How Children Listen

by Shelley Welch

     Do you recall the last time you attended a live auction? Remember how fast the auctioneer spoke – hammering out bid prices and throwing in a humorous remark sporadically? Imagine if that auctioneer taught your college calculus course at the same word speed at which he conducted the auction! Would his speech rate impact your ability to comprehend? 

Speaking too Fast

     This is an essential question for all preschool teachers to personally address: how much are our young learners processing effectively the words we are offering them? In “How Children Talk”, Alyssa Banotai addresses this issue. When we speak to a young child, a complex set of central nervous system responses are triggered in the child’s brain. She writes, Not only does the central nervous system have to receive the auditory code of speech accurately, it must do so at a very rapid rate of speed. In the meantime, it must compare the information it is receiving with what it already has stored to determine familiar and unfamiliar content.” Even if we are scaffolding children’s learning (easing some of the pressure introduced by unfamiliar content), children still must effectively and efficiently process the new content in a way that allows future learning to build upon this moment of learning. If we speak at the normal adult rate of 160-170 words per minute, and our students are processing our words at 120 words per minute, according to Banotai, lots of words are spilling out of the stream. 40 words, in fact. 40 lost words per minute.

     If I taught you a calculus course, but silenced 40 out of 160 words of my instructions, how well would you perform on the final exam? Here is the story of The Fox and the Crow. Everything in black shows what children process in one minute; everything in red shows what they miss in that minute when we speak too and crow2

     I want to hear all that my students share with me and, when I respond to their ideas, desires, stories and conversations, I want to respond in a way that lets them know I have heard them. I want them to be utterly clear that I value their thoughts and words. Sharing conversations at their speech tempo is one of the many ways I can convey my respect for the children with whom I co-learn.

© 2015 Shelley Welch