She’s right, you know. The above is one of my favorite quotes of all time, said by a woman I truly admire. I’ll admit it: I used “gossiping” to draw you in (hi!). We adults should not be modeling destructive, judgmental talk in any way. We can, however, discuss people and their actions to enrich a child’s vocabulary. Eleanor Roosevelt would get behind that, right?
For most adults, myself included, it feels natural to simplify our own vocabulary when talking to children, or even adolescents. It makes sense– we want them to understand us. But, no matter how many times I remind myself to sprinkle in some more sophisticated words, I still hear “awesome” and “cool” flying out of my mouth at disturbing rates. Similarly, many of us stick to words like “nice” and “fun”, when we discuss people in our children’s/student’s lives. As a result, when it comes time for children to talk about characters in their favorite books, their descriptions are often stuck at “nice”, “mean”, “happy”, and “sad”.
Here’s where we come in.
I’m a big fan of talking to myself in front of kids. In the world of literacy, this is often referred to as a “think aloud”. It’s a great strategy that’s designed to expose kids to thinking and speaking in ways that may be slightly out of their reach at the moment, but gets them moving in the right direction. It’s also the perfect excuse for the next time you’re really just talking to yourself: “Oh, it’s a strategy…it’s for the kids!!” Another bonus? The kids don’t have to actually do anything. At worst, maybe if they’re a little older you’ll get an eye roll, but hey, it’s getting in their brains either way.
So let’s say Grandma sends you home with some frozen meatballs. Instead of saying, “That was so nice of Grandma”, try, “Grandma is so generous. Not only did she make meatballs for herself, but she made some extra just for us!”. Based on Grandma’s actions, you inferred something about the kind of person she is.
Building vocabulary, modeling inferential thinking– it’s a win-win!
By increasing their vocabulary, children will be well-equipped and ready to talk about characters in a meaningful way. This will become especially helpful as they get older and characters become more complex. Here’s a slightly blurry example from my co-teaching classroom (M&M’s 3rd Grade Class, to be exact) of the kind of work we do in the classroom towards this end:
Not only were kids asked to use words to describe the kind of person Little Willy is, but they had to give examples from the book to support their ideas. This is not something parents and caregivers have to do at home; simply exposing kids to more precise vocabulary will help them become stronger readers, writers, and thinkers.
If you take time to describe (oh so casually) the traits of people in their lives, they will also begin to make some connections between characters in books and real people they’ve encountered. Sometimes things can get tricky with personality traits that we perceive to be negative, but finding a respectful way to address a selfish act, for example, can be a lesson in itself.
Here’s a little inspiration from Change The World…One Lesson at a Time. She uses this visual to support her students in giving compliments, but it’s also a great resource for this purpose. Time to start (continue??) talking to yourselves!