Language Development in the Preschool Years
Parents and early childhood educators want children to become good readers and writers. They are fully aware of how crucial reading and writing skills are to school success. But parents and early childhood educators may not know how important language development is in preparing preschool-age children for later literacy development. The purpose of this book is to provide information to parents and early childhood educators about the connections between young children's early language development and later literacy development so that they can support and facilitate young children's language skills both at home and in early care and education.
The material in this book is based on the findings of a research project, the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, carried out since 1987 by a collaborative research team composed of members from the Harvard Graduate School of Education; Tufts University; Clark University; and the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts. Researchers in this study have collected data in the homes and preschool, elementary school, and high school classrooms of a group of children from low-income families, starting when the children were 3 years old. This book reports on the information from the preschool and kindergarten period-a period that we have found makes crucial contributions in preparing children for their later literacy achievement.
In this book we not only present the findings from this research study but also make the findings come alive by presenting examples of the types of language that were audiotaped during visits to the homes and classrooms of these children, as well as quotes from teacher and mother interviews. Furthermore, to personalize the findings of the study, we have chosen four children and their families as examples of the overall group of children being studied. These children and their families are introduced later in this chapter, and further information about their lives-at home and in preschool-appears throughout the chapters that follow.
IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT IN THE PRESCHOOL YEARS
As mentioned, the focus of the Home-School Study is on young children's literacy development-how children become readers and writers. When we started this study, there was considerable interest in class differences with regard to children's literacy achievement. These socioeconomic differences led many researchers to focus on children's access to information about literacy as a determinant of their success in school. It was argued that before ever getting to school, some children have lots of opportunities at home to learn letters and sounds and to learn about handling books, making lists, writing notes, and other uses of literacy. These opportunities, which are generally available to children in more middle-class homes, might explain their literacy success.
Yet other researchers noted the robust relationship between reading achievement and vocabulary and suggested that individual and social class differences in children's vocabulary development would explain their reading outcomes. Although little work had been done on precisely how children developed larger vocabularies, it was clear that, in general, children from families with higher incomes and children of more highly educated mothers did have larger vocabularies at school entry than children from low-income families. This, too, might explain differences in reading outcomes.
Though we were not rejecting either of the previous explanations, we started this study with an interest in another aspect of language skill as well. We were particularly interested in children's experience with language that replicates some of the demands of literacy-that is, talk that requires participants to develop understandings beyond the here and now and that requires the use of several utterances or turns to build a linguistic structure, such as in explanations, narratives, or pretend. We call this type of talk extended discourse, and looking for differential opportunities to develop extended discourse skill was one of the goals of this project.
Why would anyone seek the sources of success at literacy in the domains of vocabulary or extended discourse skills? Ultimately, reading is a linguistic activity. Of course, there are specifically literate facts and procedures having to do with letters and with the sounds they represent that readers need to master. Increasingly, though, evidence suggests that learning about letters and sounds presupposes knowing a lot about the internal structure of words-knowledge that is hard to acquire without first knowing a lot of words. Furthermore, even the fairly straightforward system of how letters represent sounds is simplified if children can learn and practice it by reading words that they know. This is why beginning reading texts include only simple and highly frequent words.
All too soon, however, children, including many who have a reasonable grasp of letter-sound correspondences, encounter difficulties in reading if the texts they are reading in third or fourth grade use words they are not familiar with. Furthermore, such texts may deal with topics the children know little about, making comprehension a chore. And such texts are likely to include complex grammar and to use specific linguistic cues to indicate how the information presented is organized. If children have not learned these grammatical and organizational constructions orally, they will have difficulty using them while reading. We started this project, then, with the hypothesis that young children's language learning constitutes one important early step toward success in literacy.
In 1987, when we began the data collection process, the conviction that language was a crucial precursor to literacy was based more on intuition than on evidence. More recently, though, this conviction has come to be widely shared. Whereas we have long known that children's word knowledge is closely linked to reading accomplishments (Anderson & Freebody, 1981), more recent work has shown strong relationships between children's early language skills and later reading abilities (Hart & Risley, 1995; Purcell-Gates, 1988; Walker, Greenwood, Hart, & Carta, 1994). Other studies have shown that the levels of language and literacy skills that children have in kindergarten and first grade are strong predictors of achievement many years later (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997).
Understanding the role of language in fostering children's later literacy skills has important implications for all children, but it is of special significance for those who work with low-income families. Children growing up in these families are more likely to have difficulties with learning to read than children from middle-class families, and these gaps in performance begin to appear as early as kindergarten (Brizius & Foster, 1993; Dickinson & Snow, 1987). These early disadvantages can have serious long-term effects because children who experience reading difficulties in the middle grades are more likely than children without reading difficulties to drop out of school later in their academic careers (Barrington & Hendricks, 1989; Lloyd, 1978).
Differences in early achievement linked to parental income levels suggest that families vary in how effectively they support children's early language growth. One factor seems to be that children in families with limited incomes typically have fewer conversations with adults and are exposed to far fewer words than more advantaged children are. As a result, they tend to have smaller vocabularies than children from families with higher incomes (Hart & Risley, 1995). Also, these children tend to have fewer opportunities to hear books read aloud on a regular basis, thereby losing out on an experience known to support language growth (Zill, Collins, West, & Hausken, 1995). Though many studies have confirmed the existence of quantitative differences in the language experiences of children from low- and higher-income families, the Home-School Study presents an in-depth view of how parents and children in low-income families actually talk together in a variety of settings and the ways that this talk can support children's language growth.
The fact that children from low-income homes need additional support during the preschool years has long been recognized, as evidenced by the establishment of Head Start in the 1960s. Research conducted over two decades has given some evidence that Head Start and preschool programs similar to Head Start are benefiting low-income children (Barnett, 1995). Also, several major studies that have evaluated overall program quality have found that strong programs are more likely than programs of lesser quality to benefit preschool-age children (Bryant, Lau, Burchinal, & Sparling, 1994; Layzer, Goodson, & Moss, 1993; McCartney, Scarr, Phillips, & Grajek, 1985). Studies such as these look across many programs, identifying fairly general features of programs that are indicators of high quality, such as qualifications of staff and the adult-child ratio. Our research complements these studies by taking a more fine-grained look at the nature of what goes on in preschool classrooms. As a result, the findings of the Home-School Study can provide some concrete guidance regarding areas of preschool classroom life that are most likely to have beneficial effects on children's language and literacy development.
The importance of early childhood experiences with rich language input and appropriate exposure to the uses and functions of print was emphasized by a series of national organizations in the late 1990s. The International Reading Association and the National Association for the Education of Young Children jointly issued a position statement in 1998 emphasizing the appropriateness of providing rich language and literacy experiences in preschool classrooms. A report from the National Academy of Sciences entitled Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998) argued that attention to children's language and literacy environment during the preschool years constitutes a crucial prevention effort and concluded, furthermore, that preschool classrooms serving young children at risk are often somewhat impoverished language and literacy environments. Federal legislators further endorsed this perspective when writing the Head Start Amendments of 1998 (PL 105-285) by setting specific goals for the knowledge about literacy and language that 4-year-olds in Head Start would be expected to achieve.
In other words, there seems to be a consensus that the environments of young children should be language-rich, with lots of words used during interesting conversations, and should be enriched by stories and explanations. The study presented in this book shows what such an environment looks like at home and at preschool, under which conditions it is likely to emerge, and precisely how it relates to children's learning.
In this book, we present descriptions of the language and literacy environments of 74 young children from low-income families. We relate our descriptions of the crucial features of those environments — at home and at preschool — to the children's accomplishments at the end of kindergarten. Of course, children at the end of kindergarten are typically not yet reading, so they can hardly yet have started to display reading difficulties, either. But we do know from a wide array of research carried out by others and from our own ongoing studies of the children in the Home-School Study that some aspects of children's skills at the end of kindergarten predict later literacy accomplishments quite well. Thus, even though the topic of this book is limited to the very beginnings of reading development, we have a basis for saying that the features of homes and preschool classrooms that support children's literacy in kindergarten help to pave the way for children's later reading success.
Although the analyses in this book are focused on the preschool to kindergarten period of the Home-School Study, the research team has continued to visit the homes and classrooms of the children in the study. Home visits were made to the families when the children were 7, 9, and 12 years old, and school visits have been made each year up to sophomore year in high school except for fifth and eighth grade. During these visits we have continued to collect data on language interactions at home, on family support for literacy skills, on types of reading instruction in classrooms, and on the children's accomplishments in the domains of language and literacy. The final chapter provides some updates concerning the participants of the study when they were in fourth and seventh grade.
So, why does the information in this book stop at kindergarten? We have found that knowing how well these children did on language and literacy tasks as kindergartners tells us a lot about how they went on to succeed or to struggle in their later schooling. Furthermore, we have found that the foundation of the children's kindergarten abilities can be found in their home and preschool classroom language and literacy environments. What the Home-School Study tells us is that the preschool years are critical.
Excerpted from chapter 1 of Beginning Literacy with Language: Young Children Learning at Home and at School, edited by David K. Dickinson, Ed.D., & Patton O. Tabors, Ed.D.
Copyright © 2001 by Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.