Juguemos con el lenguaje/The Joy of Talking With Young Children

The purpose of this article is to provide parents, providers, and teachers with a practical guide to language and literacy development for Spanish-speaking children, ages four to eight years old.

Research assures us that language development in young children, regardless of what specific language it occurs in, is very important for future success in reading in English (NCLR 2004). Research also reveals that Latino children in the U.S. do not achieve comparable reading levels of their White peers. For example, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Hispanic fourth-graders scored 197 out of a possible 500, compared to their White peers who scored 225 on the same test (NCLR 2004).

Latino parents, child care providers, and teachers of Spanish-speaking children are central to the development of a child's native tongue. Rich language development establishes a solid foundation for the acquisition of literacy skills in the early grades. Parents and other caring adults who understand that children's language develops from engaging in meaningful conversations, dialogues, and language games are able to maximize daily opportunities to enrich and expand children's language and concept development, which will prepare them to be successful in school and life.

Hablando y cantando con nuestros niños/Talking and Singing with Children

Children gain knowledge about their world through social interactions with their parents, brothers and sisters, important adults, as well as other children within their culture. Language is at the center of these social interactions. This is the way children develop cognitively (García 1994).

For example, if a mother and child are in the kitchen preparing a family favorite, the conversation might sound like this:

Mamá: "Está fresco el día, vamos a hacer chocolate caliente."

Mother: "Today is a cold day, let's make hot chocolate."

Niño(a): "¿En qué te ayudo?"

Child: "Can I help you?"

Mamá: "Trae la olla mediana que está ahí abajo. Vamos a ponerle la leche que está en el refrigerador y le agregamos el chocolate."

Mother: "Bring the medium size pot from under there. Let's pour in some milk from the fridge and then we add the chocolate."

Niño(a): "¿Quieres el molinillo para batirlo?"

Child: "Do you want the molinillo to mix it?"

Mamá: "¿Sabes la canción del chocolate?"

Mother: "Do you know the song, chocolate?"

Niño(a):" No, cántamela ahora."

Child: "No, sing it now."

"Uno, dos, tres, CHO
uno, dos, tres, CO
uno, dos, tres, LA
uno, dos, tres, TE
bate y bate el chocolate."

"One, two, three, CHO
one, two, three, CO
one, two, three, LA
one, two, three, TE
beat and beat the chocolate."


This mother has taken the opportunity to teach her child a song about chocolate as they sing together and stir this special drink. This simple activity stimulates a child's natural playfulness with language and provides a verse with rhyme, rhythm, and repetition, all helpful ways for a young child to learn and remember new words and phrases. A parent can also introduce the use of the molinillo de chocolate (a wooden stick with several wooden rings in one end, especially used in Mexico to stir the chocolate and often present in kitchens of Mexican families).


Parents and other adults in the family can create opportunities to talk with children about family traditions and tell stories about family members, and use these to extend the child's language. For example, a conversation between father and child might go like this:

Papá: "¿Te conté alguna vez la historia de cuando iba al mercado con mi papá a vender los productos de la granja?"

Father: "Did I ever tell you the story about when I used to go with my father to the mercado to sell the produce from our farm?"

Niña(o): " No, cuéntamela ahora papá."

Child: "No, please tell me about it, Dad."

Papá: " Nosotros vivíamos en una granja y plantábamos elote y calabaza para vender en el mercado."

Father: "We lived on a farm and we used to plant corn and squash to sell at the mercado."

Niña(o): "¿El mercado es como el supermarket?"

Child: "Is the mercado like the supermarket?"

Papá: "No, el mercado era al aire libre, sin techo, en la calle no más. Los vendedores se sentaban en el piso y vendían lo que traían."

Father: "No, the mercado was outside, with no roof and it was just on the streets. Sellers would sit on the ground and sell what they had."

Through this brief dialogue, the father realizes that the child has never been to a mercado. At this point the father can extend the conversation about his experiences growing up and connect them to the child's experiences. For example, the father may remember that the teacher has sent home with the child a book called Saturday Market (Grossman 1994) (or he may take the child to a library to look for similar books). In this case, the father does not read the book, but uses it to support the conversation about the family topic. He uses the pictures in the book to talk with his child about the mercado, discussing the different products people are selling, such as chiles, rebozos, huaraches, pájaros, and pan (hot peppers, sandals, birds, and bread).

Compartiendo la poesía con nuestros niños/Sharing Poetry with Children

In discovering the world, children play instinctively with the new words they learn. They are "natural poets" when they make up words or descriptions for things they "discover." The seven-year-old child of a friend at work, when hearing two people speak in a foreign language for the first time, said, "Están haciendo garabatos con la voz" ("They are scribbling with their voices"). Children do this in whatever language they are acquiring, and parents should not only be aware of these wonderful moments, but also encourage and celebrate them. Making up and sharing poems with children is a wonderful way to encourage playfulness with language, besides enjoying a lighthearted moment together.

Songs and rhymes that adults learned in their childhood can be used to introduce their young children to the simple elements of poetry. Some examples in Spanish are:

Debajo del BotónUnder a Button
"Debajo del botón, tón, tón,
que encontró Martín, tín, tín
había un ratón, tón, tón.
Ay, qué chiquitín, tín, tín.
Ay, qué chiquitín, tín, tín
era el ratón, tón, tón,
que encontró Martín, tín, tín,
debajo del botón, tón, tón."
"Under a button, ton, ton, ton,
found by Uncle Martin, tin,
there was mouse Patón, ton, ton, ton,
playing tin, tin, tin, tin, tin.
Playing tin, tin, tin, tin, tin,
there was mouse Patón, ton, ton,
found by Uncle Martin, tin,
under a button, ton, ton, ton."
Una Rata ViejaPancha, The Old Rat
"Una rata vieja,
que era planchadora,
por planchar su falda
¡se quemó la cola!

Se puso pomada.
Se amarró un trapito.
Y a la pobre rata le quedó un rabito."
"Pancha, the old rat
was ironing one day,
and when she pressed her skirt,
she burned her tail away!

She applied some ointment.
She wrapped it in a veil,
but the poor old Pancha,
she lost most of her tail."

Most Latino parents know some songs or verses from their childhood that they can share with their children. Among the most common ones in Mexico and Latin America are:

Tengo una muñeca vestida de azulI Have a Little Doll
"Tengo una muñeca vestida de azul,
con su camisita y camesú
la saqué a paseo, se me constipó.
La tengó en la casa con mucho dolor.

Dos y dos son cuatro,
cuatro y dos son seis,
seis y dos son ocho,
y ocho diez y seis."


"I have a little doll
all dressed in blue,
took her for a stroll
and she caught the flu.

Two plus two is four,
four plus two is six,
six plus two is eight,
and eight equals sixteen."
Tortillitas de mantecaTortillitas Made of Butter
"Tortillitas de manteca,
pa, mamá que está contenta.
Tortillitas de maíz,
pa, papá que está felíz."


"Tortillitas made of butter,
for my mom, who is rather happy.
Tortillitas made of corn,
for my dad who loves me so."


Preschoolers enjoy learning these rhymes and singing them over and over while moving their hands or singing to their dolls. Older seven– and eight-year-olds enjoy teaching them to their younger siblings or friends.

Dichos y adivinanzas/Sayings and Riddles

As we have seen, language and culture are not separate but inexorably intertwined. Latin American cultures, without exception, are rich with folk sayings that express values and beliefs. Adults usually use a variety of these sayings in their everyday speech with each other. Sharing some of these with children while providing a simple explanation of their meaning, without making a "lesson" in behavior out of the occasion, is appropriate. While children may not always fully understand the meaning of these sayings, they enjoy the simple way in which they are expressed and can easily memorize and repeat them. Here are a few examples:

"Cada cabeza es un mundo."

"Each head is a world of its own."

"A fuerza ni los zapatos entran."

"When you use force, not even your shoes fit."

"Al nopal sólo lo van a ver cuando hay tunas."

"You only visit the cactus when it's bearing fruit."

Latin Americans love adivinanzas (riddles). We all learned many of them as we were growing up. Rhyme is a key element of these riddles and very appropriate for young preschool children. Here are a few that I remember from my abuela, Fermina:

Una Señora Muy AseñoradaA Very Lady-like Lady
"Una señora muy aseñorada
Que nunca sale afuera y
Siempre esta mojada."
(la lengua)

"Perez anda Jil camina
Tonto será quien no lo adivina."
"A very lady-like lady
That never goes outside
And is always bathing."
(the tongue)

"Pars goes by, Ley walks on
You can't get it wrong."

These fun word games also stimulate cognitive skills while the child tries to figure out the riddle. Always remember not to tire a child by overdoing any of these activities. The main purpose of sharing these with children is enjoyment — not teaching them a lesson. Language is an infinite source of fun and enjoyment for children and adults when shared without ulterior motives. Learning is enhanced by the enjoyment of shared activities.

Children also enjoy listening to poems read aloud because the language in poetry, when it is not sentimental, cute, or condescending, creates a vicarious experience. Following are a few examples of such poems:

Primera LluviaFirst Rain
el cielo?
Is it raining
is the sky

Francisco Alarcón

las colinas
a sonreir
muy verdes
otra vez
the hills
are starting
to crack
a green smile
once again

Francisco Alarcón

Sobre la mesa
un vaso
    se desmaya,
Al estrellarse
contra el piso,
una galaxia
Upon the table
a glass
to the floor,
a galaxy
is born.

Elías Nandino

Las Maravillas de la CiudadWonders of the City
Aquí en esta ciudad
todo es maravilloso

Aquí los mangos
vienen enlatados

En El Salvador
crecían en árboles

Aquí las gallinas vienen
en bolsas de plástico

Allá se dormían
junto a mí
Here in the city there are
wonders everywhere

Here mangos
come in cans

In El Salvador
They grew on trees

Here chickens come
in plastic bags

Over there
they slept beside me

Jorge Argueta

Leyendo libros con nuestros niños/Reading Books with Young Children

The act of reading together with a child is first and foremost an opportunity for closeness and enjoyment. Choosing the appropriate book for a child's age, interest, and ability is very important in making this an enjoyable activity. Looking at illustrations in picture storybooks and talking about stories is a natural extension of parents and children talking, singing, and telling rhymes and riddles together. Notice that I am not saying that every word of text needs to be read in order to "read the book." The important element here is to keep a child engaged and interested in the story, asking questions, pointing out special features of the illustrations, and occasionally pointing to words as they are read. Questions should be geared to pique a child's curiosity in the story such as: ¿De qué crees que se trate este cuento? (What do you think this story is about?), or ¿Cómo se sentirá el tigre? (How do you think the tiger is feeling?). Adults should answer the questions the child asks in simple language and at a level the child can understand.

Approached this way, both child and adult are freed from the necessity of reading every word and can explore and make meaning together. A common misconception is that knowing phonics and being able to decode is "reading." While being able to sound words out is certainly useful when reading, the ability to make meaning depends on a lot more. Bringing background knowledge to the reading experience is also essential. For example, a young child who has not had experience with the concept mesa (table) and is being taught to decode the sounds in the word may indeed succeed in decoding and even pronouncing the word correctly, while not being able to make any meaning of what has been decoded. In fact, reading cannot be said to happen unless there is understanding. The crucial message the child is receiving in this approach is that a story has meaning and that, as we read the words, we discover that meaning. Even if the book is in English, the parent can use it to "read" in Spanish, using his or her own words. Additionally, the child is grasping the structure of a story, with beginning, middle, and end. These are the skills that lay the solid foundation that young children need not only to read well — that is, to make meaning of the printed word — but to become avid, even passionate, readers later in life. Reading with expression and inviting the child to join in to finish repetitive phrases are sure ways to make the "reading together" experience an enjoyable one.

For Latino families, choosing books that reflect the family, its heritage, customs, traditions, and foods is important. All children need to see themselves and their loved ones reflected in books and other materials in their environment.

In the book In My Family/En mi familia, Carmen Lomas Garza (1996) briefly narrates memories of growing up in Kingsville, Texas. Her illustrations are rich in detail and color, bringing the stories to life. The text is in English and Spanish in a double spread next to the illustrations. These stories and pictures evoke family gatherings such as in Empanadas, which starts "Una vez al año mi tía Paz y mi tío Beto hacían docenas y docenas de empanadas, dulces panecillos rellenos de camote o calabaza de su jardín" ("Once every year my aunt Paz and uncle Beto would make dozens and dozens of empanadas, sweet turnovers filled with sweet potato or squash from their garden"). The illustrations extend the text with details in the way the family members and children are dressed, suggesting that this is a very festive occasion. Latino children from all over the Americas will identify with this special family gathering for making and eating a favorite food. Reading these charmingly narrated stories with children creates special opportunities to have conversations about nuestra familia (our family) and the times they get together with relatives and friends. This book has stories about cleaning cactus pads, birthday barbecues, and the healer coming to the home to help mom with a rebellious teenager — all familiar themes within Latino families.

It is important to remember that in order to influence a child's language development and story comprehension, the story-reading experience has to include different kinds of conversations, including engaging children in predicting events, making connections between real life and story events, and asking children to tell which part or character of the story they liked best and why. Understanding the structure of a story is a powerful precursor to reading and comprehension (Schickedanz 1999).

Escribiendo con nuestros niños pequeños/Writing with Young Children

Writing and reading are connected in ways that are still being researched. It appears that, similar to acquiring a language and learning to read, the development of writing in children undergoes a series of stages. Young children do not distinguish between drawing and writing, and they will tell you what their drawings "say" if you ask them.

Learning how to write involves much more than knowing the shapes of letters. It involves knowing that print is organized on the page from left to right; that letters form words that go across the page in a straight line; and that words are separated by space. Children gradually "discover" all these writing conventions and more if provided with opportunities to understand them through their own experiences. From drawing early scribbles, to shapes that resemble letters, to actually learning the shapes and sounds of the letters, children's journey into writing is an exciting one if adults are aware of how to understand the process and assist them with materials and have conversations with them, resisting the urge to provide formal instruction to preschoolers and young kindergartners (Schickedanz 1999).

Parents who use writing in their daily lives and "share" their writing with their children are providing an important foundation for their children's literacy development. With exposure to writing, young children begin to learn the conventions of writing and the fact that sentences, words, and letters are visual representations of sounds. They also come to understand that there is a purpose for writing — to send notes or letters to loved ones who are not here right now, or to remind oneself of things to do or items to buy.

The following are some examples of activities parents can do to expose their children to writing and to encourage them to use it at their level of development: ask children to tell you about their picture and write down what they say underneath their drawing; write the child's name and the names of other family members and post them in visible places; talk with children about what you are writing, and why, such as "Estoy haciendo una lista para ir de compras" ("I am making a list to go shopping"); and keep a calendar of family chores or responsibilities and share it with the child.

Parents and teachers need to be conscious of the importance of language development in the acquisition of literacy in young children. Activities that encourage rich language development in any language are essential for children to learn to read and write. The adults in children's lives have the responsibility to engage them in language play with nursery rhymes and songs, poetry, and riddles; to converse with children at their level, being mindful of opportunities to expand and extend their language; to read a variety of stories with children and engage them in conversations about the illustrations, characters, and plots of the stories; and finally, to include writing in the lives of young children by engaging them in conversations about their drawings and scribbles and writing down what they say.


This article is reprinted with permission of the National Concil for La Raza (NCLR). It is included in the 2005 publication by NCLR titled Latino Early Literacy Development: Strategies for Lifelong Learning and Success. The complete publication is available from the NCLR website, www.nclr.org


Alarcón, Francisco X., Laughing Tomatoes, Jitomates Risueños. San Francisco, CA: Children's Book Press / Libros para niños, 1997, p. 10.

Argueta, Jorge, A Movie in My Pillow, Una película en mi almohada. San Francisco, CA: Children's Book Press / Libros para niños, 2001, p. 8.

García, Eugene, Understanding and Meeting the Challenge of Student CulturalDiversity. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1994, pp.147-148.

Grossman, Patricia and Enrique Sanchez, Saturday Market. New York, NY: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1994.

Lomas Garza, Carmen, In My Family/En Mi Familia. San Francisco, CA: Children's Book Press/ Libros para niños, 1996.

National Council of La Raza, State of Hispanic America 2004: Latino Perspectives on the American Agenda. Washington, DC: National Council of la Raza, February 2004, p. 21.

Schickedanz, Judith A., Much More Than the ABC's. Washington, DC: NAEYC, 1999.

Shihab Nye, Naomi (selected by), The Tree Is Older Than You Are. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1995, p. 47.


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