Out of the mouths…

by Alan Howe |


We’re going on a bear hunt (again). This time my 3 year old grandson is sitting at a whiteboard in the kitchen with a marker pen. As I tell the story, he draws the map of the journey. When we get to the section where the bear is encountered in the deep dark cave he takes over, and draws the frantic retreat, over the busy road (this was his invention a few weeks before as we told the story together on a car journey), through the squelchy mud, the swishy grass, back home – whilst at the same time breathlessly retelling the story in his own words:

‘Run back through the cave, through the road nee naw nee naw, back through the mud squelch squerch, through the grass swishy swashy, back into bed, open the door oh no we forgot to close it! Back downstairs, SLAM (he hits the whiteboard with his pen) back in the cupboard… oh no, we’re never going on a bear hunt again!’


Joel has worked out that he has a captive adult listener when he’s on a car journey. On these occasions he often ask questions:

‘Grandad, does everybody have to grow up? (pause) I’m going to have a beard when I grow up. And a hook.’ (J M Barrie and Walt Disney have a lot to answer for!)

‘Do you know what an appetite is? It’s when you feel hungry. I’ve got a BIG appetite!’


‘Reading’ the menu at a café we often go to after swimming:

‘You can have spaghetti fraghetti. You can have pasta with poo sauce.’


Watching CBeebies, when an episode of Teletubbies comes on:

‘I don’t want to watch this…I’m a…I’m a…I’ve grown. It’s baby words. I speak people’s words now.’

There’s nothing unusual in all of this. At around the age of three, as we know, children’s spoken language explodes into a life of its own. It becomes distinctive: they develop a voice of their own, with an emerging grammar that seeks confirmation of the rules and patterns of syntax that they hear around them (‘we goed… go… went there yesterday, Grandad’), and an interest in words and what they mean.

Having some responsibility (if only every Wednesday) for, amongst other more material things, a child’s language development once again after a 30+ year gap has reminded me of a chapter in a book by Garth Boomer (‘Fair Dinkum Teaching and Learning’*) entitled ‘Oracy in Australian Schools or Doing What Comes Naturally’. (In Aussie English, ‘fair dinkum’ means something like: ‘true, honest, real’). Writing in 1985, Boomer draws on research into early language development and identifies a number of ‘conditions’ that enable the vast majority of children to master the basics of grammar, learn the nuances and subtleties of vocabulary and expression, and to communicate effectively in the contexts they know well: such as home, family, playgroup. I’ve put my own spin on Boomer’s ‘conditions’….

  • Attending and responding: the infant isn’t ‘fed’ language; rather, those close to her tune into what is being uttered and provide a varied diet of words by their responses. But it’s interesting to reflect on who is ‘leading’ this process. Often it’s the child.
  • Sharing activities: stories; games; joint activities, shared experiences – all of which get talked through and which ‘teach’ talk because words become intimately related to what they represent. There is a significant relationship between the common rituals, routines and repetitions of early childhood – the shared conversations around getting up, breakfast, going to the park, bathtime, bedtime – and the language patterns that accompany them.
  • Pleasure and play: the delicious mix of inventiveness, playfulness and the excitement that comes from ‘discovering’ that language is a pleasurable medium to mess about with.
  • Power and purpose: children learn to speak because they quickly realise that saying the appropriate thing can so powerfully meet their needs. And these needs are not just material but also cognitive – the need to make sense of things.
  • Story, structure and sequence: oral narrative offers children who are pre-readers the experience of words, expressions, phrases, in powerful and compelling patterns. It’s common to hear these suddenly pop up in everyday speech – as when my 4 year old son announced over breakfast: ‘I have seen the error of my ways’ – my initial astonishment giving way to recognition of a sentence from Allen Ahlberg’s ‘Burglar Bill’.
  • Running through all of these aspects is another key condition: the child being supported by others (adults, older siblings) who provide (implicitly) a mature language system for them to interact with and make sense of; who sort out misunderstandings; expand on half-formed utterances; explain things; and in the best circumstances, treat even very young babies as if they were ideal conversation partners.

We know, however, that not every child gets this level of support, grows up in a rich language learning environment, or experiences the confidence that power with language provides. We also know that, very often, children’s spoken language experience in school often runs counter to these conditions so that lively chatterboxes can appear inarticulate. As Neil Mercer says in the video on the homepage of this website, for many children school is a critical ‘second chance’ – to become articulate, to develop control and confidence with ‘people’s words’. Garth Boomer in the mid 1980s offered a challenge that is still acutely relevant today: how can schools become places where these conditions can be replicated, extended and intensified; and what aspects need to change for that to happen?

[*] ‘Fair Dinkum Teaching and Learning’ was published by Boynton Cook in 1985, and in the UK by Heinemann in 1994

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