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A flat white skinny latte and a double chocolate chip muffin: or how we learn vocabulary very quickly!

Date posted: Friday 8th March 2013

CoffeeI have had quite a sheltered life. Last week I did something for the first time: I had a flat white skinny latte. You may be surprised at my lack of experience, but it takes me a while to pluck up the courage to try new things. Early in my coffee drinking days I used to go into the coffee shop and unintentionally annoy the young woman behind the counter. There would be a huge queue and when it was my turn the dialogue between myself and the Barrista (let’s call her Magda) would go like this:

Magda: Can I help you?

Me: Coffee please

Magda: What type?

Me: Let me think…

Magda: Cappuccino? Latte? Americano?

Me: Cappuccino.

Magda: Regular or large?

Me: Regular

Magda: To drink in or to take away?

Me: To drink in.

I thought I had finished, but the questioning went on until it was established that I would like chocolate on my cappuccino and yes, I would like something to eat. After some thought I pointed at a cake and said, “One of those.’ At which point Magda told me that ‘one of those’ was, in fact, a ‘double chocolate chip muffin’… and did I have a loyalty card to be stamped?

I felt very sorry for Magda, imagining that she would have to go through these types of exchanges pretty much all day long. So the next day I prepared my lines as I was waiting in the queue, then placed my order and received my order in double quick time (though I forgot to tell her that it was’ to drink in’ and to have my loyalty card ready to be stamped). Feeling very pleased with myself, I sat down and watched how everyone else communicated what they wanted.

There seem to be two types of customer. Those in a hurry and ordering ‘to go’ know exactly what they want and how to ask for it, so that the Barrista will have no doubt about what to do. They have their loyalty card ready to be stamped and even have the exact amount of money ready. Those ‘drinking in’ and not in a rush usually hold up the queue by being unsure about what they want, and take their time to choose their food. Often they point vaguely in the direction of a pastry, forcing poor Magda to tell them what their choice is called.

By day three I was a seasoned customer. Thanks to Magda, I had learned a new vocabulary, and how to use it to get what I needed. (OK, so I don’t need coffee and muffins, but they are nice.) And that is exactly how young children develop their vocabulary: by adults gently guiding them to use more exact language to get what they want. Here’s an example of the ‘Talk4Meaning coffee shop language enrichment technique’:

Benjie is 18 months old and wants his Dad to pick him up, so he holds his arms up and says ‘Uh! Uh!’ in a pleading kind of way. Dad has a choice: e can either just pick his son up, or he can have a simple conversation like this:

Dad: You want me to pick you up? (Pause for Benjie to respond).

Benjie: Pi ee uh

Dad: That’s right. Pick me up! (Dad picks Benjie up. Hug and kiss are optional, but usually a very good idea). Here we go, Daddy has picked you up. Where shall we go?

Benjie: Oh oh.

Dad: You’d like to go to the coffee shop with Daddy?

Benjie: Toh ee op.

Dad: Would you like a regular or large chococcino? To drink in or take away? Anything to eat? Have you got a loyalty card?

(That last line was a joke…)

Flat white skinny latte courtesy of Ground Espresso Bar, Ballymoney, County Antrim.

Let’s Get Talking! Exciting ways to help children with speech and language difficulties by Michael Jones & Jo Belsten is available from

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3 responses to “A flat white skinny latte and a double chocolate chip muffin: or how we learn vocabulary very quickly!”

  1. Marian says:

    Michael that’s so true Made me think of snack time in nursery but it made me laugh!! And glad to see you’re still in Northern Ireland -keep up your good work!

  2. moriel gidney says:

    Yes! I can now order an extra hot mocha with no whipped relatively easily! And having worked now with my lovely assortment of two year olds for a few months on their own I am seeing the result (I think) of realising how complex my sentences were and shortening,simplifying and more importantly I feel, slowing them down appropriately. Two children last week were just opening up like flowers in their speech, one using her speech for developing ideas and play, the other a little boy who clearly has loads of thought but rarely uses speech but last week he has been using simple words to convey what he is thinking and has wonderfully expressive facial and arm and hand movements (developed whilst his speech needed help).We have also simplified our role play areas so that they are clearly linked to the relatively narrow band of life experience the children share and much more repetitive than when the two year olds were with the 3 and 4 year olds. (children not used to handling money but great with phones and scanning on the till!)
    Thank you for your blogs which at present are really reinforcing my experience and encouraging.

  3. valerie says:

    Hello Michael!
    Thanks for sending me your stories, I always enjoy reading them, and thanks for your sense of humour which brightens my day! I just taught a lesson last week to a group of adult learners, and we studied exactly the same situation!(ordering coffee and giving the proper answers to the barista!)
    Keep up the good work! Valerie (President of Ouvrir La voix, Selective Mutism Support group)

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