Teach Words That Matter: Why we should save pre-academic concepts for preschool
Updated: Feb 26
I recently had a post go “mini viral”. I’m not going to the Today Show, but over 800 people shared this post and it was viewed by over a hundred thousand people! I knew I had raised a topic that people found shocking, important, or maybe even vexing. The post (pictured above) emphasized the importance of focusing on *functional vocabulary* with young children before teaching pre-academic concepts like colors, numbers, letters, and shapes. Functional vocabulary means words that can be used to communicate for a variety of purposes including requesting, protesting, and commenting on the environment.
This feels like a trap...
It seems like every toy on the market for young children features colors, numbers, letters, and shapes. As parents, its feels natural to introduce these concepts in play as we talk to our child about the toy. Many people place value on learning these pre-academic concepts because they associate them with academic preparedness and future success. However, the most important thing you can do to prepare your child for school is to provide them with a strong foundation of language skills. Try using core words, descriptors, common nouns, and verbs to help your child engage with their environment. Model language for your child as you play and go about your daily routines. Research (Rowe 2019) shows that both quantity AND quality of input (the language your child hears) are important predictors of vocabulary skills. This means you want to talk a LOT, but also provide diverse input with a variety of word types and rare words.
These aren't "BAD" words...
By no means do you need to avoid using the labels for colors, shapes, numbers, and letters. It just helps to keep in mind that most kids under three are not ready to learn pre-academic vocabulary. Consider these timelines: most kids can label colors, identify shapes, and count to ten between ages 3 and 4. Children can typically identify and label letters between ages 4 and 5. I would expect a child to be using hundreds of words before they will consistently label colors or count to ten. Teaching vocabulary should be contextual and based on what your child sees and does throughout their day. It is most important that they use many words that allow them to communicate for a variety of purposes. This is a judgement free zone! When making decisions about how to introduce these concepts, it’s all about finding the balance that works for you and your child.
Before you throw away all of your toys, try this!
There is a high likelihood that many of the toys your child has seem like they were made for the sole purpose of teaching colors, shapes, letters, and numbers. However, if we introduce a bit of creativity we can easily use these toys to model a variety of functional vocabulary as well. Let's take a look at these common Melissa & Doug toys for toddlers and brainstorm some ideas for expanding the language we use while playing.
Instead of focusing on teaching colors and shapes, try hiding these pieces around the room or burying them in a bowl of rice or uncooked beans. Hide a piece and ask, "Where is it?". Model "look" or "dig" along with simple vocabulary for where you find them (ex: "IN the box" or "ON the table").
Instead of talking about colors and numbers, focus on words like "go", "stop", "drive", "car", and "house". Practice putting cars "in", taking them "out", and stacking the garages "up". Talk about which garage is "big" and which one is "little" and experiment with which cars fit into which garages.
Instead of focusing on letter names, practice building "houses", "trees", and "trains". Talk about "building" towers and "knocking down". Give blocks to family members including "mom", "dad", and "baby". Put blocks on your "head" or "toe" or pretend to "eat" them using a bowl and spoon.
I have created a free PDF handout for Early Vocabulary Targets which you can access through my Members Only Section of the website. Just use the link below to sign up with your email and I will send you the password for access! I have also linked some of my favorite resources for supporting language development through play below!
Free Early Vocabulary Handout (PDF): https://www.mommyandmemilestones.com/subscribe
How to Select Toys from the Early Intervention Lab at Northwestern:
Playing with Purpose Book from Tandem Speech Therapy:
Learn how to use play to boost speech and language skills in everyday activities.
Understanding Your Toddler Book from Strength in Words:
Learn how to "do more with less". Connect with your child and support development using materials you already have in your home. https://www.strengthinwords.com/toddlerbook/
Bring on the words!
Laura Brown :)