The Child's Language And The Teacher a handbook Krishna Kumar

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The Child's Language And The Teacher

A Handbook

Krishna Kumar
United Nations Children's Fund 1986
Chapter 1

What Do We Mean By Language

Language And Doing

Things They Do With Language

Directing One's Own Activities:

Directing Others' Activities And Attention:

To Play:

Explaining Things:

Representing Life:



Inquiring And Reasoning:

What We Say Influences Us

Chapter 2

Opportunities To Talk About Oneself

Opportunities To Talk About Objects And Experiences At School

Talking About Pictures

Listening To Stories And Talking About Them

Acting It Out

The Teacher's Response

Some Activities

What Did You See ?

Asking The Explorers

Guess What I Saw

Doing What Was Said


How Did You Make That ?

Acting Out

Analysing A Picture

Guessing The Right Picture

Making A Story

Where Do You Live ?

What Do We Achieve ?

Chapter 3

The Way Things Are

Starting With Books

Reading A Book To Children

Singing Poetry

Making Books
Some Activities

Floor As A Map

Dividing The Alphabet

Reading Science

Hopscotch With Words

Doing What You Read

Last Word, Next Word

Three Questions

Poetry Muddle


Having Started

Chapter 4

Between Talk And Writing

Starting To Write

Beyond The Beginning

Teacher's Response

Some Activities

Chapter 5

Textbooks, Spaces And Examinations

Appendix I

Chapter 1

What do we mean by language?

Most of us are so used to defining language as a means of communication that we often forget its usefulness as a means to think, feel, and react to things. This wider use of language is extremely important for people who want to work with young children, for in childhood language plays a formative role in the development of the child's personality and abilities. It acts as a subtle, yet strong, force, shaping the child's perception of the world, interests, capabilities, and even values and attitudes. This handbook, particularly this chapter, will explain how.

First, however, we need to be clear about some thing which usually creates a lot of controversy.  School teachers are used to thinking of 'Hindi' and 'English' or some other language as a school subject; so they would expect this book to be about the teaching of one specific language. Experts, on the other hand, are used to making strong distinctions between the child's first language, second language, and so on. Both teachers and experts expect that a book about language teaching should start by describing the rules that govern a particular language, its common structures, its vocabulary, and so on.

This book does nothing of this sort. It is certainly not a guide for teaching this or that particular language. It is about the functions that any language performs in the lives of children. Every child in the world -- whatever his or her mother tongue -- uses language to fulfil certain immediate purposes. One major purpose is to make sense of the world, and in fulfilling this purpose language acts as a marvellous tool. Unless we are able to take the child's point of view and understand the functions that language plays in the child's life, we cannot properly determine our role as teachers, caretakers, or parents.

Language and Doing

Children's use of language is closely related to the things they do with their hands and bodies and the objects they come in contact with. Words and action go together in childhood. Actions and experiences create the need for words, and words provide access to an experience after it is over. With the help of words, children enrich their relationship with the objects they come in touch with. On the other hand, words without action or contact with objects remain empty and lifeless for the child. Words like 'cat', 'run', 'fall', 'blue', 'river' and 'rough' mean very little to the child unless these words have first been used in a context where the child was actively involved with the object or in an act. Only after such involvement do these words become associated with an image, and become available for meaningful use in future.

This relationship between words and the child's physical experiences poses a unique responsibility on adults, especially teachers. As a teacher you may expect that parents have already provided a wide range of experiences to the children who are now under your care. This may not be true for the great majority of parents. Many parents either do not feel confident enough to allow their children to come in contact with a wide range of objects in early childhood or they do not have the time to accommodate the much slower pace at which children see and do things. Often, adults find it a nuisance if the child stands at the tap with her fingers in the stream of water for half an hour, or if she puts all the utensils on the floor, or if she wants to open and close an umbrella countless times. Sometimes, in order to avoid any possibility of damage to objects or harm to the child, adults prohibit the child from all but a narrow range of experiences.

Whatever the parents may or may not have done, the job of the teacher is fairly clear. She must create an environment which permits children to make continuous attempts to link the use of language with life's experiences and objects. This can be done by ensuring

*    that children bring to school a variety of objects (such as leaves, stones, feathers, twigs, broken things) and talk about them, read about them and write about them;

*    that children are asked to talk, write and read about the experiences they have had outside the school;

*    that children are taken out of the classroom to see the world around the school so they can inspect ordinary objects carefully (objects such as a broken bridge, a muddy pit, a dead insect, a nest with eggs) and talk about them. Such study-visits in the school's immediate neighbourhood can provide valuable resources for language-learning as this handbook will later show.

So a school where children are not doing a variety of things with their hands, where they are mostly sitting and listening to the teacher, and where there are no objects to touch, manipulate, break and re-make, cannot be a good place to develop language skills.

Things they do with language

Those who have studied children's language tell us that children start using language for a startling variety of purposes as soon as they have acquired mastery over basic abilities involved in talking. What follows is a discussion of some of the purposes.

Directing one's own activities:

Children often talk about what they are doing at the time they are doing it. It is a kind of private commentary on their own action. Often, it seems, the commentary helps them in carrying on with the activity for a greater length of time. It helps them maintain their interest in it. It does not matter if someone listens to the commentary. For example, in a group of small children making tunnels or castles with damp sand, each child may make a separate commentary and often it may be no more than an audible mumble.

Observe a child (of any one age from 3 to 8) when he is doing something -- including playing -- all by himself. Listen carefully to what he says. Make similar observation of many different children -- both boys and girls, and of different ages.

Did you find individual differences in their solitary 'talk'? Does the 'talk' help the child sustain his interest in an activity? Why?

Directing others' activities and attention:

This use of language is well known to us as parents and teachers since a lot of our time is spent meeting children's demands. We are usually quite conscious of demands that are of a physical nature, but other kinds of demands are also significant. These other kinds of demands can be intellectual or of an emotional nature. Children use language to draw attention to something that they find curious or attractive. They expect the listener to show interest in what has attracted their own attention.

If you observe children in a group, you will often find them drawing each other's attention by pointing out something or a characteristic of something they think others might have missed. The importance of this use of language lies in the expectation it expresses. The expectation is that 'others would like to see what I have noticed'. This expectation is based on a deep-seated assumption concerning human relationships and the pleasure of being together. If the person whose attention is being directed does not fulfil the expectation, a basic cause for the development of language gets discouraged.

To play:

For most children from the age of two and a half onwards, words serve as a great resource for play and fun. They repeat words in different tones, distort them, combine them in strange combinations, and enjoy this whole process. They like to use words in situations where they may not be appropriate. They easily learn poems that distort words in this way. In brief, young children treat words as objects to play with. Play with words serves as an enormous outlet for creativity and energy.

Listen to the rhymes that children sing while playing by themselves or in groups, indoors or on the street, skipping, running, jumping, ball-bouncing. If your are observant and careful, you may be able to make a small collection of traditional children's rhymes of your are that are still alive -- despite the invasion of modern media and inert language teaching.

Write out the rhymes you find in a systematic manner. Look for variations and record them. Do not correct what appear to you as examples of bad grammar or distortions of vocabulary.

Children's play-rhymes are a rare resource of highly creative and energetic forms of language. And they are extremely useful means of developing certain basic language skills, such as reading. See the next chapter for suggestions on how to use them.

Following are examples of traditional children's rhymes in two languages:

'I am a gold lock'.

'I am a gold key.'
'I am a silver lock'.
'I am a silver key'.
'I am a brass lock'.
'I am a brass key'.
'I am a monk lock.'
'I am a monkey'.
No school today, half holiday.
When we get our holiday we'll all run away.
Where will we run to? Down the slippy lane.
Who will run after us? The teacher with the cane.

Explaining things:

Children talk about things to show their knowledge of 'how' a thing happened. For example, if you ask a child of three how it rained, the child will probably tell you that the sky was covered with grey clouds, then little drops began to fall, and then it rained hard, so hard that you couldn't see anything. In this example, by narrating the sequence of events, the child is explaining how a major event occurred. Stories are born out of this use of language, and in this sense all stories are explanations of things. Of course, not all stories provide reliable or scientific explanations of things. What they represent is our desire to interpret life. Small children want to interpret their life's events just as much as we adults want to explain events that have occurred in the world or in politics.

Collect stories that explain thing. You may find many stories of this type in the local folklore, stories that explain why it rains, or how Man discovered fire. For one example of such a story, which explains how elephants lost their ability to fly, see the accompanying box.

For suggestions on the use of such stories in language teaching, see chapters on talk and reading.

Elephants in the Sky

Once upon a time and long long ago, elephants living in India could fly. In those days as now, elephants were very big. They were grey in colour, just like some clouds who were their cousins. And like these clouds' the elephants could fly along in the sky, simply by flapping their floppy ears.

Clouds can change shape and the elephants could change their shape too. They could turn into whatever they wanted to be. They could look like a dragon, or a giant kitty-cat. They could look like a castle, a mountain, or a dog running away. Anything.

One hot summer day, some pearly grey elephants were flying along in the sunshine. They soared over a village where little children were playing; over a field where a farmer was ploughing; over a river where a boy was bathing black water- buffaloes, and then up over aforest full of chattering monkeys. But up in the sky, a hot wind was dashing along. It saw the flying elephants. It caught up to them and blew right into their trunks. That wind was like pepper!

The elephants snorted and sneezed -- krr-r-r-r-Frrr-r-r-r-CHOOOO! and they looked for a place to get away from the hot breeze. Below them they saw some big mango trees, fragrant, cool and shady. Slowly the elephants glided down to the biggest mango tree to sit on its branches, away from that hot wind.

It so happened that a teacher and his pupils were sitting under that same tree. It was too hot to stay inside the school that day. The teacher was feeling tired, and the children were restless. They broke their pencils. They got all the answers wrong. They giggled and whispered and squirmed like little mice. They just could not sit still.

The teacher got irritated, lie stamped his foot, waving his pointer and shouting at the children. Then he thought to himself -- 'If these children don't behave. I'll say a magic spell and turn them all into little rabbits!'

And he reached over to grab the naughtiest child by the arm. Just then the elephants arrived down from the sky and sat on the branch over the teacher's head.

Cr-r-r-reak.... cr-r-r-r-r-REAK...CRASH!

The branch broke and fell down on the teacher. He fell down too, but the elephants were not worried at all. They quietly flapped their ears and started flying over to the next tree. At that moment, the teacher jumped up and shouted at the elephants -- 'You elephants! You bad elephants! I'll show you! Knock me down, will you? I'll teach you a lesson!'  He waved his pointer at the elephants and spoke some magic words.

Slowly, slowly the elephants floated down to the ground. They could not fly anymore. And from that day to this, elephants have walked on the ground. Whenever elephants look up and see the clouds drifting along in the sky, they remember the time when they used to soar along too, changing to whatever shape they wanted, going wherever they pleased.

An Ancient Indian myth retold by Frances Kumar
Representing life:

This use of language is present in all other uses, but we need to study it separately or else we might overlook it. Children, just like adults, often use language to recall the past -- to remember an event, person, or just a small thing. Words help us re-create something that is no more around, and often what has been re-created looks so real that we can go on talking about it for a long time.

Children often represent things and experiences in order to come to terms with them -- to accept something at a deep emotional level. A child who has been frightened by something may talk about it many times over -- until he adjusts to it. Especially when life springs a surprise on the child, he overcomes the surprise (with its uncertainty, confusion and sometimes fear) by repeatedly re-creating the incident with the help of words until the incident becomes a familiar one.


When we listen to a story that someone is telling, about his own experience or someone else's, we respond to the story by associating ourselves with the characters and events described in the story. We project ourselves beyond our immediate life, even beyond our restricted past experiences, in order to relate to the story. When a child talks about the feelings of a metal toy, he imagines himself to be the toy. Language allows us to experience vicariously what someone else is going through.


Things that have not yet occurred, and some of which may not occur at all, form a subject of talk all the time. Children express their fears, plans, expectations and what they think might happen under strange circumstances, frequently. Words allow them to create an image of the future. Sometimes such an image helps in materialising the future; at other times it helps in accepting the future as it comes.

Inquiring and reasoning:

Just about any situation can present a 'problem' that the small child must solve by finding out 'why' something is the way it is. Many problems are of the kind that the small child can successfully solve; for example, why a bus stopped all of a sudden, or why she does not like water to be poured on her head while she has her bath. The little child of three understands these 'problems' although not all children may be able to explain the precise reason in a vocal manner. Some children who can do so are most likely the ones who have heard adults using language to inquire or argue about something and who have been encouraged to do so themselves.

Unlike the 'problems' mentioned above, there are others that a small child cannot grasp in a 'scientific' sense. For example, the real reason 'why it rains' or 'why a tree falls down when the wind is very strong' is beyond the reach of a child of four or five. Yet, even such problems present excellent opportunities for the use of language as a means to reason. It does not matter whether the reason given is accurate or not. What is important is that the child uses language as a means to reason, to inquire about something unknown. The more frequently the child listens to adults using language for this function, the more likely is this function of language to become accessible to the child.

This is a little exercise to find out if you can distinguish the eight different functions of language in children's life we've just discussed. Here are eight examples of children's talk. Assign them to the eight functions.

1. 'The clouds went away and the rain stopped.'

2. 'I'll go to Jaggagga, I will meet Baggagga.'
3. 'Don't do it that way. See, here is the knob.'
4. 'How does water reach so many houses every morning?'
5. 'I'll just put this cup here, then I'll call Ramu.'

6. 'These sweets are like the ones we had when Jeet chacha had come.'
7. 'I'll get a new shirt on Diwali.'
8. 'It was like a bazaar. So many ducks and they were so noisy.'

Clue: 1.Explaining; 2. Play; 3. Directing other's attention;  4. Inquiry; 5. Directing one's own activities; 6. Associating; 7. Anticipating; 8. Representing life.

What we say influences us

One thing we learn about language from this discussion of its various functions in children's lives is that it is a highly flexible medium. It can be adjusted to almost any situation in life. By adjusting it according to the needs of a situation, we improve our adjustment with the situation itself. Daily life provides numerous examples of this process. When we know that someone is angry with us, we respond to his anger by choosing (often unconsciously) words and tone that might shape the situation according to our wish or intention, e.g. we use strong words if we want to fight, or we use mild words and tone if we want to cool down the situation.

We can say that our ability to use language in a flexible manner to a great extent determines our chance of standing up to the great variety of situations that life presents. At one level, our language expresses or shows our response to a situation; at another level, our language shapes the situation that we are facing. Language helps us to come to terms with things that happen around us all the time. It helps us in this way whether we are physically participating in events or simply reflecting on them.

Whether we witness an event physically or not, the language used to re-present it affects our response to it. Thousands of things happen everyday at places far away from us. These things reach us as narratives in a newspaper. In a sense, the newspaper allows us to, create a picture of an event. It is the same thing when a child tells his mother about something he has seen on the street. The picture created by the newspaper or the child is accurate inasmuch as the language used for the narration is accurate. Accuracy is almost always a matter of degree because any use of language reflects the narrator's intention. If the child has seen an accident and was frightened by it, he is likely to convey it in a somewhat exaggerated manner. By exaggerating it, he justifies his fear, and thereby feels better adjusted to the sight he had seen.

Finally, language shapes our expectations. Someone who likes to explain things in a patient, systematic manner expects others to do the same. Similarly, a person who likes to inquire deeply about things unconsciously expects that others are also interested in such inquiry. By using language to explain or inquire, such people create an environment in which the importance of explanation and inquiry is understood. On the other hand, if language is not used for such purposes in a community or institution, the children growing up there are unlikely to be used to careful explanations or patient arguments. If parents and teachers are using language mainly to keep children under control, then it is likely that children will see language as a means to control others. They might grow up into adults who do not want to do anything unless they are ordered to do so.

We started this chapter by asking how language shapes the child's personality, including perceptions, abilities, attitudes, interests and values. We can now answer this question by saying that language shapes the child's personality because the child lives and grows up in the environment that language creates. To this environment, the teacher makes a significant contribution. If the teacher is sensitive to the various functions of language in the child's life, she will be able to respond to the child's intellectual and emotional needs. The teacher's responses to the language used by the child on different occasions are extremely important. If the responses show that the teacher understands the child's aim in using language in a certain way, such responses will enhance the child's use of language in that mode. On the contrary, if the teacher's responses are based on pre-conceived ideas about what is appropriate or correct, such responses will obstruct the child's independence of expression and communication.

Chapter 2


In our schools, talk is mostly regarded as a negative thing. It is assumed that if someone is talking, he can't be paying attention to the more serious requirements of learning. So when teachers find children talking, their first instinct is to stop them from doing so. Children are permitted to talk only during recess or when the teacher is not saying something important.

This view of talk has led us to ignore the enormous uses of talk as a resource for learning. This is true for all stages of learning, but specially true for learning at the earliest stages. For young children of pre or primary school age, talk is a basic means of learning and consolidating their learning. A school where little children cannot talk with freedom is a useless school. Indeed, teachers who don't let their children talk have no business complaining about lack of funds to buy books or other resources; they are already wasting a highly valuable resource which costs nothing at all.

Of course children talk for a wide range of aims, and not all of these aims have use for the teacher. For example, talking in order to overcome boredom is not the same thing as talking to draw another person's attention to something one has noticed. The second kind of talk has an important function as a means of consolidating one's learning as in this conversation that two children had in whispers, waiting at the teacher's desk while she was busy filling in her register:

Child 1: 'She's wearing a ring.'

Child 2: 'Didn't you see it earlier?'
Child 1: 'No... Yes, yes, I've seen it before.'
Child 2: 'Oh but it's a different ring.'

Child 1: 'She's bought a new ring. It's smaller.'

Child 2: 'No, it's thinner.'

If you analyse this short conversation between the children, you will soon notice the opportunities for learning that became available to them because they were talking. If Child-1 had not talked about the ring he saw on the teacher's finger, he wouldn't have been able to remember that she always wore a ring. On the other hand, without this conversation, Child-2 would have missed an opportunity to observe the difference between the old and the new ring, and to understand the subtle difference between 'smaller' and 'thinner'.

In order to become aware of these various functions of talk, we must get into the habit of listening to children's talk. This looks simple, but it is a difficult thing to do because as adults we are used to thinking that our job is to tell children what they should do, that it is their job to listen. Such a belief binders us from becoming good listeners to children's talk. By 'good listener' I mean someone who can patiently notice the purpose for which talk is taking place and the possibilities of learning that the talk is opening up.

Two children talking in any ordinary situation may do the following things in their talk:

1. Pay attention to something they had ignored so far
2. Observe it casually or carefully
3. Exchange or share observations
4. Arrange observations in some kind of organized way
5. Challenge each other's observations
6. Argue on the basis of observation
7. Make a forecast
8. Recall an earlier experience
9. Imagine someone else's feelings or experiences

10. Imagine's their own feelings in an imaginary situation.

If you get into the habit of listening to children's talk carefully, you will soon be able to distinguish these and several other functions. You will also see that these functions involve the use and development of intellectual skills such as analytical and reasoning skills. The activities given in this chapter can help you construct situations for developing such skills through talk.

The teacher who wants to use children's talk as a classroom resource must create a positive ethos for talk. Through her own behaviour and response to children's talk, the teacher must convince children that they are free to talk. Of course this need not mean pandemonium. On the contrary, what is required of the teacher is to ensure that every child feels that she is being heard when she talks, and that the teacher wants them to talk.

We can distinguish five kinds of opportunities that the teacher can create in the classroom to encourage children to talk:

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