Archive | Oral Language Development RSS feed for this section

Preschool is too late: how families can alleviate the word gap

5 Apr

The news that children of low income families have often developed a significant word gap by age three when compared to their wealthier peers brings up the role of the family.  Parents and caregivers matter.  A lot.  Just like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone started with baby college–or school on how to be a parent–helping all children to reach their full potential needs to involve the family.

Let’s look at Hart and Risley’s three key findings.

1. The variation in children’s language abilities is relative to the amount parents speak to their children.

2. Children’s academic successes at ages nine and ten are attributable to the amount of talk they hear from birth to age three.

3. Parents of advanced children talk significantly more to their children than parents of children who are not as advanced.


Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe” (2004). Education Review, 77 (1), 100-118.


Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe” (2004). Education Review, 77 (1), 100-118.

There’s not a lot of room for interpretation here.  Oral language interaction impacts children’s language, literacy, and even their IQ scores.  Studies also point out that this language interaction begins from birth–parents respond to their infant’s noises by cooing and making nonsense noises back.  You don’t have to wait for a child to start talking to begin to develop their language centers.  This is surprising news for some, and as a new parent I can see why.  When a baby is barely tracking you with her eyes, it’s hard to imagine that she’s processing any part of what you’re saying!

Parent education and training is important.  While studying child-directed speech, Meredith Rowe, an assistant professor from the University of Maryland, found that “the relation between socioeconomic status and child-directed speech was mediated by parental knowledge of child development.” In other words, low-income mothers didn’t talk as much to their children because they didn’t know it was important, whereas middle and upper middle class mothers were more likely to be informed about the latest in child-development research and respond accordingly.

How to help inform parents?  It’s a tough challenge.  LENA (language environment analysis) provides a pocket recorder that sits in a child’s clothing and records their language interactions over the course of the day.

0000192_300The tool has proved to be a powerful motivator for families.  Just seeing the print-out each day creates an increase in language directed at a child, because parents of non-judgemental, visual data of what they are saying.  LENA functions a lot like a fitbit–just knowing how many steps you take (or words you say) motivates you to do more the next day.

Providence, Rhode Island is also beginning a new program about creating family conversations, where home visitors will work with families to create more verbal interactions with their children.  The will visit families once per month, review the LENA data, teach families strategies for increasing verbal interactions with their children, such as how to read a book together, or tell your child about your day, and then set goals with the family for the next month.

With children’s language centers developing from birth, early intervention with those who spend the most time with a child is key.



Preschool is too late: how school’s can address the word gap

4 Apr

Depending on if you come from a “the glass is half full” or “the glass is half empty” stance, the news that 3 year-old children from low-income families have acquired about 30 million fewer words that children from wealthier families could be enlightening or grim.  Does this mean we finally have a chance to address what might be one of the earliest and most significant causes of the achievement gap, or that schools and society are fighting an uphill battle they can’t seem to win?

I think the answer to that question is “yes”.

It’s still crazy to think that a 6 hour school day will alleviate all of the problems that poverty, racism, and general inequality create, but school’s can help.  But not by adding in long lists of required vocabulary that kids learn by rote memorization each day.  One of the biggest concerns about the new interest in vocabulary is that it will create some sort of required “canon” of words that each child will be expected to know.  But words are best learned in context, rather than in isolation with stark definitions.  A child who can connect a word to a story, an experience, other words or examples, is far more likely to use and own that word than one who can simply recite a definition.

Think about adults.  Many of the higher level or “academic” words that we read and/or write everyday fall into the nebulous category of “I know it when I hear it but I can’t define it.”  Despite the fact that we can’t give a technical definition of the word, we have full use of it because we’ve been exposed to it in a variety of contexts.  Contrast that with many technical words children learn in school, like denominator, erosion, or denouement.   Students often learn these words as parts of units of study in science, math, or English, complete with definitions.  But when it comes time for the test and you put these words in a question (or even worse, a form of the word in a question, like “erode” or “eroding”) and they fall to pieces–they don’t know what it means or how to use it.  This is probably why I have completely forgotten all of the words on my weekly 9th grade vocabulary tests except for quotidian.   I thought it was crazy that such a complicated words meant “everyday language,” and I therefore used it wherever I could out of a  teenage sense of irony.

Vocabulary acquisition is an important part of what it means to be literate, and conversely the more literate you are the more vocabulary you learn.  Reading in general, and read-alouds by adults (all the way through middle school and even high school) are some of the most effective ways to increase vocabulary.  Interactive read-alouds–those where the adult is thinking aloud and discussing the book with children–are even more effective.  Just as Hart and Risley found that talk had to be directed at a child, and not just surround them, to help improve their vocabulary, reading that involves conversation with children is more effective that just reading aloud.

I hope the new studies push for more real literature in school–more time to read aloud, read alone, and build rich experiences around reading for children.  The more a child can connect the words they hear to experiences and a wider net of knowledge, the more they will own that word.  There’s certainly a place for direct vocabulary instruction in schools (I talk about it here, here, and here) books are our greatest and most lifelong teachers.

Language Development in Infants

3 Apr

The push for universal preschool has focused a new spotlight on early childhood education.  Amidst the debates about how to fund and run pre-K for all comes the growing awareness that for many children, the preschool years come too late.  Research has shown that on average, a 3 year old living in poverty has heard 30 million fewer words than a child born into a wealthier family.  Are we just pushing down the age at which children will be deemed “below standard” in achievement?

I wanted to spend a little time looking at what all of this discussion and research is bringing up.  This post will focus on what these articles say meaningful language is.  Later on I’ll address what this might mean for the home and for schools. Articles exploring the word gap have been popping up everywhere, from research blogs to newspapers–even to blog posts by Hilary Clinton.  Children living in poverty show vocabulary delay as early as 18 months, which seems to come from the children hearing less language targeted specifically to them.

The studies point out that just listening to adults talk or watching the TV does not help children’s vocabularies grow noticeably.  The language must be directed to the child. Why?  It looks like it’s the interaction between the adult and child that develops language.  The adult is responding to the child (even something as subtle as the child’s gaze or expression.)  Later on, the child responds to the adult and they have a back-and-forth exchange.  It’s this responsive language that grows vocabulary.  This has some interesting implications for parents, caregivers, teachers, and the old maxim “children should be seen and not heard.”  🙂

Studies also found that a major difference in how much vocabulary children heard resulted in whether parents tended to respond to their children affirmatively or negatively.  Negative responses, such as “no!” “stop that!” or “not now!” were conversation closers.  They not only didn’t build vocabulary themselves, but they closed the door on continuing the conversation in a way that might help children to develop more words.  Affirmative responses, on the other hand, tended to grow the conversation and add words and syntax to children’s bank of words.

Chase-Lansdale and Takanishi (2009) provide an example of negative vs. positive interactions in a piece titled “Three Mothers and an Eggplant,” in their report titled How do families matter?:

The first mother wheels her shopping cart down the produce aisle, where her kindergartner spots an eggplant and asks what it is. The mother shushes her child, ignoring the question. A second mother, faced with the same question, responds curtly, ‘Oh, that’s an eggplant, but we don’t eat it.’  The third mother coos, ‘Oh, that’s an eggplant. It’s one of the few purple vegetables.’ She picks it up, hands it to her son, and encourages him to put it on the scale. ‘Oh, look, it’s about two pounds!’ she says. ‘And it’s $1.99 a pound, so that would cost just about $4. That’s a bit pricey, but you like veal parmesan, and eggplant parmesan is delicious too. You’ll love it. Let’s buy one, take it home, cut it open. We’ll make a dish together.’

We can see how the last mother not only builds vocabulary, but also knowledge about the world and engagement with new ideas.

Language development correlates strongly with children’s reading and writing skills.  The research of the past twenty years strongly suggests that focusing just on decoding, or spelling, or children’s education after age 5 (or even 3)  will fall short of what kids need to succeed.  On the other hand, responsive oral language and early, earlyintervention, could create ripple effects that we see in our school’s and society for years.

Science Vocabulary

9 Feb

Internalizing new vocabulary is tough.  There are usually multiple ways of thinking about a word, multiple forms of the word, and then there’s the “I-sort-of-know-what-that-means-I-could-recognize-it-if-I-heard-it-but-I-can’t-define-it” syndrome with which we’re all familiar.

I started out using a Frayer model to explore our important words (erosion, sediment, and deposition).  The model involves not only defining the word, but coming up with examples and non-examples, and in this case, different forms of the word.  Some of our examples/non-examples are a bit suspect (couldn’t dust on the ground be considered sediment?) but as long as the kids are really trying to think about what works and doesn’t, I figure we’re learning :).

photo 3 copy

Next was getting students to use the words in their own talk, which is a “stickier” way of teaching them the word than just writing definitions or talking about it.  Sentence frame are a good way to start this, but they’re controlled structure doesn’t allow for as much fluency with vocabulary as is probably ideal.   I was cleaning out some old files, and I found this vocabulary strategy, which I will boringly title “Categorize and Defend.”

photo 3Students have a list of appropriate words (here it’s from our Earth Science unit, but they could be from history, or a book your studying, or math, etc) and 2-4 categories.  They need to sort the words into the appropriate categories, explaining to their partner or group why they’re putting the words where they go.  What makes the activity so flexible, is that students can put words in more than one category, as long as they can defend why they did so.  There’s no right or wrong answer, you just have to justify.

For example, some students put “minerals” in the rock cycle category, because, “Rocks are made of minerals, so to have a rock cycle, you need to have minerals.”  Other students put them in the weathering category, because, “chemical weathering dissolves certain minerals, like calcite, from rocks.”

The word sort was much more engaging to students than I had anticipated–the more they disagreed and had to support their point of view, the better–and each group was able to come up with a variety of justifications for where they put their words.  It was an interesting opportunity for me to see what they had internalized and what they hadn’t.  The sorting activity on it’s own only took about 15-20 minutes, depending on how long I gave for the debrief discussion.

I would really recommend this more for the middle/end of when you’re teaching a word than the beginning.  Students need to have a fairly wide exposure to the word or learning about the subject in order to have a rich discussion.

Fostering Academic Language

11 Nov

Calvin and Hobbes often gets to the heart of what some students are thinking.  Take this cartoon, on language:

Besides the connects to current verbing trends (google it, xerox it, etc.) the idea that language confuses, rather than clarifies is a common theme for classroom students.  I remember in high school having almost exactly this sentiment:


Academic language is there just to sound fancy, right?

In the higher level grades, this may come from people using high-fallutin’ vocabulary when a few simple words would do just as well.  In the primary grades, I think it comes from students not fully understanding the vocabulary and frames they are using.  A few examples from my room:

Until the alarm went off, she woke up.”

“Too much homework is bad for students.  Furthermore, it makes them go to bed late and get too little sleep.  For example, they might not be able to play outside at all and get exercise if they have to spend all their time doing homework.”

“The dirt and rock depositioned on the ocean floor.”

In each of these examples, the student is close–he’s trying–but he doesn’t exactly have the meaning or use down right.  What results is a confusing piece of language.

Teaching academic language and conversation is hard–as tricky as reading and writing.  Like reading comprehension, its easy to get students partway there and then stuck.

Constructive Classroom Conversations: Mastering Language for the Common Core State Standards, by Kenji Hakuta, Jeff Zwiers and Sara Rutherford-Quach, is a MOOC put out by Stanford university about learning language.  The series has videos discussing the challenges of helping students to use academic language to articulate and grow their ideas, as well as example videos of students having constructive conversations and some ideas for teaching techniques that can help.

The  MOOC pairs nicely with Jeff Zwiers website on Academic Language and Literacy, which has PDFs of many of the strategies mentioned on the site.

What I appreciate about the MOOC and Jeff’s website, is their acknowledgement that getting students to have meaningful conversations is challenging.  When we initiate think-pair-shares or discussions, we often get a conversation that runs in circles or runs out of steam after a few moments.  How do you get students to take ownership of their conversations, build them in strong ways, and begin to use them fluidly?

To increase student engagement, one suggestion was to start with prompts like “create, argue, decide, or solve” rather than “evaluate or analyze.”  One is a call to create something, the other a call to “education-al-ize” it.  A good first step is also to create a humorous example.  My current class is obsessed with alien abductions, so most of our steps into new academic language centers around that.  Example:  EVEN THOUGH you take precautions, you can still be abducted by aliens.  FOR EXAMPLE, an abduction ray can beam straight through your roof, so you can’t protect yourself by locking your door.

Silly, but very engaging, and easy to transfer to content.

Jeff also talks about the need to move beyond sentence frames.  I use a lot of sentence frames–I think they’re a great support for students taking on new language.  I still remember my french teacher in college (the only one I retained any french from) teaching us “academic frames” that we could then throw out at leisure without painstakingly parsing each word.  “Quoi qu’il en soit” (french for: be that as it may) became one of my favorites.  I recognized it everywhere, and I could use it at a moments notice.  There’s no way I could have put that phrase together on my own.

However, eventually we want to pull the frames away and have students take ownership over the language.  How to do that?  Jeff uses strategies like opinion formation cards, and A-B information gap cards, to have students practice building arguments, with frames that they use as needed.  Here they can have the support of a frame, but they need to decide where and when to use them.  It’s a nice intermediary step.

The course and Jeff’s site have more resources worth checking out.  Until then, I’ll leave you with this video on common English problems in school.  It might be an oldie, but it’s still on target!


A world of film, a house of stuff.

Literacy Changes Everything!

Teaching and Parenting as a Dedicated Reader and Writer

To Make a Prairie

A blog about reading, writing, teaching and the joys of a literate life

sunday cummins

Experience Nonfiction

Shanahan on Literacy

Literacy in Education


A meeting place for a world of reflective writers.

The Quick and the Ed

Literacy in Education

Shanker Blog


Free Technology for Teachers

Literacy in Education


Smarter Charts from Marjorie Martinelli & Kristine Mraz

%d bloggers like this: