Exploring the Wonders of the Early Language Learner's Brain

July 2021

We’re devoting this month’s issue to the youngest of students and the teachers tasked with helping them learn. We explore what brain developmental stages children experience in the early years of life and offer tips that can help teachers more effectively reach these growing humans in their classrooms. We’ve even got a brain-based lesson plan for teachers to use and adapt!

Our cover: “Anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.” — Fred Rogers

photo by One Laptop per Child on Flikr; others from unsplash & pixabay

Watch before you read...

This Think Tank looks at teaching language to early learners, learners at an age where some of the most fantastic things are happening in the brain and yet these processes are little known to most educators. The Main video gives a comprehensive view of brain development in the first few years, while the Lite video offers tips for teaching English to children. Mohammad Khari summarizes these videos and pulls some of the key points out of each.

Brain expert Julia Volkman starts the Think Tank off with the Montessori approach to teaching language, and Curtis Kelly discusses the role early childhood education plays in developing character. Then, we turn to practitioners for rules of thumb they have developed for teaching children. After that, Robert S. Murphy informs us about the benefits of verbal interaction with children that he learned from Harvard’s Catherine Snow, and Skye Playsted relates how a young student with learning difficulties led her to Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s work. Ai Murphy closes the Think Tank off with a brain-based lesson on healthy eating for children.

In the Plus, we have a story from Tim Murphey about a security guard full of heart.

Our Thoughts on Teaching to Children

An Earnest Investment Mohammad Khari

Children are without a doubt fascinating in many aspects. They possess many unique features that make teaching them crucial, tricky, and rewarding: their amazing ability to enjoy mundane tasks repeatedly, their never-ending curiosity, and the fact that they are always busy with a task can teach adults a thing or two about life. Children are blessed with some amazing physiological characteristics as well: they make more than 1,000,000 neural connections in a second and at age 3-6 months, they can discriminate all the sounds of all languages of the entire world!

Think Tank Articles

A Scientific Approach to Early Language Learning Julia Volkman, ALM, and AMI (3 to 6+)

My daughter read her first word on her third birthday. My family was amazed. We thought we had a true genius on our hands. But when I visited her Montessori preschool, I discovered the truth—in Montessori school, they explicitly teach you how to read as soon as you’re interested in it. Not to say that my daughter isn’t a genius (she’s amazing), but she was not the only 3-year-old in her class who was happily sounding out words. How could that even be possible?

The Hidden Role of Teachers of Young Learners Curtis Kelly

I am going to say something drastic: Of all teachers, those that teach young learners are, by far, the most important. They have the potential to save the world

This is not a statement I came up with. It came from some economists who produced a National Public Radio Planet Money podcast with the title: Why Preschool Can Save the World. Economists? Preschool? Save the World? Trust me, it all connects.

Theory to Practice: Rules of Thumb for Teaching Children The Practitioners

Dear readers, the Think Tank Team has contacted some veteran teachers of children and asked them for rules of thumb or bits of advice for teaching children. Enjoy!

Surprise! Dr. Snow’s Provocative Views and Advice Regarding the “30-Million-Word Gap” Robert S. Murphy

Hart and Risley introduced the staggering “30-million-word gap” between children of different households, back in 1995. Some may call it a famous study while others may call it an infamous study. This is because it has caused quite a stir directly and indirectly; the proposed solutions tended to sprout problems of their own. In their study, Hart and Risley followed parent-child language usage (listening/speaking opportunities) in a range of different contexts. The children in the most socially disadvantaged group produced only half the number of words that the children of the “professional” families did. Hart and Risley also noted that vocabulary size is a major predictor in future scholastic success and that the vocabulary size gap among young children quickly widens from a 2:1 ratio to a 4:1 ratio in a matter of months.

The Unique Language of a Child with Learning Difficulties Skye Playsted

I was almost brought to tears in front of a class of 10-year-old students recently. While I was teaching a class, a boy with “learning difficulties” (a term Barbara Arrowsmith-Young prefers over “disabilities”[1]) had an emotional meltdown. Two of his classmates were having a play-fight as they made their way into class after lunch, and he became agitated and ready to cry because he couldn’t understand why they were pretending to hurt each other. I tried to help him cope with the overflow of his emotions, but I also had 25 other kids in the class to look after and I couldn’t leave the room to help him find a quiet place outside to calm down. 

[1] In this article, I’ve used the broad, non-prejudicial term of “learning difficulties” that Barbara Arrowsmith-Young uses. See here for examples that are included in her definition: https://arrowsmithschool.org/descriptions-of-learning-difficulties-addressed/

Lesson Plan: “Foods of the Rainbow”—Not the Brown Palette! Ai Murphy

Typically, the young ones do not choose the best foods available to them. As teachers, we may not have much control over what our little ones eat every day; however, we can teach them how to be healthfully selective of foods during our lessons on colors and food names. From classroom experience, it seems that we can successfully begin introducing these concepts as early as around 2 to 3 years of age. Our brains are made and maintained by the nutrients that we consume. Well-balanced nutrition, especially good quality fats, help create healthy neurons. Healthy neurons are efficient neurons; they can transfer information more readily. Healthy neurons also have the potential to create better synaptic connections; they are typically better at making optimized networks. There is also fascinating research on how the gut influences brain health. So, we should get our kids in on it early, and have them stick with it!

Think Tank Plus

Relating Deeply: Security Guards & Goddesses Tim Murphey

About seven years ago a new security guard started working at one of the several part-time universities I work at and I nodded to her in passing. She nodded back. Then a year later we were still nodding but also smiling and from a distance started to wave now and then. Push a few years forward and we started actually saying a word or two “Otsukaresama” (thanks for your work—a typical Japanese greeting and farewell). Later, I dared to pose a question “Genki?” (healthy?) and we actually exchanged some real words. 

Call for Contributions: Ideas & Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Going Deeper

Curtis: This Annenberg video, recommended to us by Robert Murphy, connects the ideas of brain development I discussed to Kurt Fisher’s Dynamic Skills Theory.

This Annenberg video models the optimal interactions Robert describes.

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

        Curtis H. Kelly                 Skye Playsted                Heather McCulloch

    Jason Walters                  Rishma Hansil               Mohammad Khari




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