From Words to Concepts – and beyond

From words to concepts – what is the difference and how does this apply to the development of language throughout learning? My last blog focused on the importance of vocabulary – and how important it is for young children to start off with an extensive bank of words from nursery level. But however rich a young child’s vocabulary may be – it is just the foundation of a fascinating relationship with language. Think about these ten words – bus, hair, pencil, pizza, towel, moon, country, bank, communicate, society. What is the subtle difference between the first, and last, five?

The first five words are concrete in the sense that children can form mind pictures. These simple words don’t take much thinking about. Children can describe them using words of colour, size and shape in simple terms. We also have a strong and varied sense – see, hear, touch, taste and smell. We form concepts of these types of words in simple terms – for example, the word towel can apply not just to the blue one we use personally, but to other towels in different colours and sizes, wherever we see them. Words become concepts even at this simple level.

What about the other five words, for example, the moon? To form some understanding of this (and similar abstract concepts) we need more difficult words. Without some understanding of other concepts, such as distance, oxygen, air and so on, we can have no concept of the moon as a very different planet to our own. We cannot use our senses alone to understand words such as moon, society or country. These concepts are far more abstract and challenging, partly because such understanding relies on a secure bank of other, equally difficult words through which they are described. For example, which concepts help us to understand what a society is? Can we understand and describe a society as easily as we understand and describe a bus?

So imagine being a child in Key Stage 2 – confronted daily with many new and difficult words: all of which are important to successful learning in all subjects. In terms of language, the long journey – from the Early Years Foundation Stage – through Key Stage 2 – then Key Stage 3 – is immensely challenging.

I mentioned in my last blog that language underpins all other aspects of learning. As adults, we must place greater emphasis on vocabulary and concept development – if our young people are to succeed as readers, writers, mathematicians, scientists or historians. Each area of learning carries with it – a bank of concepts, without which understanding cannot break through. So language represents ACCESS. Without language – all doors to the future are locked.

My books for parents expand on these points. My plea is for parents to be part of the educational team that enables all children to succeed at whatever level they can. Language is the key to unlock learning at every stage of development.

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