It’s been on my mind recently. It’s such a tricky thing to understand how children learn, use, and understand language. I’m continuously baffled in our classrooms, finding myself in many head-scratching-moments as I listen to the children. Language develops in a series of “successive approximations” (to borrow a phrase of John Holt’s about learning); children continue to try out and fiddle around with words, phrases, and ideas until they land and settle on adult-like speech. Each approximation comes with its own nuances and its own difficulties. But importantly, each approximation also brings with it authentic moments of learning.

In room 1 (2yr olds) earlier this week, everyone was talking about birthday parties:

I had two birthday parties. I had one birthday party, and I had two birthday party. I’m two.

I had my birthday party. And I have my ‘Nother Birthday Party at school.

This was surely the first time I’d heard of a ’Nother Birthday Party. But tracing the imagined steps backwards for where this term came from, it becomes clear just how sticky words are. I can hear the parent’s voice from the night before: “Today was your big birthday party with lots of family. Then later this week you’ll have another birthday party at school with your friends.” The child will go through many approximations of what “another” means. This was but one of many tries at it.

A couple days later, the talk had turned to moms and dads (birthdays and families – preferred topics of conversation in the school!). A student turned to me:

Are you a daddy?

Yes, I’m a daddy.

What kind of daddy are you?

I stammered. A good one? A patient one? The kind that is watching my son sleep on the couch at 5am as I write this?

What are my choices? I waffled.  A sure miss.

My mommy is going to pick me up. My daddy is at work.

What had the child meant by “kind”? What would have happened if I hadn’t responded at all – perhaps the question was a reflective prompt, simply giving the child, uninterested in my dad-status, a chance to answer her own question? It’s hard to have a conversation with a three-year old.

These conversations reminded me of a moment with a student in room 6 (4yr olds). Sitting on the rug, looking through the student’s family photo album together, I asked her who one of the pictures was of.

That’s my aunt. I went to her house for shul, the day before tomorrow – yesterday. Yea.

The literacy experts Owocki and Goodman refer to this as the child’s “invention.”  This is a term of respect for the slow and messy process of building language. It is not a mistake, or a mis-use of the word; it is simply the child using the data available to them to invent uses for words they are learning about.  Without inventions, there is nothing new; with nothing new, there is no learning.

Some inventions are more “accurate” then others. Sitting down at the art table in room 4 (4yr olds), I watched as three students used scissors
to cut pieces of wire that they were wrapping around old records.

I’m snipping it!

What does that mean – snip?

Snip is like…when you cut something really fast.

Some inventions reveal that words mean something different from the child’s perspective than from the adult perspective. In room 2 (3yr olds) recently, I introduced a game to the children by reminding them to “pay attention to the rules.”  I always think it’s helpful to verbally “zoom out” when working with young children – not just say the rules, but say what you’re supposed to do with them – pay attention to them!

What does that word mean – attention?

It means when your mommy or daddy wants you to do something that you don’t want to do.

For the young child learning language, context matters more than the adult definition. Words are imbued with meaning as we use them; they do not come pre-loaded with mature definitions. ‘Nother, kind, snip, attention, yesterday – children construct meanings for these words through successive approximations. You will often hear our teachers respond to the student’s question of, “What does that mean?” with “What do you think it means?” Were we to offer an answer, a definition, we would prevent the child from moving along in their journey of successive approximations.  We do not expect children to leap-frog over inventions along the way; each one has its merit and is used as a building-block for the next one.

Shabbat shalom,