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Faculty spotlight: Teaching linguistic competency to preschoolers the hands-on way

Preschoolers learn by doing. Not by filling out worksheets all day, but by having hands-on activities that create opportunities for conversation and language development, thinking and problem-solving.

That’s how Judith Gold sees it — and years of brain development research back her up on that. A global faculty member at Wheelock College Singapore, Ms. Gold encourages future early educators to develop their own social studies curricula for preschoolers – with a stress on keeping the social in social studies.

Professor Judith Gold, Wheelock College Singapore

Professor Judith Gold

“Language development is a major responsible of early childhood teachers, and the only way young children develop language is if they’re given leeway to talk, and if an environment is created for them in which they can talk,” she said. “Unless you have a materials-based curriculum, where preschoolers have problem-solving opportunities and where there’s a reason to talk to each other, then language isn’t developed. So it’s the responsibility of the adult to create that environment.”

With first grade and older students, social studies can mean everything from the study of ancient Egypt to the study of their own country today. With younger children, social studies mean learning about the immediate world around them – and understanding how it works.

So in her class Promoting Young Children’s Language Acquisition and Development, Ms. Gold tells her students to come up with ways to encourage preschoolers to learn, interact, and explore. She wants ECE educators to have the autonomy and the challenge of creating their own curricula, because they will experience an intellectual thrill that they will pass along to their preschool students.

“In a social studies or science study, teachers need to give the children many ways to recreate and represent their learning,” Ms. Gold said. “Using language in authentic ways is what allows children to become thinkers. We want to provide them with experiences that give them the opportunity to hypothesize, play with ideas, and collaborate with others.  And if you can’t do that, you can’t become a thinker.”

A typical part of a study involves taking students on a trip – “Trips are young people’s research,” Ms. Gold said.  “Upon returning from a trip we offer young children many ways to talk about the experience and what they have learned:  classroom meetings, writing and drawing, building with blocks, dramatic play. We’re looking at jobs, we’re looking at tools and equipment, we’re looking at how people use the space, we’re looking at how people learn how to do their jobs. It’s social studies and it’s people.”

That hands-on, materials-based approach stimulates young minds, Ms. Gold said, allowing them to think like an artist, or a writer, or a poet, or in other modalities.

For example, at the Bank Street College of Education in New York – where Ms. Gold taught for many years – young students became very concerned when a water tower atop the building next door began to leak. They wound up doing a water study to learn about the issue and come up with potential solutions. “It’s a problem-solving opportunity and it’s a vocabulary opportunity. Vocabulary growth is a critical component of literacy, and you don’t get to use vocabulary if you’re not doing something.”

A typical ECE room will have plenty of materials for learning, such as a block building area, manipulatives, art, wood-working, read-aloud opportunities, dramatic play, cooking – “and a brilliant teacher who knows how to get them to talk and say what’s on their minds,” Ms. Gold said.

“I teach Wheelock students how to develop a curriculum, where they have to do hands-on work so they can see the kind of language and problem-solving and collaboration that comes from it,” she said. “In addition they face the same social issues that children do when they have to collaborate, they have to work out their differences, they have to learn how to negotiate, they have to learn how to listen. That’s an important part of developing linguistic competency.”

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