(Vanderbilt University video)
Young children who hear sophisticated language in preschool are better readers in fourth grade, according to a study in the journal Child Development that reinforces the message in previous research about the important connection between early oral language development and later literacy.
“We need to take very seriously the importance of teaching language in the preschool years,” says David Dickinson, professor of education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College and author of the study, which also appeared in a review article in Science, says in a news release. “It’s easy to look at tangible accomplishments such as counting or letter recognition but much harder to measure richness of vocabulary and language ability. Parents should take a careful look at what is happening in their kids’ preschool classrooms and see if the teacher is engaging the child in conversations that are rich in language.”
Dickinson and co-author Michelle Porche, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley (College) Centers for Women, conducted a detailed longitudinal study of the language experiences of preschool children from low-income families. “Preschool teachers were audio- and videotaped, teachers were interviewed and classrooms were observed for their support of language and literacy,” the news release reports. “Children were individually assessed, and parents were interviewed to learn about their education level and income and any family practices that foster language and literacy. Although the sample was small, the researchers found robust relations between early classroom support for language and later language and reading ability.”
The researchers linked the frequency with which preschool teachers used sophisticated vocabulary in informal conversation with kindergarten vocabulary and print ability, which, in turn, correlated with their fourth grade reading skills. Likewise, they found group reading activities correlated with subsequent reading skills. The extent to which teachers included conversations about the stories in their group reading periods also predicted kindergarten vocabulary, which, in turn, was correlated with fourth grade vocabulary.
“Some of my stronger results in this study are seen from informal interactions between teacher and child, showing the importance of elevated language during times such as play and lunch,” Dickinson says in the news release.
In addition, the researchers found that children whose parents supported early literacy at home had stronger vocabulary in fourth grade. They also linked the complexity of children’s language at age 3 with their vocabulary in fourth grade.
“We actually found surprisingly clear evidence that when children were 4 years old the kind of language they experience in their classroom made a difference first for their kindergarten performance and then their fourth grade reading abilities,” Dickinson says in a video interview about the study. (See above)
“What we learned in the study was that as early as 3 and 4 years old children can be beginning to develop a significant body of knowledge and number of words that they can later draw on. So the classrooms where the teachers were reading interesting books, talking about the meanings of words, helping children think about stories were helping children build vocabulary, knowledge and also helping them acquire habits of engagement when they read. So rather than being passive listeners, they were being encouraged to learn that they needed to engage in the conversation, they needed to think about the stories, and be intellectually present when books were being read.”