Things I like versus things I know…

Melissa & Doug Cutting Fruit

As a speech language pathologist, vocabulary is my jam!  In any given week, it’s likely that I chat about vocabulary (building, enrichment, development, expansion) multiple times.  During a recent session with a very bright four year old boy who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), we decided to build pretend burgers (thank you Melissa and Doug!!)

With the items laid out, I instructed him to name three things you needed to make a burger – totally thought it would be cake for this kiddo…boy was I wrong!  He wanted to label it “green stuff” or ask “What’s that?”, and couldn’t label any of the items!  I was floored – this little man has so much vocabulary, but the burgers were bringing him to tears.  And as we struggled through it, his mom stated, “He doesn’t know those things because he doesn’t eat them.”

Then I thought…I don’t like Brussel sprouts, but I can recognize them in a grocery store.  My co-worker is allergic to shellfish, but she can recognize shrimp.  My best friend gets ill at the thought of bananas, but she can still identify that they are a yellow fruit.  My husband knows to order his burger with no purple onions or no kisses for him!!  Just because we don’t eat something…don’t like something…don’t see or own or use something…that is not a reason that that word would not be a part of our vocabulary!  Children without language challenges can live in the desert and know what snow is…they can be thousands of miles from the ocean and still recognize the beach.  A lack of exposure and experience is not an excuse for a lack of knowledge.  We should not allow that!

I stumbled over a concept in the last year called Thirty Million Words.  To quote:

A world-famous study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995) found that some children heard thirty million fewer words by their 4th birthdays than others. The children who heard more words were better prepared when they entered school. These same kids, when followed into third grade, had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got higher test scores. The bottom line: the kids who started out ahead, stayed ahead; the kids who started out behind, stayed behind. This disparity in learning is referred to as the achievement gap.

We know this is true.  That is why we talk to our children.  That is why we read and show and share whenever we can.  But these kiddos with language delays…well, we focus so heavily on only relevant vocabulary.  But by avoiding what we consider, “irrelevant” we rob our kids of words.  We deprive them of rich vocabulary.  I want kids to say, “I hate tomatoes!! YUCK!!” and “No mommy – no asparagus – that is a yucky vegetable!”.  Our children need words for all the things they don’t like and don’t want, just as much as they need the words for the things they do like and do want. 

This goes for verbal and non-verbal kiddos.  Model the language as a whole – the good and the bad, the likes and the dislikes!  Go on field trips to the grocery store – if you are feeling really wild, find a natural market or a Whole Foods – they are bound to have some unusual items.  Take pictures, talk about them – introduce your littles to parsnips and bok choy and pineapple and plantains!  You might learn something too!

So how about kiwi and cantaloupe and pears? Or mushrooms and bell peppers? Don’t limit kiddos to just what they are used to – push vocabulary to something bigger and better!  And HAVE FUN!

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