“There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” – Ansel Adams
Basic concepts are tools that enable a child to make sense of the world. They help the child to explore the world in a logical way and enhance its ability to understand its properties such as direction, location, position, number, quantity, sequence, attributes, dimension, size, similarities, differences etc.
The Importance of Basic Concepts
Basic concepts assist children in their ability to follow instructions. They also help children be more specific in the choice of their words. It also enables them to understand and follow instructions in a better way.[i] Basic concepts are also necessary for early success at school. They help the child to read and write better. They help the child to become better communicators.
Classification of Concepts
The objects and surroundings of a child can have various attributes and properties. Concepts too can be of various types, depending on the attribute being referred. They can be broadly classified as Spatial (location), Temporal (time), Quantitative (number), Qualitative (description) and Social-Emotional (feelings). In the early stages, children tend to learn many of these concepts in pairs[ii].
Paired Concepts: Marked and Unmarked
In every paired concept for e.g., ‘thick’ and ‘thin’, one is called Marked Concept while the other is the Unmarked Concept. The concept in the pair with more distinctive attributes and is usually grasped first by the child is known as a Marked concept. For example, ‘thick’ is more easily visually illustrated by the parent and more easily understood by the child. Therefore in the above pair, ‘thick’ is the marked concept. The anti of the marked concept, that is usually understood later by the child, is known as Unmarked Concept. In the above example, ‘thin’ is the unmarked concept.
Research has found out that the marked concepts are receptive as well as expressive, and hence are easier to understand for a child as compared to the unmarked concepts which are only receptive. For example, the concept of ‘short’ is visually more difficult to illustrate and is there only receptive. It will be easier for a child to understand the paired concept if we start with ‘tall’ and introduce ‘short’ next.
In a paired concept start with the ‘marked concept’ and then move on to the ‘unmarked concept’ while teaching your child.
The Right Age
The children usually start learning concepts from around the 2 years mark. A child with the right kind of exposure, usually is aware about majority of the concepts listed below, by the age of five.
Paired Concepts: MARKED / UNMARKED
Parents should note that the focus must always be on the understanding and not speaking out the terms listed above. A child must have a firm grasp of the concepts receptively, even if the expressive ability lags a bit. In other words, the child should understand what they mean even if they are not using them while speaking, but not the other way around.
Building Blocks necessary for the development of Concepts
In order to develop a good understanding of concepts, a child needs to have certain basic abilities. These abilities are the foundation of acquiring a good conceptual knowledge.
A child must have adequate listening capabilities and this is an essential skill. Parents need to make sure that important skill is developed in the child.
2. Attention and Concentration
The ability to sustain efforts and do tasks without distraction is a key skill. The child shall need this skill to hold on to the efforts until the completion of tasks. An incomplete task usually implies incomplete adaptation of a concept in the child’s mind.
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3. Play Skills
Children usually do not need prompting to engage in playing activities. These activities may or may not be goal oriented. Such activities provide pleasure and enjoyment to the kid and serve as effective methods of teaching. Children volunteering for play activities is a positive step towards learning.
4. Receptive Language
The comprehension of language is very important. The understanding of language begins much before than expressing. In the developing stages, a child knows a lot more than what they can say. For example, he/she may not be able to speak the names of relatives but can recognize them when asked to. In fact, a child generally understands up to five times than what he/she speaks.
Is your child having trouble understanding concepts?
If your child is facing difficulty in understanding the basic concepts, he/she may show certain symptoms in its daily routine [iii]:
1) Following instructions
A child with a lack of proper understanding of concepts will find it difficult to complete his/her tasks. The child may seem confused about the instructions and often leave the task incomplete.
2) Proper use of concepts
The child may use incorrect concepts in his/her language, despite repeated corrections over many months. For example, “The ball is up the table” rather than, “The ball is on the table.”
3) Lack of Vocabulary
Children who do not understand concepts may use vague statements to refer to objects, such as ‘this one’ or “that one’” or use pointing gestures rather than clearly expressing the properties of the object like “The big one” or “The empty one”.
4) Drawing pictures
The inability to understand pictures can imply a poor imagination.
5) Puzzle Completion
The lack of imagination also leads to poor performance in puzzle solving. The child may suffer from an inability to visualize the scenario and reach the solution if concepts remain blurred in the child’s mind.
6) Problem Solving
The child who has a poor understanding of concepts may face difficulties in identification of a problem, formation of strategies and the performance for solving it.
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The child may display serious shortcomings in reading and writing. If the child does not understand what he/she is reading or writing, he/she may lose his/her further interest, and lag behind in many aspects of cognitive development.
Tips to improve the child’s understanding of concepts
While a majority of children learn concepts through incidental learning, a structured teaching of the concepts helps in reinforcing the true and complete nature of these concepts. Incorporating concepts in the day-to-day language is helpful because children learn by listening to adults and following instructions. Children who have difficulties in understanding concepts need repeated exposure in an intentional manner.
1. Modelling Grammar
When the child speaks something wrong, correct them then and there. For example, if the child says “The one up the table”, we must correct it to “The one on the table.”
2. Physical Modelling
Before asking the child to carry out instructions, parents must act out the instructions so that the child may see and observe what the concept means.
3. Providing Step-by-Step Instructions
Parents must provide a step-by-step description of the concepts in the activities they are performing. For instance, when the child is asked to put the toys in the box, he/she must be asked to “Pick up the toys”, “Go towards the toy box” and “Put the toys in the box”.
4. Emphasize ambiguous terms
Parents should lay special emphasis on terms which have multiple usages or meanings. Repeated usage of such terms help children come to terms with the fact of multiple meanings of the same word. For example, “Turn on the lights” and “The ball is on the table”.
Suggested Activities for Parents
Here are a few activities to enhance a better understanding of concepts in children:
1. Reading Storybooks
Storybooks are an efficient method to improve the visualization capability in children and have many other benefits.
2. Playing Games and Following Instructions
Games and instructions teach the child about the practical uses of concepts. Games like ‘Hide and Seek’ or ‘Scavenger Hunt’ can be quite useful. Parents may drop hints such as “The teddy may be under the table!” or ask questions such as “Where were you hiding?” and encourage the child to provide specific answers like “Behind the curtain” or “In the cupboard”.
3. Singing Songs
There are many preschool songs and rhymes such as, “If you are happy and you know it”, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall” or “Ring a Ring o’ roses”, that are related to basic concepts. Play-acting along with the song / rhyme will help the child understand the meaning of the words in an entertaining way.
4. Real-life Objects
For young children or those having some difficulties, real-life objects work best. For example, using clothes to teach wet/dry or showing cars moving on the road to teach fast/slow.