Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Talking in Circles

Heather Gillum, PhD, CCC-SLP
"It's time to come to the circle."

Such begins the kindergarten day for many, many children.  Sometimes it goes by names like Morning Meeting, Gathering, or Sharing Time, but in any case it involves everyone coming together into a circle for a shared time of interaction.  In the grand scheme of kindergarten readiness, this is where a multitude of skills are on display. Allow me to describe the scene.

Teacher sits in rocking chair, children are asked to sit in a circle, either on a rug or on their own personal carpet square.  Some children come promptly, sit down criss-cross applesauce (what was formerly and less respectfully called "Indian style" for all you children of the 70's and 80's), and put their eyes on the teacher and the accompanying materials.  Others continue to wander aimlessly and must be called by name, prompted again, and sometimes physically assisted to their place.  For these children, circle time is off to a bad start.

Sharing in the circle takes many forms.  Teacher may begin with a litany of direct questions that are the same each day.  "What day of the week is it? What month?  What date?" may be asked of the group, with children raising hands and answering, or blurting out, depending on teacher's tolerance.  Children may be assigned jobs, such as weather reporter, and asked individually to answer questions about sunshine, precipitation, and appropriate clothing for the day.  Then talk may shift to opportunities for students to share what they did over the weekend, with short yet descriptive answers more highly prized than rambling recitations. The rhythm of circle time eventually becomes a regular part of each school day, and students begin planning what they will share ahead of time.  It serves to teach vocabulary, numeracy, and respect for others.  It is also a time in which appropriateness is observable and students are on stage.  It is a time of day when I learn much about the students in a class and their communication skills, and is often a precursor to a one-on-one screening.

As you can see, circle time is a language-heavy social activity.  Here are eight important skills for circle time success: 
1. Sitting in a space and respecting the personal space of others, keeping hands and feet to oneself
2. Making eye contact with the teacher, and with other students when they are talking
3. Maintaining focused attention and following topic shifts and transitions
4. Respecting the turns of others and refraining from speaking out of turn
5. Listening and paying close attention in order to answer questions, and formulating responses to questions before volunteering to answer
6. Providing adequate background information when speaking on a personal topic, such as an out of school activity
7. Speaking with appropriate volume and clarity to be understood
8. Using age-appropriate vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structures when talking.

Is your kindergarten-bound child struggling in some of these areas?  Here are eight tips for building circle time skills:
1. Seek out community-based circle time-type activities, such as the storytimes hosted by local libraries, as an opportunity for practice.
2. Expect (and prompt when lacking) respectful turn taking and eye contact during family dinners.
3. When you are talking with your child, prompt for more information when you need more background on their topic of conversation, such as what they did at a friend's house.  It's great to offer a reminder, such as "Now remember, I wasn't there, what exactly were you doing?".
4. Play games at home that reinforce the rhythm of turn taking and respects for others' turns.
5. Prompt for volume and clarity when your child mumbles (even when you know what they were saying).
6. Assist when there are grammar breakdowns.  For example, when your child makes an error, such as "That's hims ball" instead of "That's his ball,"simply repeat the sentence with the correction without asking the child to repeat it.  This is called a conversational recast, and is a powerful intervention technique.
7. When reading with your children, stop occasionally and ask questions to see if they are paying attention and able to answer correctly. If not, suggest that they look at the pictures to help jog their memory.
8. Make regular phone calls with your child to friends and relatives to give practice in describing special events and activities to people who weren't there.  This is an easy way to build descriptive skills.

Still concerned?  Discuss your concerns with a your child's preschool teacher, and consider contacting a speech-language pathologist if you have worries about any aspect of communication development.

When circle time includes reading a book, it becomes "Shared Book Reading"--which will be the topic of our Friday post.

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