The Science Behind the Magic

It never fails.  The more I learn about educational theory, the more amazed I am by the Kindermusik approach to early childhood education.

As I’m getting ready to return to a school classroom to teach Spanish (my job before being a mom and Kindermusik educator), I attended a conference for teachers of world languages last week in Denver.  One of the big trends in foreign language education is Comprehensible Input, or the idea that we acquire and are able to use a new language when we understand what we hear.  Of course, we have to grow, so we learn new, small chunks at a time, with lots of repetition of those chunks—it’s what Dr. Stephen Krashen calls a “plus one” component.  We stick with what we can understand, and push ourselves a little bit.  Over time, this brings fluency.

Kindermusik understands that a parent or guardian is the child’s best teacher, and Kindermusik educators are here to facilitate that interaction and learning.  Instinctively, these caregivers are a child’s best language teacher.  We simplify our vocabulary when referring to “mama,” “daddy” or “juice,” and we go from, “Juice?” to “More juice?” to “Want more juice?” in such a natural way that language educators look to them for guidance in teaching a second language.

You’ll see this mirrored in Kindermuik class, and not just in the Signing Time where kids are learning yet another new language.  Specific words get repeated in songs and chants (rhythm makes everything better), and we repeat things from week to week, with little tweaks to the activity that make it grow from, for example, a seated game to a full dance.

In a Kindermusik class, our educators will model how to scaffold music-making with your child.  We base this principal Vygotsky’s theories of child development.  As Lynne Cameron notes in Teaching Languages to Young Learners, “(Other people) play important roles in helping children to learn, bringing objects and ideas to their attention, talking while playing and about playing, reading stories, asking questions.  In a whole range of ways, adults mediate the world for children and make it accessible to them. . . . With the help of adults, children can do and understand much more than they can on their own.” (pg. 5)

In Kindermusik class, you’ll see this when you watch an adult and child tap rhythm sticks together.  You’ll notice that it works best when a caregiver keeps his or her sticks still and allows the child to tap those.  You’ll also see scaffolding when you watch a dance in one of the baby classes—as a little one gets twirled in the air, she gets movement through space in ways she wouldn’t be able to on her own (obviously!).  Or, with the bigger kids, kids will learn the glockenspiel note by note, with lots of guidance and instruction from Ms. Carol.

In fact, this principal is so important, Vygotsky held that we measure intelligence not by what a child can or cannot do alone, but what they do with guidance.  Personally, I believe the kids in our studio are extremely brilliant, but I’m probably a little biased.

Not many more weeks until Kindermusik starts back up again in the fall!  Hope you’ve had a great time at a Song of the Heart Summer Camp, and we’ll see you soon. . .

Signing Time at the Studio

My son, when he was about 18 months old, once said the word “puppy” (his favorite stuffed animal), and that was it for another year.  He seemed neurotypical in all other aspects, but I was still concerned that he wasn’t speaking.  I had done some sign language with my oldest girl, but at that point got serious about signing with him.  I increased my vocabulary, showed him as many Signing Time videos as I could get my hands on, and noticed a drastic change.  Where he had previously taken me by the hand, walked me over to the fridge, patiently waited for me to open the fridge, and pointed to the milk, now he was giving me the sign for MILK.  It was as if we flipped a language switch in his brain—he seemed to understand that there were symbols (signed or spoken) for things he wanted or needed, and he could use those to communicate.  With the introduction of sign, his language abilities took off.

Obviously, correlation doesn’t prove causation—my experience with my son isn’t a viable science experiment.  Lucky for us, though, there are researchers who have studied this, and their findings are similar.  Linda Acredolo and Susan Goodwyn have found that kids who learn sign language have better overall language skills than those who don’t learn sign—they have “bigger vocabularies” and “(use) longer sentences.”

You’ll know you’re in a good learning environment when a teacher finds a way to engage verbal, aural and kinesthetic/tactile learning modalities into the lesson plan, as we all have ways that we learn best.  For me, personally, I have to take notes (preferably in a textbook—it was heaven when I got to college).  I rarely refer back to these notes, but once I have written them down, I remember them more easily.  My daughter, on the other hand, needs to use manipulatives of some sort—she always works better when she’s cutting something, or moving something around.  Muscle memory works to our advantage to help us recall certain concepts–by teaching children sign language, we engage their full bodies in the learning process.

As I recollect this process with my son, I find it hard to believe that the 8 year old child who is, at this moment, scrambling his own eggs for breakfast was that same kid who, even when he started speaking, was difficult to understand (because even once he became more verbal, we still did some speech therapy together).  The journey of a mom is fraught with equal parts love and pain.  Nevertheless, I’m grateful for all the ways he and I have communicated through the years, and have a special place in my heart for the way sign language helped us through a particularly critical period.

Last spring, Kindermusik dissolved their Sign & Sing class.  At that point, Angela Horsfall joined the Song of the Heart community to teach Signing Time classes—and she’s absolutely fantastic!  She has the benefit of being an Advanced Certified Instructor.  There are still openings for the class, and we’d love to have you join us, regardless of your previous experience with sign.

Reading, Storytelling and Language Acquisition

In the last few weeks, I have been learning about a methodology that many teachers of world languages are using in schools called TPRS, which stands for Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling.  In my pre-mom days I was a Spanish teacher, and it’s been interesting to see how this methodology (new since I taught) meshes with what I have learned as a Kindermusik educator in terms of how any of us learns a language, whether it be our first one or our fifth.

A TPRS educator may teach very differently from the one you may recall from your own Spanish I days.  She or he does not spend an hour conjugating verbs or giving lengthy explanations about what a present progressive verb tense even is.  Nor does he or she teach vocabulary arranged by thematic topic (“Today,  we’re studying ‘body parts’” ) without any context.  Rather, in a TPRS class, the teacher and students, together, create a story in class, building on vocabulary with which the students are already familiar.  Teachers expose their students to hearing many repetitions of only about three new phrases or vocabulary words in a lesson before they expect the kids to speak, and they teach grammar through natural use.  Additionally, they ask their students to give an appropriate gesture or physical representation when they hear the new words.  Vocabulary is taught in context (describing the main character of a story, an elephant, perhaps, will include some animal words, some body part words, as well as physical and emotional descriptive words).  TPRS teachers encourage a playful and personal atmosphere, often asking silly questions about the story they’re telling or making sure that the vocabulary and stories reflect vocabulary that is germane to the students’ lives.  After telling stories in class, the group moves to reading, and finally to free writing.  Throughout the process, the class may sing little songs or create pictures of the stories they tell.

While the TPRS methodology isn’t without some controversy (mostly from those expecting a traditional foreign language approach), research supports its effectiveness.  “In speaking, writing, vocabulary and grammar . . . TPRS has consistently outperformed traditional teaching, and has at least equaled traditional teaching in every study.”  (Show Me the Data: Research on TPRS Storytelling“) To me, this is no great surprise.  It is exactly what we do in Kindermusik, and even what we do naturally as caretakers for our little ones.  Of course, Kindermusik is more than just a music and movement program.  It is about teaching the whole child, and language acquisition is a large component of that whole-child development.

In my daughter’s Kindermusik class last week, for instance, they created stories together about being frogs—what do the frogs do?  Eat bugs, hop from lily pad to lily pad, and swim.  They used gestures, including the ASL sign for FROG, and hopped and swam from lily pad to lily pad.  They sang songs about frogs (my daughter loves the finger plays and requests them when we’re driving), and this month on the @home Kindermusik site the story is Frog Went a-Dancing, which includes a repetition of certain phrases and of course a lot of silliness (animals are speaking and each has a dancing song).

I don’t recollect ever explaining to my children that there is a difference between past and present tense verbs—instead, I use the verb tenses as they come up.  Naturally, it takes kids awhile to figure out that “eated” is actually an irregular verb, but not because anyone sat down and said, “the verb ‘to eat’ is irregular and will be conjugated differently in the past tense.”  No–eventually, with enough repetition and reading, our kids figure it out.  Participating in Kindermusik helps with all of this critical repetition.

You will notice that our Song of the Heart Kindermusik studio supports language acquisition in a variety of ways, not just what happens in a Kindermusik class.  Having puppeteers come for our Fall Festival exposes children to stories, thereby enriching vocabulary and helping them create meaning of the world.  We have books for children to read while they wait for their class to start, or in the hall while they wait for their siblings to finish class.  The educators incorporate natural gestures for words as well as American Sign Language instruction—both within a Kindermusik class and as part of a separate Signing Time class you can take with your little one.  (Teaching your children ASL in and of itself has proven to be a fantastic way to help them develop language.)  Taking a ukulele class encourages older students to learn a more sophisticated vocabulary—music-specific words as well as the more complex words that we find in other songs (the same holds true for the other music classes we offer for big kids).

Clearly, as humans we need connection with others.  Language acquisition is an important part of that connection.  Of course, not every child follows a neuro-typical path to developing language skills.  Nevertheless, exposing our children to as many research-based best practices will give them great opportunities to receive the love and nurture that comes from communicating with others.  Storytelling and reading are such important components of that communication and I appreciate being part of the Kindermusik studio where we nurture that connection with our kids.

P.S. Did you see the blog post from last week1,000 Books Before Kindergarten is another great way to support language acquisition!