Can We Talk? The Importance of Conversation at Youth Programs

Helen Barahal

Helen BarahalHave you ever engaged in a meaningful conversation? Then you know how transformative it can be. How many of you have had these types of conversations with the children and youth in your programs? How many of you have encouraged young people to have these conversations with each other? I’m convinced that we’re not putting in the time and effort needed to help young people in our programs develop these essential skills.

Oral language has been linked to later reading success, according to the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP). Oral language is how we communicate, express ourselves, understand and make meaning of the world. Oral language is one way young people begin creating mental models that help them comprehend and interact with texts and the world. There are so many opportunities in afterschool and youth programs to help young people flex their oral language muscles. Why aren’t we taking advantage of them?

As a director of afterschool programs for six years, I often saw staff hanging back, conversing with each other as the children engaged in an activity. This was a missed opportunity. I have also witnessed and been a part of some powerful conversations between staff and young people. While these moments can happen naturally in the often less formal settings of OST programs, they could easily be a part of our regular practice if staff approached oral language and conversation with intentionality.

By practicing conversing with “expert” conversationalists, children quickly learn the pragmatic, or useful, aspects of oral language. Hearing clear, articulate speech helps children develop in their awareness of phonology, or the sounds that go with symbols.

Young people improve in semantics, or word meaning, through engaging in conversation; crucial to later reading comprehension. Staff need to understand that as they converse with young people, they are linguistic models. They need to make sure to use correct grammar and articulate clearly, especially with young children and English learners, so they can begin to distinguish the sounds in words.

Staff of OST programs work with young people because they value youth and have a great deal to offer.  They should understand that the conversations that can easily take place in out-of-school time — the informal, natural dialogue that they engage in with young people — are powerful and important. Every moment they are with students is an opportunity to model and support language development.

We don’t always think about developing oral language as something we teach in the same way we may teach reading, writing, dance or other skills. But as adults we are the linguistic models for all the young people in our programs.

So let’s ask ourselves, how we are capitalizing on the limited time we have with young people to enhance their oral language skills? By collectively harnessing the power of oral language, and intentionally and purposefully teaching and modeling oral language, we give young people a skill that will serve them well for a lifetime.

Helen Barahal has been a teacher and afterschool/early childhood center director in New York City. A graduate of New York University, she holds a master’s degree in international education and has spent the last 20 years in nonprofit and school settings working with children and educators. She is currently part of the professional services team at Amplify working with educators and leaders in schools and districts across the country, focusing on the areas of early literacy and data use.


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