As ever, I was for­ag­ing through use­ful pieces of infor­ma­tion the oth­er night.

Most of my notes relate to learn­ing about autism in the past 4+ years and it was the term ‘Inci­den­tal Teach­ing’ that caught my eye.

Inci­den­tal teach­ing doesn’t mean there’s no plan­ning on the part of the per­son teach­ing. Plans are made but with­in the ongo­ing typ­i­cal activ­i­ties in a child’s day.

Now I know how I teach!

I par­tic­u­lar­ly believe in using what used to be ‘every day activ­i­ties’ as the foun­da­tion for ensur­ing that chil­dren learn to speak. It is also a very use­ful tech­nique for teach­ing the basics of reading!

Unfor­tu­nate­ly most young chil­dren no longer have ‘every day activ­i­ties’ of the ordi­nary sort, just as they don’t have a moth­er to take care of them. 

Their ‘every day activ­i­ties’ include get­ting ready for the care­giv­er (inside or out­side the home) or pre-school and once in that care (often at a ten­der age — 1 or 2 years old or younger, usu­al­ly before they start talk­ing!!) their rou­tines involve no real world activ­i­ties!! Nei­ther are they taught by real teach­ers who are aware of what such young chil­dren need in order to learn.

Thus we have so many late talk­ers – at times I feel I am sur­round­ed by ‘late talk­er­s’!! I don’t pre­tend that I did bet­ter but I do know that I haven’t had a child of my own or in my care who didn’t read­i­ly com­mu­ni­cate with me. Every­one can improve their speech pat­terns to ensure clar­i­ty but it does take a ‘teacher’ to remind them what to improve.

I spoke the oth­er day with a man who came to this coun­try at age 13 know­ing no Eng­lish. He’s now in his ear­ly 30’s. He has worked dili­gent­ly to learn the lan­guage and to speak it with lit­tle accent. He is now a high­ly qual­i­fied exer­cise phys­i­ol­o­gist and teacher going on to do his Ph.D. But our dis­cus­sion was about learn­ing the Eng­lish lan­guage in such a way that you could be clear­ly under­stood by those around you. He is vir­tu­al­ly accent-less.

Even as a British Eng­lish speak­er I didn’t (and some­times still don’t!) speak Amer­i­can Eng­lish. I’m often not under­stood – we don’t speak the same language!! 

This came to light recent­ly when my neigh­bour, who is Scot­tish, and I both referred to the mate­r­i­al being used to pave our road as ‘tar­mac’. The word is from ‘Tar McAdam’ the term for asphalt in the UK. (The Scot John Loudon McAdam, a road engi­neer [1756–1836] devised the method for ini­tial­ly paving roads with a crushed grav­el foun­da­tion – the tar came lat­er, as did asphalt – oil-based from Trinidad). 

Now my neigh­bour has been in the US for a good many years, prob­a­bly 10 or more, and he’s a pro­fes­sion­al in his field but he didn’t know the mate­r­i­al was called asphalt in the US. I’ve lived here for near­ly 35 years and just couldn’t recall the right word.

Obvi­ous­ly the work­ers (immi­grants them­selves!) didn’t have a clue what we were refer­ring to. It was one of those occa­sions when I des­ig­nat­ed my hus­band, the Amer­i­can, who also has some nec­es­sary Span­ish (for the oth­er immi­grants!), to deal with the mat­ter; it was sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly resolved by our ‘intermediary’!

Now back to the point of this blog – ‘inci­den­tal teach­ing’. In the above sit­u­a­tion the inci­den­tal teach­ing hap­pened to me. It was a real world sit­u­a­tion that required me to get the right word for a spe­cif­ic mate­r­i­al. Yes I could go on call­ing it ‘tarmac’ but no one in Amer­i­ca would know what I was talk­ing about so what’s the purpose?

Like­wise, if a child mis­pro­nounces a word and we don’t cor­rect their pro­nun­ci­a­tion because it’s ‘cute’ when they’re lit­tle, we aren’t doing them any favours.

One lit­tle girl I cared for had lis­tened and watched her favourite car­toon musi­cal on CD and DVD, all with lit­tle super­vi­sion of a par­ent (it was a very cheap babysit­ter!). At age 4 she knew it all – won­der­ful, except that she’d now fixed it in her mind that she pro­nounced all the words cor­rect­ly, just as she’d ‘heard’ the words. It was vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to cor­rect her pro­nun­ci­a­tions; she wasn’t will­ing to learn the cor­rect way.

Had some­one been around her on a reg­u­lar basis while she was watch­ing and singing along her speech could have been cor­rect­ed – but it would have tak­en some­one to be her ‘incidental teacher’.

It is one of the major ways that chil­dren are slow talk­ers. They are learn­ing most of their lan­guage from car­toon char­ac­ters and the rest from lis­ten­ing by them­selves (cheap babysit­ter!) to their favourite music. 

Please watch a pop­u­lar car­toon or three with the sound turned off and decide how you could learn to speak! Impos­si­ble! But that is what we are allow­ing to teach our children.

TURN OFF THE TV – yes I’m shouting!

Or try ‘inci­den­tal teach­ing’ as your most valu­able tool.