Learning that occurs before verbal memory is established is still “educational.” Kids, like adults, remember many details they do not consider conscious memories. Most adults, for example, can look around a room and know, with some degree of accuracy, what any item would taste like if they were to give it a try. Most adults are shocked to realize they possess this knowledge, because they do not retain conscious memories of tasting their doorknobs or coffee tables. This knowledge, retained in adulthood, was acquired in very early childhood.
Such knowledge strongly affects vocabulary skills, which are the foundation for learning almost everything else. For example, when a middle-school science teacher says an “elephant” is an example of a mammal, some children in the class will imagine a photograph or video footage of a wild elephant, others will recall a live elephant seen in a zoo, and still others will picture Dumbo. All the children are picturing elephants, but the context in which they originally acquired this particular vocabulary word determines how they actually conceptualize an elephant. And, how they conceptualize the elephant may affect how difficult they find the science lesson. Teaching infants, then, by such means as visiting parks and zoos and offering words for mimicry, proves to have long-term value even when the children aren’t able to recount these early experiences later in life.
Parents are often convinced by advertising campaigns that only specially-prepared, purchased products are usefully educational. Kids, however, learn from imaginative play and broad experience whether any company has ever marketed the activity or not. Particularly when teaching infants, hands-on explorations of homes, backyards, free community events, and similar easily accessible places can be as valuable as time spent in pay-to-play venues. The key to teaching infants deep, contextualized language skills successfully is for the parent to draw the child’s attention to an object or activity, pronounce its name, and playfully encourage the child to copy the sounds. Adults sometimes notice with more complex vocabulary words, acquired at older ages when narrative verbal memory is well established, that they recall the learning context every time the word is encountered. Teaching infants a strong vocabulary simply recognizes and builds on this phenomenon.
In addition to this emphasis on teaching vocabulary in intentional contexts, parents can enhance their children’s potential by giving them the valuable gift of standard English as a native language. Every human being acquires a natural grammar very early in life, and the vast majority of people will always find this first language—always used perfectly—the easiest and most natural to use. Unfortunately, most people are judged by whether their natural, correct-by-definition language skills match an academically “standard” dialect. Children raised in homes where standard English is spoken, then, will proceed easily through grammar exams in school, securely relying on their ear for language whenever a memorized rule is not remembered. Children raised in homes were different grammar rules are used, however, must pass their grammar tests using only the memorized rules, and are thus at a disadvantage. In fact, if their native language includes usages such as “they is” or “he be out,” their ear for language will tend to favor these constructions—at the expense of those on which tests are graded. Because of this phenomenon, many researchers criticize standard approaches to judging schoolchildren’s grammar. However, the existence of standard English is a fact, and parents give their children a tremendous advantage by teaching infants standard English as the language used at home.
Parents who help their children acquire standard English as a native language, with vocabulary developed through real-world experiences, provide a lifelong advantage that cannot be duplicated.