The power of language for thinking and learning

Published on Tuesday, 07 July 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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Language is key

Critical thinking happens when children draw on their existing knowledge and experiences to solve problems, predict outcomes, form opinions, compare scenarios, express emotions, project thoughts, evaluate ideas and think creatively.

The ability to use language to think and learn is developed throughout the preschool years (3-5 year olds) and is fundamental to the development of literacy and success at school. Pace et al. (2018) confirmed that “a child’s level of language skills before entering school predicts their success in both math and in reading, and even has an effect on social skills development.”

What type of language?

Language for thinking and learning (also referred to as ‘decontextualised language’) allows children to talk about more complicated topics, describe things they’ve seen or experienced, think through problems and tell stories. It is not everyday language; it is moving beyond the “here-and-now”.

Here’s an example of the contrast between everyday language and the language for thinking and learning:

"Here-and-now" everyday language

Sean says to his teacher, “Look it’s getting leaves!”

A short simple sentence which doesn’t need to be named or explained because both Sean and his teacher are present and looking at the same plant. Sean’s facial expression and intonation tell his teacher how he’s feeling. There is shared context and a reduced need for Sean to use specific and explicit language. Sean is using language typical of everyday conversation.

Langauge for thinking and learning

Sean says this later to his teacher.

“Our plant at home died because my mum gave it too much water. I think too much water made the plant sick, just like when I got sick when I ate too much ice cream.”

Sean is talking about something that is beyond the here and now. He knows his teacher has no knowledge of his plant at home so his language is much more specific and detailed. He draws on his previous experiences and uses language to think about and analyse what happened to the plant, drawing an analogy to an experience he has had. He is using language for thinking and learning.

The type of language used for thinking and learning has been shown to predict how well children learn ‘academic language’ which is the type of language found in textbooks and used by teachers. It affects their ability to understand what is being said, read and to think about the content in a variety of ways.

Building language for thinking and learning

And what activity do we regularly do as parents, educators and speech pathologists that supports language learning? Reading books! Scachter et al. (2016)4 reviewed literature that supports educators’ use of language stimulation strategies during dialogic reading and found it particularly beneficial to their language learning. One of the most common ways we stimulate language is to ask questions….

We all ask questions of children when we read to them but how often are we asking questions that lead to discussions that help children learn to use abstract and sophisticated language? A new study in 20195 examined the extent to which preschool teachers use different types of questions during classroom-based shared book reading.

They found that ‘Wh’ questions were asked most frequently (41 per cent of all questions) – ‘who, what, when’ type of questions. Similarly, there were a large number of yes/no questions.  These types of questions focus on literal comprehension and place fewer demands on language for thinking and learning, but are, nevertheless, fundamental to all reading. When focused on literal comprehension, you create a reading environment in which children feel comfortable and successful. This aligns with what was found in the study that children were able to answer these literal comprehension questions accurately 85 per cent of the time.

In contrast to this, ‘Why’ questions or ‘How’/procedural questions equated to 3-4 per cent of all questions and these tended to elicit longer child responses but also more inaccurate responses. Why would that be? When we ask these types of inferential comprehension questions, children are having to read between and beyond the lines. They draw on existing knowledge as well as problem solving and reasoning skills to understand the text. They have to use language for thinking and learning.

What this study tells us is that there is a missed opportunity here to challenge children and move into the zone of proximal development. These ‘inaccurate’ responses should be welcomed because that’s where we can scaffold the response or rephrase the question to support children to use more complex language.

"Reading is most valuable when it is accompanied by interactive discusision, including questions to invite responses and opinions"

Balancing comments and questions

The thinking-out-loud strategy, developed by Judith Schickendanz is an excellent way of highlighting more abstract and inferential language. When you say, “I’m thinking that…” or “I’m wondering about…”, you model for children how to search for important meaning that is not explicitly stated in the text. Thinking-out-loud comments differ from questions in that children are not required to respond, although they may. The comments’ main purpose is to stimulate the children’s thinking.

Here are a few key ways to engage children during shared book reading to develop their inferential comprehension skills. These examples refer to “Little Red Riding Hood”.


Encourage children to evaluate what happens in the story by asking if something is good or not, or whether something will work or not, and to explain how they reached that conclusion.

Comment: I don’t think it’s a good idea to walk by yourself to someone else’s house.
Question: Do you think it was a good idea for her to go without her parents? Why not?


Being able to project or put yourself in someone else’s minds is important for understanding a book and requires children to put themselves into a characters’ minds and into the situation being described.

Comment: If I was the wolf, I’d be worried that my long nose and fur makes me NOT look like Granny.

Question: If you were Little Red Riding Hood, how would you make yourself look like Granny?


Language is critical in solving problems and problems are a central part of most narratives.

Comment: I think the best thing for Little Red Riding Hood to do is to scream and call for help!

Question: What would you do to escape from the wolf?

If adults use more abstract and sophisticated language in their conversations with children, children will raise their level of language. In addition to reading good storybooks, include informational and expository texts. These types of books can generate more complex language and conversations. Intentionally planning and preparing questions and comments before you share a story allow for many more opportunities for language learning. 

Pre-school aged children rely heavily on the supporting adults around them to foster these skills early in life during talking, playing and reading.  In fact, children are born with the potential for critical thinking skills but the presence of these skills and the extent to which they are evident rely heavily on their environment (Centre for Developing Child, Harvard University).

It is in ‘what we say’ as parents and educators that truly matters.

We cannot guarantee oral language prowess will buy our children ‘happiness’ but there is no doubt that oral language is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.

Tania and Janice

Speech Language Pathologists, Little Birdie Books©

Tania and Janice are paediatric speech-language pathologists and mothers of young children.  Dedicated to supporting parents and educators, their Little Birdie products combine the power of picture books and play to build language and emergent literacy skills for pre-school aged children.  Discover gift book boxes, Little Birdie memberships and educator book bags here or follow on Instagram or Facebook.


Pace, A., et al. (2018). Measuring success: Within and cross-domain predictors of academic and social trajectories in elementary school. Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

Weitzman, E. & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and Beyond: Building Emergent Literacy in Early Childhood Settings. Toronto, Ontario: Hanen Early Language Program.

Uccelli, P., Demir-Lira, O.E., Rowe, M.L., Levine, S. and Goldin-Meadow, S. (2018). Children’s Early Decontextualised Talk Predicts Academic Language Proficiency in Midadolescence. Child Development. E-publishcation ahead of print: doi:10.1111/cdev.13034.

Schachter, Rachel E.; Spear, Caitlin F.; Piasta, Shayne B.; Justice, Laura M.; and Logan, Jessica A.R. (2016). "Early childhood educators’ knowledge, beliefs, education, experiences, and children’s language- and literacy-learning opportunities: What is the connection?" Faculty Publications, Department of Child, Youth, and Family Studies. 238.

Richa S. Deshmukh, Tricia A. Zucker, Sherine R. Tambyraja, Jill M. Pentimonti, Ryan P. Bowles, Laura M. Justice. (2019). Teachers’ use of questions during shared book reading: Relations to child responses. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 49, 59-68.

Storch, S.A., & Whitehust. G.J. (2002). Oral language and code-related precursors to reading: Evidence from a longitudinal structural model. Developmental Psychology, 38, 934-947.

Schickendanz, J.A. (2006). Much More Than The ABCs. Washington, D.C.: NAEYC.

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