Reading development is one of our hot topics in America as we continue to lag behind other countries like China in standardized testing. If we could have the special education teacher ratio to classroom teacher ratio that Finland has, or if families sent kids to school for an extra 3 hours each evening plus summers like in some Asian countries, I’m sure we could remedy the situation a little faster, but until then we need to use the resources we have — teachers and families. In this research paper that I wrote as part of my coursework for the first class in my Master’s program, I explore the relationship of oral vocabulary and reading development as well as provide research-supported strategies to improve both oral and reading vocabulary development in and out of the classroom. Maybe one day I will revisit this paper and improve it with personal anecdotes, but for now it remains adherent to the specifications of the project for which it was written.
Instructional Strategies for Developing Expressive Language in Early Childhood Classrooms
This research overview compiled the findings of several studies done on the development of expressive language in young children. The research was analyzed and utilized to provide several strategies to teachers of young children to help develop their language skills so that they can also become successful readers. The variety of strategies and interventions described here are statistically and scientifically sound, making them all desirable additions to the teaching practices of early childhood education teachers.
Instructional Strategies for Developing Expressive Language in Early Childhood Classrooms
Children come to school today with such a variety of expressive language skills that they seem like something out of a Dr. Seuss book – skilled speaker, average speaker, shy speaker, talkative speaker, English language learning speaker, fluent bilingual speaker, mentally disabled speaker, hearing disabled speaker. All of these reasons and many others contribute to the overall level of expressive language skill a child possesses when entering school. The research is numerous on the reasons why children may not acquire the expected levels of expressive language. The 30 Million Word Gap study, for example, points out socioeconomic status and parental education level as a major reason for the gap in knowledge (Hart and Risely, 2003). Other studies target mental and medical disabilities, such as hearing loss, to explain possible language delays. But why are the delays so significant, and what can be done about it? This research overview will attempt to provide a rationale for improving language development opportunities in the school environment and provide instructional guidance to teachers so that all students may reach grade level benchmarks and goals.
In the study by Hart and Risely that has been deemed the “30 Million Word Gap study,” the researchers followed 42 babies around tape recording the language use in their homes for one hour each month from the age of 7 months until the child turned 3 years old. The researchers later transcribed these interactions and recorded all of the data in the hopes that what they would find could help predict language and learning growth in the future. After six years of entering and examining all that data, they found that the information they collected by the age of 3 was indeed a good indicator of not only oral language development by the age of 9-10 years old, but also of reading development by that same age (2003). Their study also outlined the difference in overall word exposure among professional, working class and welfare level families, showing a striking 10 million word gap separating each socioeconomic status level. This is a monumental piece of research, and not only suggests that families and teachers talk to their children more and use more academic, sophisticated language around them, but also suggests that the level of oral language a child possesses will directly transfer to the task of reading and writing in school. Children with larger vocabularies and who speak more eloquently will be able to learn to read faster than their peers with relatively small vocabularies. This research might also suggest that students from low SES families do not understand much of the language we use in the classroom, thus disadvantaging them more. Clearly, the more words we can expose children to in spoken conversations both in and out of school will have positive effects on their reading skills. A language-rich environment is absolutely critical in developing the language skills of all students, especially this target population of children with smaller vocabularies and delayed language development.
Though most of the burden of teaching a child to communicate falls upon the family, as the natural and primary language communicators for their children in the early years, the family does not have to be the only determining factor in a child’s language development. A 2011 study on expressive language development at the preschool level sought to use research to prove that regularly accepted assumption. Logan, Justice, Schatschneider, Petrill, and Piasta studied the expressive language growth of 129 children over the course of a year in fourteen preschool classrooms (2011). The individuals studied were only those who had the complete set of data required for performing the analyses at the end of the study. Nearly 70 children from the preschool facility were excluded due to these rigorous standards. Over the course of the year, Logan et. al. used four measurements to collect data: parent surveys, child language assessments, classroom observations, and attendance records. The first three of these measures were conducted throughout the year at specific intervals to develop a quantitative analysis of expressive language growth for each individual. The fourteen classrooms were rated on a scale of 9 qualifiers in three separate domains (classroom organization, emotional support, and instructional quality) via the semi-annual classroom observations, and were rated as higher-quality or lower-quality classrooms based on their scores. The findings of this study suggest that students enrolled in higher-quality classrooms, where the teacher had attended and utilized professional development from the district in his/her teaching, showed significantly larger growth in expressive language (Logan et. al, 2011). It is also noteworthy that students who had higher attendance made more gains than the students with low attendance in their same classroom. This seems to be a logical conclusion that students who are not in school to learn and practice material cannot acquire it at the same rate as their peers who come to school every day, and demonstrates at the same time the importance of the school experience in the overall development of the children. Though the average educator could have predicted many of the conclusions of this study, it is important to build one’s assumptions about language development and instruction from research. This is the starting point, and it confirms that yes, teachers can have a large impact in the language development of their entire classroom of students. In order to maximize the developmental potential of their students, they must first maximize the quality of their own teaching practices through professional development. As did the school examined in this study, many schools and districts offer regular professional development to their faculty that can be very valuable in developing quality instruction. Professional development can also be done through educational conferences, national organizations, county intermediate units, and post-graduate education courses and programs. Teachers can easily find these opportunities through their districts or through collegial connections.
Aside from literacy instruction, what can be done to remediate students with low levels of vocabulary knowledge and acquisition? Several studies suggest personal conversations with adults as an effective method of increasing young students’ vocabulary. A study by Ruston and Scwanenflugel examined pre-school aged children in a variety of SES-level families with a conversational intervention to see if a mere 500 minutes of additional conversation with an adult could increase scores on a standardized vocabulary assessment as well as to determine how much students with low levels of vocabulary would benefit as compared to their peers with higher levels of vocabulary knowledge (2009). The researchers used three college students to be “talking buddies” with the 4-year old children in the study. The talking buddies were instructed how to engage and participate in conversation with the children, including how to let the children lead the conversation, ask open ended questions, introduce sophisticated vocabulary naturally in the conversation, allow sufficient wait time, and be active listeners. For ten weeks, the talking buddies spent a total of 500 minutes having conversations with the students in pairs. Vocabulary testing was done before and after the study to determine students’ vocabulary growth using a variety of measures, including a standardized test and language samples collected while the children answered open-ended questions about themselves, talked in narratives about different series of photos, and narrated a wordless picture book. At the end of the study, the researchers found that the children did benefit from the short-term, intensive intervention, but what’s most interesting is that the “typically-developing children” benefitted much less than the children with low-vocabulary at the start of the study (Ruston and Scwanenflugel, 2009). This is simultaneously surprising and unsurprising. Children with slower-developing vocabularies have more room to grow within their age-related developmental zone, but at the same time, one would think the normally-developing children would show significant benefits as well. A clear implication of this research is that teachers should spend time having personal conversations with children one-on-one and in small groups, using the same types of conversational standards used by the talking buddies in this study. By encouraging students to answer open-ended questions (less prompting), asking them to narrate, and introducing sophisticated vocabulary naturally in the conversations, teachers can significantly affect the rate of vocabulary growth of the students who need it most. Though all students will benefit to some level, it seems that the students who will benefit the most are precisely those who we worry about the most. Conversational interventions might just be the tool to close the vocabulary gap in our students!
Tiered vocabulary interventions may be another great tool in fighting against potential reading disabilities in young children. Beck and McKeown conducted a research study wondering if larger vocabulary gains could be made through instruction based on engaging students in sophisticated discussions of texts read in the class (2007). The types of vocabulary words that were focused on were tier 2 vocabulary words. As a brief article in the peer-reviewed journal Gifted Child Today explains, there are three types of vocabulary tiers in which we classify the variety of words children can learn. Tier 1 words are basic everyday words that can easily be tied to a picture while Tier 3 words are extremely specific words used to describe academic subjects, like “femur” and “stamen.” Tier 2 words obviously fall between these two in terms of specificity and concreteness. They are considered high-frequency words that can have multiple meanings. This class of vocabulary words “deepen a student’s understanding of a general concept, and make connections to other words and concepts” (2008). As the article says, tier 2 words bring the “richness” to the vocabulary. The Text Talk program utilized in the Beck and McKeown study focused on this tier of vocabulary words in the experimental group of their study, while the control group used the regular district curriculum. The first study conducted by the two compared four experimental groups and four control groups (two of each were kindergarten and the other two were first grade). The second study, done in another low-income school district comparable to the first, used only three experimental classes and three controls. In both studies the experimental group utilized the Text Talk series while the control group used the regular curriculum. However, the second study greatly increased the amount of time spent on vocabulary instruction in the experimental groups. The assessments were the same in both studies. The Peabody Picture Vocabulary test was given before the research began, and experimenter-designed pre- and post-tests were also given to measure vocabulary growth. Though only kindergarteners displayed a significant growth in comparison with the control group in the first study, the second study with increased instructional time effected a substantial increase in vocabulary growth in both kindergarten and first grade (Beck and McKeown, 2007). The implications of these findings is that the type of instruction used in the Text Talk series, in which tier 2 words were the primary focus of instruction, is an effective approach to eliciting significant gains in students vocabulary development in the early grades. However, it also suggests that this vocabulary instruction be implemented with intention and dedication. Though other factors could have been at play, causing the difference in results in the two studies, it seems that there is a time requirement for instruction to be most effective. The sheer existence of a profound difference in vocabulary growth between the second study’s experimental group and control group, however, highlights the importance of selecting sophisticated vocabulary that students are likely to encounter as they read a variety of texts and advance into the next reading and grade levels. This study has a similar educational implication as the conversational intervention – using sophisticated language around children promotes vocabulary growth, especially in low vocabulary level students. However, this study shows that tier 2 vocabulary instruction can and should also be done for large group instruction and not solely on an individual or paired basis. If both types of instruction and remediation were to be combined into the same classroom, one could safely assume that all students, including those with the most room to grow, would develop solid oral vocabularies, helping them become strong readers along the way.
Finally we return back to the beginning where it all started: parental involvement. As the 30 Million Word Study pointed out, and as a study by Chang, Park, and Kim on the effects of parenting classes on child development within an Early Head Start program reaffirmed, parents have an enormous impact on their children’s cognitive and language development (2009). Though not all parents know how or why they should engage their children in literacy, academic, or conversational activities, they can change their behaviors to positively affect the growth of their children with some guidance from teachers. The researchers utilized a two-level longitudinal hierarchical linear modeling and a multivariate analysis to gather fair data that excluded possibly obstructive variables such as parent home language, parental age, gender, and more. Experimental and control groups, each totaling approximately 1500 participants, were surveyed over a 3-year period through mandatory program observations, videos, surveys, attendance records in parenting classes, and more. At the end of the study and after a long analysis of data, several predicted outcomes were proven empirically. The primary predictor of children’s cognitive and verbal development was the mother’s attendance in parenting classes (Chang et. al, 2009). These classes affected mothers who had frequent participation in classes by motivating them to engage their children in cognitive stimulations in their interactions, as demonstrated on the video observations. Parents who attended classes were also noticed to engage children in more play- and literacy-based activities, such as increased frequency of reading, with daily reading and often bedtime reading routines being developed. An increase in parent-child play was also noticed. As a result, the children of these parents had higher scores across all waves of the study on the Bayley Mental Development Index (Chang et. al, 2009). This information provides a rationale for teachers to build a strong relationship with parents on a one-on-one, school based, and/or community-based level. Fran Connolly, a teacher with 25 years of experience, 15 of which as a reading specialist, is a big advocate and successful manager of the parent-teacher team. When asked about this critical relationship, she says:
Sometimes as educators, we assume that parents know techniques to help their children at home. This is not always the case. Once you educate the parent and they trust you through the relationship you develop, you can see these skills transfer to their student’s success. The students who make the most success in my classes have parents that are working just as hard at home with their child (F. Connolly, personal connection, February 28, 2013).
Connolly continues to explain how she attempts to build relationships with the parents of the children she works with in the various supplementary reading programs her district has to offer. She starts the year off with a phone call home to explain the program and rationale for the child’s participation, followed by a letter about the program and another one with general information about herself as the teacher. Every night hand-written notes go home to the parents in the child’s journal as well, acknowledging a wide variety of comments about the student’s progress, goals, behavior, and much more. Parents can write back in the journal, building an informal, yet frequent communication system. Connolly even sends weekly reading tips home so parents can feel more competent to work with their child each night. Additional phone calls and conferences can also be a part of the relationship building portfolio. These strategies, though not exactly foreign to the world of education, are vitally important to the child’s overall development, and should not be ignored. By implementing a few tried and true communication strategies, the parent-teacher team can grow and become strong. When parents trust the teacher and trust themselves as a supplemental educational figure in their children’s lives, their children have nowhere to go but up. As Connolly says, “I am just a child’s teacher for a short period of time. Their parent will be their teacher for the rest of their life” (F. Connolly, personal connection, February 28, 2013).
Though parents have the first and perhaps greatest effect on the language development of their children, it is the teacher’s responsibility to work with all children at their individual levels of vocabulary knowledge and linguistic ability to train them to read, write and be successful according to grade level standards and benchmarks. In order to catch students who are lagging behind in language development, teachers must cultivate a repertoire of linguistic and instructional strategies to use in their early childhood classrooms. Effective, team-building communication with parents, tiered vocabulary instruction, and increasing the number of open-ended, vocabulary-rich conversations with students can be extremely valuable in developing the necessary language skills of children that will help them when it comes to reading. The findings of the various research studies cited here provide an empirical rationale for utilizing these strategies, and there are likely to be more studies out there currently or in the future that will provide even more strategies and insights in the world of language and reading development. As subsequent research studies are published, it is the teacher’s duty to stay informed and continually update his/her practices in the classroom to maximize the benefits that the students, and the future, will receive. Like anything else in education, not all children will benefit at the same rate, but if all the teachers that come in contact with children provide one-on-one conversation that emphasizes the use of open-ended questions and a naturalistic approach to introducing new vocabulary, as well as provide academic instruction focusing on tier 2 type vocabulary words, and dedicate themselves to developing a positive rapport with parents, all of our students will demonstrate additional growth in their expressive language, whether it be the child’s first and only language or an additional language. By improving the instruction and language exposure we provide in the classroom with these consistent, varied, research-based instructional strategies, teachers can affect not only the expressive language development of their students, but they can also affect their entire lives by providing the speaking and thinking skills necessary to read, write, and learn in the general academic setting.
Beck, I. L., & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low‐income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 107(3), 251-271.
Building vocabulary of young children. (2008). Gifted Child Today, 31(1), 8.
Chang, M., Park, B., & Kim, S. (2009). Parenting classes, parenting behavior, and child cognitive development in Early Head Start: A longitudinal model. The School Community Journal, 19(1), 155-174.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap. American Educator, 27(1), 4-9.
Logan, J. R., Piasta, S. B., Justice, L. M., Schatschneider, C., & Petrill, S. (2011). Children’s attendance rates and quality of teacher-child interactions in at-risk preschool classrooms: Contribution to children’s expressive language growth. Child & Youth Care Forum, 40(6), 457-477.
Ruston, H. P., & Schwanenflugel, P. J. (2010). Effects of a conversation intervention on the expressive vocabulary development of prekindergarten children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, 41(3), 303-313.