Oral language is a critical precursor to later reading success and is particularly important for children coming from low income families, who often enter school with lower language skills than their middle and upper class peers. Research has found that engaging preschoolers in high-quality conversations promotes their language and literacy development. Yet, speaking with children in ways that facilitate language growth seems to be neither intuitive nor natural to many preschool teachers.
“Preschool teachers typically are comfortable giving children directions and providing information but are less comfortable having two-way conversations with children,” said Sonia Cabell, a research scientist in the University of Virginia’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning.
“What we’re trying to do is remind teachers to be conversationally responsive partners with children—to position themselves physically at children’s level and then follow children’s lead, ask open-ended questions, encourage ongoing conversation, and expand on their words and ideas.”
Cabell is on a research team of that is beginning to close in on effective and scalable ways to turn this tide of teacher conversational practice. Their research has found a professional development strategy that is feasible for diverse and geographically distributed groups of teachers and that shows promise both for producing change in some areas of teacher conversational practice and for increasing some aspects of children’s language skills.
The results of their research with 49 preschool classrooms are being published in two parts, one appearing in the November 2011 issue of American Journal of Speech Language Pathology and the other in an upcoming issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
The researchers found that compared to a business-as-usual control group, the teachers in their study used more strategies that facilitated back-and-forth exchanges. For example, they used open-ended questions and comments to cue children to take a conversational turn, which presumably led to longer and richer conversations. In small-group, play-based interactions, children selected for observation used a greater variety of words than children in the control group. Students also knew more about characteristics of books and printed words, which is considered an important emergent literacy skill.
When teachers in either group used more of the targeted conversational strategies, children scored higher on a standardized test of vocabulary skills.
Although these results are encouraging, some findings indicated room for more work, according to Cabell, who is lead author on the first published research report and a co-author on the second. The trained teachers did not increase their use of strategies that help children learn new language forms or functions, strategies like expanding on children’s statements and introducing new words. Not surprisingly, children did not fair any better on standardized tests of language skills than did children in the control group.
“The gains we saw are promising,” Cabell says, “but they highlight the need for better understanding the nuances of teacher development and classroom contexts.”
This professional development attempted to get teachers to change the nature of their conversations with children across every classroom context, she explained, including large group and small group settings, lunch, snack, and clean-up activities, and during instruction across different subject areas, like reading, math, science, and social studies. “Changing the nature of teachers’ talk is hard, especially across all the different contexts of the day,” she says. “One area of future work could try to capitalize on settings or contexts in which teachers are already doing better and trying to move them forward from there.”
by Lynn Bell
This research was supported by a grant from the US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, awarded to Laura M. Justice of The Ohio State University. Other members of the research team include Shayne B. Piasta and Khara Pence Turnbull, also from The Ohio State University, Alice Wiggins from the Core Knowledge Foundation, Stephanie M. Curenton from Rutgers University, and Yaacov Petscher from Florida State University. Cabell, Wiggins, and Curenton are University of Virginia alumnae. Justice and Turnbull are former Virginia faculty members.