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Word Associations

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Recently, my family and I took a trip to the Chattanooga Aquarium. During the trip, of course we encountered many species of fish and aquatic life, as well as people and non-aquatic life. However, the most memorable thing about this trip is something that I heard a grandmother say to her grandson.

The grandmother was trying to take a picture of her grandson and she wanted him to put his tongue in his mouth first. Although she motioned to him to do this, he wouldn’t, and she had to tell him. She had to speak very loudly in order for him to hear her. So, in a very loud voice, she said, put your licker back in your mouth.

Initially, when I heard this, I thought she was talking to a very young child. However, I quickly realized that he was about 7 or 8 years old. After further observation, I noticed that he didn’t appear to be intellectually challenged and was able to engage in conversation with the grandmother and mother. I also noticed that the word licker was used by grandmother and mother, in conversation with each other.

This caused me to think about children’s word association skills and what information they bring with them on the first day of school. If children have attended preschool, were taught at home, or exposed to varying levels of language, they may have one set of word association skills, and children who don’t attend preschool have another set of word association skills. Then there are others who come to school with what I call word associations in need of re-teaching. These are children who are able to identify objects, however, they’ve been taught the wrong names of things.

The child knew that the grandmother was referring to his tongue. However, he didn’t appear to know the word tongue. He knew the word licker. Often, parents refer to objects using nick names or other words that describe the object, but don’t provide the exact word. Although there is nothing wrong with having a special name for certain things, parents should be intentional with speech, especially with young children. It is important that they know, from the very beginning, what words are associated with what things.


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