Sunday, April 8, 2012

Providing Props for Language Learning

by Pam

When you help a child unlock the secrets of language and communication, you give the child the gift of a connection with others.  Once a child understands the power this brings, he is able to take learning to a whole new level!

(Keep in mind communication can come in the form of verbal words, signs, pictures, gestures, eye gaze or body language.  All can be purposeful language and communication!)

One of the most challenging elements of teaching my preschool special education classroom is the fact that the children come into my classroom with extremely limited language and communication skills (most are non-verbal) and have very limited expressive and receptive vocabulary. When you pair that up with limited experiences and limited cognitive can lead to some very quiet days at preschool! 

Often when children have very limited verbal language, adults and other children begin
using less and less language when communicating with that child. Of course, we often need to simplify the language. But, I think it is very dangerous to significantly decrease the amount of verbal communication we provide to the child; even if we are receiving very little back.  

In my experience, the only way to increase expressive communication (either verbally or with picture communication) is to begin by increasing receptive language.

Remember, children who have verbal language are probably hearing MANY more words and are naturally learning MUCH more vocabulary than a child who is struggling with verbal communication! They are hearing this simply because they DEMAND it through verbal questions, conversation, games etc. The child who is limited in verbal communication is not demanding this in the same way. It is NO LESS important though!

So, how do you teach language and increase vocabulary when you often don't have many peer language models in the classroom? One way I do this is by providing many, many opportunities to explore either REAL objects paired with language surrounding them or VERY similar replicas of real objects.  (other ways include being the language model, using "self-talk" and by providing many opportunities for shared experiences with children with more advanced language and communication skills)

Along with the real object I often provide a picture to represent the object or a whole communication board to use with the object. In this way we can begin working on the idea that the picture represents the real object we are exploring.

When you use real props or replicas that are very close to the real object, children with limited language and cognitive understanding are able to participate more fully and are able to grasp concepts that they certainly wouldn't if given a 2 dimensional representation of that same object.

Recently, we've been using the fabric fans shown below in the simple rhyme. Not only are we working on language and vocabulary, but the children are exploring alliteration with all the "f" sounds, they are listening to and counting when possible, they are exploring what happens when removing an item and they are listening for and responding to their name.

These are our colored fabric fans from the Dollar Store.  After enjoying the rhyme below many times, one child lay down at nap time, looked up at the slowly rotating ceiling fans and remarked..."Fancy fancy"! :) 
Five Fancy Fans!
"Five fancy fans,
unfolded on the floor.
Five fancy fans
for us to explore.
Along came ___________
One bright and sunny day.
He found a fan
and ran off to play!"
(continue with 4,3,2 and 1)

I like to use a real object or close replica for a length of time, then add a flannelboard story using that object. This way the children can go from understanding the real object to hopefully grasping that the flannelboard piece is representing that same real object. I often jump back and forth between these two (real and flannelboard pieces) for several days to help the children cement the idea that this is a representation of a real object.

In this case, I simply set out the plastic eggs in the baskets and provided a few other props including the egg cartons. I knew the children probably had enough experience with this already that they would begin to include some dramatic play ideas. By joining the children in their play, I was able to add additional vocabulary to their already shared experiences with eggs! The children took them from the baskets and put them in the egg cartons and then put them in the frying pan. One child even decided to count all the eggs in the carton...and for the first time counted to 12!!

Of course, you may not be able to do this with everything. But, when it is possible it can truly increase a child's language, vocabulary and cognitive understanding of basic objects they may see! It can also be beneficial to use objects that you know the children will have an opportunity to interact with at home. In this case, the plastic eggs and small baskets were introduced around Easter. 
This is simply some very tiny Dollar Store Easter baskets and plastic eggs.  By providing some language about putting eggs IN the baskets, taking them OUT of the baskets and pretend play with the baskets and eggs, the children will have a wide variety of experiences to draw from.  Because they will be using these immediately after Easter, I expect that most of the play will revolve around hiding and finding eggs.
Instead of using these only on a holiday or right before the holiday, I opt to provide this immediately before and then until the children begin to grow tired of them. This gives the children more time to internalize the vocabulary and experience.  We will use these in games, dramatic play, color matching and one to one correspondence. And every day, several times a day, they will find their way to the dramatic play area to be used in play. If I forget to take them over to the dramatic play area...believe me, the children will remember! In this way, we will be able to weave the language and vocabulary involving these items into the routine of the day for an extended period of time.

When language and vocabulary are used in context and through genuine experiences it means so much more to the child than if we were to pull it out and provide a stagnant experience with the object

For most children, learning language and vocabulary is a natural process and seems to draw energy from itself: the more language and vocabulary a child has, the more language he/she hears from others...and therefore, the more he/she learns.

We need to remember for some children we may not be able to simply wait for the child to initiate verbal communication!   We may need to step back and simply introduce children to some basic vocabulary in a non-threatening way (through play and games) and interwoven within the fabric of the day.  We also may need to provide communication supports in the environment through the use of picture communication boards.

So, I challenge you to plan purposeful language and vocabulary building experiences for children with limited verbal communication each day!  It can truly open up a whole new world for the child!

I write about our preschool adventures in my preschool special education classroom at my blog:  How Long is This Hall?!  Come visit us there anytime...but be prepared for a long walk down the school hallway! :)


  1. Great ideas, Pam! I always love rhyming activities like your Five Fancy Fans activity! Your Easter activities are wonderful for language development, too. I pinned one of your Easter photos to the collaborative Easter Pinterest board at

  2. pam, Check out this oldie, but a goodie!

  3. Fans are so fun for children, they will remember this poem and learning. Thank you for the helpful information. Carolym

  4. Are you looking for ceiling fans? Then log onto Jain Electro Mech is a Manufacturer of Ceiling Fan.


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