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True success in education requires that students go beyond just doing or understanding school—they must own their learning. Students who own their learning can state what they are learning and why, can explain how they learn best, can articulate when they are learning and when they are struggling, and understand their role in any academic setting. This may seem daunting for young children, but it doesn’t have to be.

The first step is to support children’s oral language development. Young children are like language sponges. They soak it up. And, research says that the number of language experiences children have directly impacts their ability to effectively use language.

In other words, the more we talk with young children, the more they will have to say about their learning.

The Power of Oral Language Development

From the moment a child is born they are a language learner. They begin developing their receptive language immediately and then progress into developing their expressive language. It is core to their early learning experiences. NAEYC’s position statement on developmentally appropriate practices states,

“For these children to gain the vocabulary and the advanced linguistic structures they will need for elementary grade reading, their teachers need to engage them in language interactions throughout the day, including reading to them in small groups and talking with them about the stories. Especially rich in linguistic payoff is extended discourse; that is, conversation between child and adult on a given topic sustained over many exchanges.”

Female teacher giving a lesson to nursery students. They are sitting on the floor and there is a teacher taking notes.

© Shutterstock/DGLimages

The language of student ownership is academic and complex. It pushes students to use rich vocabulary to express what they are thinking about their learning. When children are listening and talking about student ownership they are simultaneously expanding their oral language skills, building vocabulary, and elevating their academic achievement. Therefore, it is critical that it becomes part of children’s everyday routines.

But, what does that look like and sound like for young children? While all kids will develop at their own rate, they are capable of fluent and academic language, if they have strong language models.

A Model for Academic Language

The teacher is the model for the academic language of student ownership. It is up to the teacher to provide students with multiple examples of what student ownership looks like and sounds like.

Learning Framework: Curriculum, Instruction, Assessment, Climate

© Elevated Achievement Group, Inc.

The teacher determines what student ownership will look like by making decisions across 4 broad areas of an integrated learning framework:

  • Curriculum—what students are learning,
  • Instruction—how they are learning it,
  • Assessment—how well they are learning it, and
  • Climate—the kind of academic environment where students know their role is to learn.

Then the teacher demonstrates, initially and consistently, what student ownership sounds like by modeling the language for the students.

Over time, as children become more and more familiar with this routine and more and more fluent with the language, the teacher can gradually release the responsibility to the children in a variety of developmentally appropriate ways. This can include planned student to student conversations, using sentence frames, singing or chanting what they are learning, and whole group sharing from those children who are ready.

A Model for Fluent Language

Teachers are not the only language models for children. Parents and caregivers have an important role in their child’s language development, too. Their role is to encourage children to become fluent in language with lots and lots of conversations. No matter the situation any adult can positively impact a child’s education by simply talking with their child about their learning.

“Children who hear complex and varied conversations that involve familiar topics, and who have meaningful opportunities to use and experiment with words and conversations, will enter school with the best preparation to proceed through the later stages of literacy development.”

Parents and caregivers can make a big difference with small conversations about routine things. For example, I recently talked with my 6-year-old niece and 4-year-old nephew about the importance of handwashing. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Why do we wash our hands with soap?

Nephew: I don’t. (I laugh and tell him he should wash his hands.)

Niece: Because mommy says so and it smells good.

Me: Those are both good reasons, but are there other reasons why we wash our hands?

Niece: To get germs off.

Nephew: And dirt!

Me: Yes, washing our hands gets the germs and dirt off of them. What are germs?

Niece: They are bad things that we can’t see, but they can make us sick.

Me: You are so smart! Yes, germs can make us sick, but we can stop them by washing our hands. The best way to stop them is by using soap because soap repels germs.

Niece: What’s repel?

Me: When you repel something, you fight it and push it away. What does repel mean?

Nephew: Fight it and push it away!

Me: Yes, when you repel something you fight it and push it away. That’s what soap does to germs. Water is not strong enough to fight germs. It needs soap to fight the germs and push them off your hands. What’s another way to say that?

Nephew: Soap ‘pels germs.

Me: Yes, soap repels germs. So, what have you learned?

Niece: I learned to use soap when I wash my hands, so I won’t get sick.

Me: I love talking to you two. You are so smart!

The trick is to ask questions that get kids talking. Questions that begin with why or how and require more than a yes or no answer are great conversation starters.

Side view of handsome father and his cute son looking at each other and smiling while spending time together at home

© Shutterstock/George Rudy

Then listen and repeat back what they said in complete sentences, model how to use interesting words, and always let them know how fun it is to talk together.

The First Step in Developing Student Ownership

Young children are eager to soak up new language and skills. Whether you are the teacher or parent/caregiver, take the first step, and support children’s language development that will ultimately lead to ownership of their learning. Start the conversation.

The Learning Brief

In this article you learned…
  • The first step in developing student ownership is to support children’s oral language development.
  • Teachers and parents/caregivers are crucial language models for young children and the more modeling they have the better.
  • Children need multiple opportunities to have meaningful conversations with adults, so it’s important for adults to start talking.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Can you imagine building an environment full of motivated, engaged, and eager students who own their learning?
We can.

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