By the time they are 4 years old, children have developed a functional vocabulary that enables them to form sentences to express their ideas clearly and accurately. Speech and language development for 4-year-olds focuses on the increasing grammatical and semantic complexity that they begin to explore in their verbal expression. Both formal and informal activities promote timely language development so that 4-year-olds are well-prepared for more critical literacy and language instruction in upcoming preschool and kindergarten classrooms.
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Most 4-year-olds are beginning to develop functional grammar and, though many of their sentences are easy to understand, errors in past tense usage are common among the age group. Asking 4-year-olds to recall activities that happened in the past invites them to rehearse the past tense in an authentic way. An informal recall activity is to ask the child, "What did you do yesterday?" Invite the child to think about three of his favourite activities from the previous day and then verbally recall them. As he speaks, offer gentle corrections to his past tense. For example, a child might say, "I like when we goed to the store." You might respond, "So you went to the store?" The child repeats, "Yes, I went to the store." For a classroom activity, open the school day with a circle time activity in which students report their favourite activity from the previous school day using proper past tense.
Classification games target a 4-year-old's developing vocabulary for terms that identify, compare and contrast objects. A 4-year-old should be able to identify basic shapes, colours, amounts and comparative sizes. Provide 4-year-olds with objects like differently shaped blocks and ask them to group them. After they've placed the objects in groups, ask them to describe the groups using sentences like, "The blocks in this group are green" or "These blocks are biggest." A 4-year-old also understand abstract classifications, like categories of things that are edible or categories of things that are fun versus things that are not fun. Use a chalkboard or whiteboard to create lists of more abstract categories, like "Foods We Like to Eat." Children provide items that fit within the parameters of the category using full sentences like, "I like eating ice cream." An adult then writes the word on the board; a pictorial representation helps children make the association between the object and the term.
Authentic conversations help 4-year-olds use their developing grammar and vocabulary for practical purposes, and more structured activities create opportunities for children to rehearse authentic conversations. One option is a telephone role-playing game. Provide a toy telephone to the child and play the role of a person on the other line, like a relative or the co-worker of a parent. Help the child practice answering the phone with a greeting, listening to the caller's questions, responding appropriately and ending the conversation with an appropriate closing. After children have a basic understanding of phone conversations, they can practice with same-age peers. Imaginative play is also an option for practicing conversations. Encourage children to take on the role of an imaginary character and help them carry on conversations in that persona.
Story books for 4-year-olds incorporate more complex storylines and vocabulary than short nursery rhymes for younger children. Engage 4-year-olds in more interactive story times to develop their literacy and reinforce their developing language skills. After reading the story title, ask children to make a one-sentence prediction about what will happen in the story. Encourage proper use of the future tense and point out similarities in children's answers. Every few pages, ask a student to summarise what has happened in the story using the past tense and any key vocabulary, like character names, from the story. At the end of the story, ask recall questions like, "Why was Mary so sad?" as well as more complex questions that target higher-order thinking like, "What was the most fun vacation you had? What made it fun?"
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