children’s talk. Through talking and listening, children learn:
- Attention and Responsiveness
Good teachers pay close attention to children’s verbal signals and nonverbal gestures. By observing children, and listening carefully to what they say, we become aware of where they are developmentally, what interests them, and their level of engagement in activities. Teachers can respond to this information by drawing an excited child into deeper conversation, by giving a child extra time to respond to a question, or by asking children about the things that interest them.
Rich language, rare words, and open-ended questions that make young children think and exercise their speaking skills are all examples of content and stimulation. When children are presented with meaningful language and language forms, they are quick to put them to use and build on them.
Oral language lessons are most effective when teachers demonstrate enthusiasm and respect for both what children say and how they say it. A warm and accepting attitude toward children’s talk can be conveyed verbally with praise or through body language: gazes, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Remember to praise and acknowledge children for good speaking and listening behaviors.
By staying mindful of the components that make up a supportive teaching style and applying those components in an integrated way, teachers create classrooms in which children’s talk blossoms. A supportive teaching style also sets the stage for a well-managed classroom: children learn to take turns by being given their turn, they learn to listen by being listened to, and they learn to speak well and respect the words of others by being spoken to and respected.
Create social scripts to help better children’s ability to communicate in social situations. Scripted Stories for Social Situations help children understand social interactions, situations, expectations, social cues, the script of unfamiliar activities, and/or social rules. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) provides prepared practices.
Find activities in the CIRCLE Activity Collection for Pre-K such as Greetings to help develop oral language pragmatic skills. The purpose of this activity is to develop children’s oral language skills by participating in a song. This activity and many others are aligned with the Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF), Texas Prekindergarten Guidelines, and the Kindergarten Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS).
Greetings Prekindergarten Activity
- Domain: Language and Reading
- Subdomain: Speaking and Listening
- Setting: Center Time
- Head Start: Goal P-LC4. Child understands, follows, and uses appropriate social and conversational rules.
- Pre-K Guidelines: II.B.2. Child engages in conversations in appropriate ways.
- Kindergarten TEKS: English Language Arts and Reading 16 (B)
“Every morning, we will get together on the carpet and sing a song to greet one another. Greet is another word for saying hello. You will each get a turn to be the greeter for the day.”
- Model and Explain
“When we greet someone, we shake hands, smile, and look at each other’s eyes. Let me show you.” Model how to greet someone by choosing a child from the classroom. “We will sing a song and you will get to greet your friends by shaking hands, smiling, and looking at their eyes to make our greeting fun!” Model how to greet everyone in the circle as the chant is sung.
Chant (Sung to the tune of “Farmer in the Dell” or other familiar tune):
_________ is here!
_________ is here!
It’s a great day because ________ is here!
- Guide Practice
“Are you ready to try it? Let’s begin with [child’s name] and have him decide how he would like to go around the circle to greet everyone. Everyone else sing along with me!” Select a child to be the greeter to greet their classmates. The child walks around the circle, greeting each classmate and shaking hands, as the chant is sung. Assist if necessary.
Let children know that they can greet anyone. They can greet their family members with a hug and a kiss, a friend with a hug, and a teacher by shaking hands.
Review the Infant & Toddler Developmental Checklists on CLI Engage, where you can find a complete list of developmental milestones related to language and communication for birth to 4 years of age. These checklists can help teachers become aware of what skills are expected at what ages and acknowledge what the child is accomplishing.
Complete the eCIRCLE professional development course Setting the Stage for Children’s Talk. This 6-hour certificate online course covers instructional strategies for supporting language and communication skill development.