Knowledge in everyday life
Knowledge in everyday life

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Knowledge in everyday life

2 Knowing in context: language

2.1 Language in everyday life

Language is an ever-present feature of human life. In the developed world in particular, we are surrounded by language. Radio and television provide a soundtrack to the lives of many people. Written language is part of everything from cereal packets and street signs, to relatively new technologies such as email and text messaging. If you were completely alone, far away from any other people or any kind of human contact, how long would it be before words came into your head, perhaps because of something you noticed, or in the form of memories, or as you turned over possible solutions to some problem in your mind? Maybe you would talk to yourself.

Language keeps us informed and entertained. It helps us relate to others, work together, and give and receive instructions. It helps us think about the past and plan for the future. Language enables us to communicate with others, to come up with and think through new ideas. Language can be defined as a system for making and representing meaning, originally (and still mainly) using the sounds of speech. No human society exists without language. However, the ease with which most of us learn and use language should not blind us to the great complexity of the job of being a language user.

If you have studied the course E123 Working with Children in the Early Years, you may remember an activity asking you to record and analyse all the speaking and listening you did during a 24-hour period. (If you have not done this activity and would like to, it can be found below.)

Activity 1: Your use of language

0 hours 30 minutes

Think about all the speaking and listening you have been involved in over the last twenty-four hours: these will doubtless include talking to a range of friends, colleagues, acquaintances and children. You will also have used technology – for example, radio, television and the telephone. Maybe you have read something aloud.

In your notebook, make a list of all these language events. Try not to overlook any that involved speaking or listening, even something as trivial as muttering to yourself.

When your list is complete, note briefly beside each example what its purpose was. Some of the many possible reasons are:

  • to get something done;

  • to get someone else to do something;

  • to express your feelings;

  • to remember something or to organise your thoughts;

  • to express friendship or support (or the opposite);

  • to show your own importance, or to acknowledge someone else's;

  • to give or receive information.


Were you surprised by how long your list was? This alone illustrates that language is an important accompaniment to a great deal of what we do in our lives.

Very often we use language to serve a number of purposes at once: by telling a child, ‘Put your painting on the table’, you are both getting something done and getting someone else to do something. You may also be showing that you are a helpful person, thereby building your professional relationship with the child. The fact that you are able to give direct orders is evidence of your importance within your setting. Your tone of voice may express your pleasure at the quality or subject of the painting, and so on.

It may be that you found relatively few examples of using language to remember things and to organise your thoughts. If, however, you widen your list to include your use of written language, then shopping lists, diary entries, teaching plans, observation notes and a host of other examples no doubt arise.

In the Activity, it was suggested that you may have used language when you wanted to:

  • get something done;

  • get someone else to do something;

  • express your feelings;

  • remember something or organise your thoughts;

  • express friendship or support (or the opposite);

  • show your own importance or acknowledge someone else's;

  • give or receive information.

Can you think of an example from your recent use of language (either spoken or written) which matches each of the above?

The next Activity invites you to reflect on a four-year-old girl's everyday encounters with written language.

Activity 2: Claire's environmental print day

0 hours 50 minutes

Clicking on the link below will open Claire's environmental print day by Elaine Hallet

Claire's environment print day [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Read the section entitled ‘Claire's environmental print day’ from ‘Signs and Symbols: environmental print’ by Elaine Hallet in the attached PDF file. As you read, make a note of the times when Claire is exposed to information about:

  • people using written texts of all kinds;

  • the different purposes that written language is used for.


You may have noted the following points.

Claire learns about how texts are used when:

  • she sees her brother reading silently, and hears her mother and Tracey (her big sister) reading aloud;

  • she reads with her mother and probably at nursery too;

  • she interacts with the text by asking questions, pointing and making comments.

Claire learns about the different purposes for literacy when:

  • she sees language used for labelling: some labels say what things are (Weetabix, toothpaste); other labels say who they belong to (Claire's cup at home or her milk at nursery);

  • the ‘belonging to’ labels enable Claire to see her own name in print;

  • she sees notices that inform, instruct and invite – for example, the menu that gives different information on the same topic each day;

  • through books and comics, Tracey learns that reading can be a source of enjoyment.

A similar log for yourself would no doubt include at least as many experiences, although some will be of a different kind: even if you share much of your time with young children, you will also encounter writing in many adult contexts.


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