The Art of the Spoken Word – use it, don’t lose it!

Spoken language clearly differentiates Homo sapiens from all other creatures. None but humankind produces a complex spoken language, a medium for communication and a medium for introspective reflection

Richard Leakey

Do you ever feel tongue-tied? Frustrated that you did not get your message across more clearly? Disappointed that some people did not fully understand what you were saying? Upset that you did not represent your group well enough in that important conversation? Angry with yourself that you were not confident and articulate when sharing your amazing ideas and strategies?

These are the conversations we have every day, with the children, some of whom are not yet five years old!

We often say to them that if they were able to ask their parents the same questions, many of them would feel the same way.

The good news is, as education is evolving so quickly these days, oral language – that being the ability of talking out loud, saying what you want and mean and feel, expressing your hopes and articulating your fears, is now part and parcel of what school is all about…even when you are as young as three and four years old!

Oral language, in fact, is one of the most important predictors of your success of being in the world. This is tricky because we are all part of a new age where we are flooded with SMS, no-more-than-280-character-tweets, memes and emojis, short-hand acronyms and abbreviations, hashtags, group emails and passive binge-watching of the latest Netflix-12-episode-mini-series, not to mention the testing of the latest iPad App game you can download for free. These new-age common-place daily diversions have forced the art of spoken self-expression into focus, as one of the most defining life-skills we must teach to all our children.

We know that receptive language (listening and understanding) develops far quicker than our expressive language. And for most humans it takes at least two years to start to put more than two or three words together, spontaneously, appropriately, and confidently.

Language development is complex, sophisticated, and magical. It requires practice and modelling, mirroring, and repetition. It relies on memory and attention, and opportunity. Language will grow with exposure, with encouragement and with connection. Language acquisition is reliant on subtleties such as timing, tone, rhythm and rhyme, volume and pace, intonation, pronunciation, and accent. Oral language is enhanced with gesture, facial expression and body language. It is through language that we are able to reach out to others, to feel a sense of being a part of something greater than ourselves; it is the tool to better understand ourselves, and others.

Radio has always been a medium that promotes the spoken word, and now podcasts and audiobooks have become increasingly more popular as we traverse our daily routes. The demand for clarity, fluency and easily accessible oral language is on the rise. Seasoned listeners are not tolerant of poor-quality, inaudible, and muffled expression. No ‘ums’ or ‘stammers’, no long pauses or lapses are accepted during interviews, or allowed by hosts. Conversations are rehearsed and edited to keep the audience attending.

It is no coincidence that oral language has a most significant place in the history of mankind; and has been the mechanism by which stories are passed down from one generation to another, across continents and cultures. It therefore is our responsibility to keep our spoken word alive and well. Spoken language is furthermore now considered as one of the most vital antidotes to loneliness, to isolation and exclusion. It has to be mastered and made pivotal to our teaching progressions and hopes.

As this poses a great challenge for parents and educators as we do our best to set our children up for a successful life, what can we do to help our children become these articulate, engaging, and confident beings?

Here are few ideas for you, no matter the age and stage of your child:

  • Make mealtimes matter with sharing and inviting conversations.
  • Read, read, read to your children, and then have them read, read, read, to you – without judgement – ask them open-ended questions that will get them thinking, using their imagination, retrieving words and putting ideas together.
  • Allow your children to answer questions posed to them (rather than speak on their behalf).
  • Play those good old-fashioned language games – that ask for memory recall, rhymes, and laughter.
  • Make a comment, and then wait for a few minutes, before moving along.
  • Include nursery rhymes, poetry, and rap to encourage rhymes and rhythm – sing along to songs in the car.
  • Listen to audiobooks together, as a family. Press ‘pause’ every now and then and think together about the story or the narrative.

We must remember that words don’t come easily to all, but the more we practice and promote the art of the spoken word, the richer and more rewarding our connections and life experiences will be.


About the author

Cathy Milwidsky is the Director of Early Learning and Development at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW

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