Mealtime is often a young child's best opportunity to engage in "interesting conversations with adults," says Catherine Snow, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education and a principal investigator with the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy. Those conversations, Snow says, give children the chance to develop and practice oral-language skills—such as describing events beyond the here and now, and learning new vocabulary—activities that the Home-School Study shows are strongly related to children's reading success in elementary school.
Snow and David Dickinson, a senior research scientist with the Education Development Center in Newton, MA, and the study's other principal investigator, believe the Home-School Study can provide meaningful guidance to teachers in preschools and elementary schools as they shape their classroom practices and consider how best to interact with children's families. Researchers have long known that early reading success is a strong predictor of academic success in later grades, because after grade 3, demands on the student change from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," as reading becomes a fundamental means for acquiring new knowledge about all subjects.
A New Approach
Traditionally, preschools focus on socializing children to function as part of a group, and on providing children with opportunities for free exploration of various learning materials. Some preschools also prepare young children for later schooling by stressing basic print-knowledge skills, such as identifying numbers and letters and learning the names of colors and shapes. In addition, preschools "have done a good job of getting the message out to parents that they should be reading to their kids," Dickinson says.
These activities are undeniably important in getting children ready to learn how to read. But despite the efforts of Head Start and television programs like "Sesame Street," economically disadvantaged children still lag behind their more advantaged classmates when learning to read. Snow, Dickinson, and their colleagues set out to investigate the connection between early reading success and oral-language skills, and to examine what factors in the home and school environments support the acquisition of those skills.
In 1987, researchers with the Home-School Study began gathering data on 83 three-year-old children from low-income families in the Boston area. All of the children were English speakers enrolled in Head Start or other subsidized preschool programs. The researchers have analyzed interactions between mothers and their children during book reading, play sessions with toys, storytelling, family meals, and, as the children have grown older, homework-like activities. They've also interviewed the children's parents and teachers, and observed the children's interactions with teachers and other children at school. Each year, the children also undergo a battery of literacy and language tests and activities.
The Home-School Study is clearly different from most research to date on children's literacy. While most research has focused on "decoding" skills, such as how well a child can sound out words and recognize different word forms, the Home-School Study looks at real-life conversations between children and adults. In addition to researching early oral-language development, the study is breaking new ground in research on vocabulary acquisition. Patton Tabors, the study's research coordinator, says that researchers typically study vocabulary acquisition in more controlled settings by observing under what conditions children learn new words. Instead, she says, "we're looking at how that process happens in the child's home and in the child's classroom, with real words, and how adults support that."
Now, in the 10th year of the Home-School Study, research assistants have collected "mountains of data," Tabors says, which will no doubt keep researchers busy for years to come. Some significant findings have emerged from analyses completed thus far.
The study has shown that the level of vocabulary present in adult talk to children who are three and four years old, in the home setting and in preschools, is a strong predictor of the level of vocabulary that child will have attained by second grade. In other words, children who are exposed to more words in their conversations with adults, and more unusual words, tend to develop larger vocabularies.
"Because we collected language samples in different situations, we found that each of those situations elicited a different group of vocabulary items," Tabors says. For many children, the richest opportunities for exposure to new words came at mealtimes. Those conversations "expose kids to a lot of rare words in various contexts that help kids figure out what they mean," she says. A mother might say she needed a "colander" to drain the water from a pot of spaghetti, for example, thus providing a meaningful context for an unfamiliar word.
The Home-School Study also documented a strong connection between early reading success among children and the amount of "decontextualized" talk they engage in with adults, in both homes and preschools. Simply put, this means conversation that goes beyond the here and now, and which relies on language to convey images and information about other times and places. A girl describing a recent trip to the zoo over dinner, for example, would rely on her decontextualized oral language skills to describe what she had seen.
Decontextualized talk also can occur when an adult reads a book with a child: the two stop to discuss what the book means, instead of merely reciting the text word-for-word. The amount of decontextualized conversation that .occurs during book reading, study researchers found, is strongly associated with that child's pre-reading skills a year later. "We see Head Start and similar programs stressing the importance of reading with children, and parents responding to that," Tabors says. "But what these programs are not conveying is the message that reading a book to a child shouldn't just be a rote exercise. It's not just reading the words, but having interesting conversations about the book that helps children build stronger oral-language skills."
Implications for Classrooms
Why does the home environment play such an important role in the development of young children's oral-language skills? The simple explanation is because the home's language environment is relatively constant and provides important opportunities for language interactions between children and adults. While preschools and elementary schools contribute to children's language development, opportunities for home-like interactions are rare, due to the size of classes and the length of time spent in class. In reviewing data from the Home-School Study, for example, Dickinson found that only 20 percent or less of the time children talked with adults in preschool was spent in conversations that went beyond the here and now. The rest of the time teachers were giving directions or asking children for specific information, such as the names of colors or letters.
Elementary school classrooms can be similarly impoverished. "Classroom environments are not always very language rich," says Snow. Frequently in classrooms, "vocabulary teaching is seen as a separate activity, and as less important than teaching reading or math," Snow says. "Teachers intend to teach vocabulary, but in elementary school that typically means providing students with definitions for 10 words a week, and maybe if the teacher is really good she'll use those words across different lessons." Children can handle much more, according to Snow, who says that elementary-age children frequently learn 10 words a day on their own, mostly from reading.
Dickinson notes that data from preschools give an indication of the limited extent to which preschool children are exposed to varied vocabulary. Analyses of 65 minutes of talk in more than 60 classrooms revealed that, on average, teachers used only 43 words that researchers classified as relatively sophisticated, and therefore the types of words likely to stretch children's vocabularies. Examples of such words include fluffy, gigantic, intrigued, and .bagel.
Dickinson and Snow recognize, however, that it can be hard for teachers, even those aware of the importance of rare vocabulary and oral-language skills, to make changes in the way the classroom works in order to support a richer vocabulary environment. Oral conversation, including conversation in classrooms, is usually limited to about 15,000 commonly recognized words, Snow says. "It's hard to do more with vocabulary while you're doing a million other things. It's rare that instead of asking a child to water the plants, a teacher will say, `I'm becoming anxious about dehydration.' But they need to engage in that kind of talk all the time, not just once in awhile."
Teachers can help children acquire new vocabulary and build their oral-language skills by exposing them to a wide variety of experiences, both in and out of the classroom. Tabors says she was looking at Home-School Study data one day, and noticed that different settings presented different opportunities for acquiring new vocabulary. "All of a sudden it hit me," she says. "I realized why it's important for teachers to take children on field trips—every new experience that children have has new vocabulary attached to it."
Teachers can help preschoolers acquire oral-language skills by examining how they read books with the children. To get the full value from reading books with preschoolers, Dickinson and his colleague Miriam Smith found, teachers need to be thoughtful about how they read and discuss books. "Our results indicate that when teachers are reading, it's best to have limited discussion that focuses on parts of the story that might be confusing," he says. "Once the book is over, more extended discussions can be helpful. Just reading books straight through, or departing from the text for extensive dialogue with children, is not desirable."
Dickinson also found evidence that talk between teachers and preschool children, especially during mealtimes, was a predictor of the children's vocabulary skills in 2nd grade, even when the contributions of the home environment were taken into account. "That was a real surprise to me, to get such a long-term prediction from such a limited amount of talk in the course of children's lives," he says. It may be that having such conversation during meals "indicates that these are teachers who are oriented toward language, who are tuned in to the importance of language, and are probably emphasizing it at other times as well." For example, Dickinson says, "those teachers might be more likely to sit down with children during free play, making themselves available for interesting or extensive conversations with kids."
Teachers can, in other words, emulate the types of home-based language experiences that seem to be most helpful to students. Whether these extended conversations occur over lunch in school or over dinner at home, the Home-School Study suggests that students stand to gain from them.