On the third floor of Larsen Hall at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, thousands of video and audiocassettes line the walls of a room not much bigger than a closet. The cassettes contain data of an unusual sort—voices of children in ordinary conversation with each other and with adults at school, at play, and at home.
The conversations comprise the raw data of a longitudinal research effort known as the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development. Begun in 1987 by EDC senior researcher David Dickinson and Catherine Snow, professor of language and literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the study set out to examine the connections between children’s early spoken language skills and their later school performance.
“Our interest was in low-income children in particular,” Dickinson explains, “because it was apparent that somewhere in upper elementary school—fourth or fifth grades—working-class children begin to fall behind their middle-class peers. It seemed to us that their oral language skills—established in the preschool years—lay at the heart of their later struggles.”
Armed with tape and video recorders, the research team followed 83 3-year-old children from low-income families in and around Boston. All of the children spoke English at home, and all were enrolled in Head Start or other subsidized preschool day care centers. Seeking to capture genuine spoken interactions, the researchers recorded conversations that the children had at home with their mothers and at school with peers and teachers. In addition, researchers interviewed parents and teachers to gather more information about the children. At the end of each school year, students were given a battery of tests to assess their literacy and language growth.
The Home-School Connection
Twelve years later, 53 of the original families continue to participate in the study, providing data on the children through the eighth grade. While the mountains of tapes, written interviews, and student assessments have produced a broad array of statistical analyses, Ph.D. dissertations, and academic papers, the study’s core findings have remained strikingly consistent: Children who experience rich and extended conversations with adults early at home and in the school environment achieve greater academic success in their later years. “It’s not necessarily how much adults talk to children that makes the difference,” explains Dickinson. “It’s how well they talk.”
What does it means to “talk well” to children? Both at home and in school, good conversation involves the use of what Dickinson and Snow call decontexualized language—language that moves beyond the immediate and literal, the here-and-now, to express past and future events, ideas, images, and explanations. For young children, this kind of talk may include narration about what went on at school, fantasy talk, explanations about books or pictures, and other subjects of interest.
Further, the study has shown that a child’s exposure to a full and varied vocabulary as early as age 4 is also a powerful predictor of later literacy growth. Students who routinely heard rare words in informal settings, both at home and at school—mealtime, free time, and in small group settings in particular—showed the most growth in literacy activities several years later.
Dickinson’s more recent analyses of the preschool period also suggests that a cycle of learning may be established among students very early, based in part on the language skills they bring with them to preschool. He found evidence that children who come from somewhat more advantaged homes and have stronger language skills are more likely to engage in interesting conversations with their preschool teachers. These conversations, in turn, contribute favorably to their ongoing literacy development. Teachers may have less success recognizing and ameliorating language deficits in those who come less prepared, establishing a cycle of preference that can be carried on through the upper grades. “Particularly when classes are structured in informal ways, it’s easy for a teacher not to recognize her own patterns. ‘I’ve spoken a lot with Jamal today, but I haven’t heard at all from Duane,’” continues Dickinson. “So it seems that the rich get richer from a very early age.”
Promoting Good Conversations
For Dickinson, who directed the school portion of the study, the early findings underscore the fact that effective early childhood classrooms are essential to strong literacy development, particularly among low-income children. Yet early analysis of the Home-School tapes made it clear that preschool teachers weren’t doing enough to weave rich conversation into the regular fabric of the school day. “We looked closely for the opportunities teachers had to promote challenging conversations with children,” explains Miriam Smith, research associate at EDC and Dickinson’s colleague in the Home-School Study. “What we found were largely missed opportunities.” Indeed, Dickinson’s analysis of the early tapes indicates that at best, only 20 percent of teacher talk in classrooms went beyond explicit instruction and question-and-answer activities.
In 1995, Dickinson brought the school portion of the study to EDC. “I wanted to find a way to turn these findings into an effective classroom intervention,” he explains. “The exact form that it has taken has everything to do with being here in the Center for Children and Families and working closely with the Region 1 Technical Assistance Providers for Head Start.”
That year, he and Miriam Smith began an informal collaboration with teachers at a local Head Start center, hoping to develop strategies for incorporating the key findings of the Home-School Study into daily preschool practice. From their observations in the classrooms and their conversations with teachers during that first year, the researchers quickly recognized how a host of factors—from the physical arrangements of a room to curriculum content—play an integral role in language instruction. “I’m an early childhood teacher at heart,” says Smith, “and I just couldn’t go into those classrooms and overlook the uninspired curriculum and dreary physical environment to talk exclusively about language development with the teachers. So David and I soon found ourselves developing strategies not only for enhancing language instruction, but also for enriching the whole life of these classrooms—it’s really a circular process.”
The course that emerged from this collaborative effort, now known as the Literacy Environment Enrichment Program, or LEEP, has evolved considerably since that first year to reflect what the researchers learned from the study and their hands-on work with preschool teachers. The result is a considerably more formal course than they originally intended. Today LEEP is a four-credit course available to Head Start teachers in all six New England states. It grants credit through six different institutions of higher education and requires 45 course hours and 50 practicum hours. Participants from preschool programs work in teams of two to four members, including a center supervisor.
In keeping with the findings of the Home-School Study that suggest children learn language best within a meaningful context, the course focuses on supporting preschool teachers in developing and sustaining good curriculum ideas and materials, an approach they call “content-based learning.” “Content-based activities are a rich source of literacy learning because they engage children with ideas and information that interest them,” Smith explains.”We want teachers to understand that literacy cuts across everything they do in the classroom. They can teach language and literacy through science and math and reading.”
“The course is designed to help teachers become more intentional with children,” Smith continues. “Often we fall into regularized patterns with children, familiar ways of talking and doing. We want to be nice to children, and though that is important, being nice does not always produce an intellectually stimulating environment. It’s a lot harder to be intentional and goal-oriented.”
In order to build habits of self-reflection and intentional thinking among preschool teachers, the course employs both traditional and nontraditional teaching strategies, including some of the methods of the Home-School Study itself—recording classroom conversations and analyzing them. “We offer the teachers information about good classroom practice in such areas as language and literacy development, emergent writing, book use, and curriculum development through readings, lectures, and videotapes,” explains Ingrid Chalufour, EDC researcher and LEEP instructor. “Then we provide them numerous opportunities to apply this information in their classrooms.” In a final step, teachers use video and tape recorders to analyze classrooms, both their own and others, to observe how student learning and behavior are affected by different instructional strategies. “The analysis is key to the teachers’ learning process,” Chalufour says. “When they see significant changes in the children’s behavior, it really brings the point home.”
Teachers who participate in the course have developed successful units on a variety of subjects, from the workings of the post office to martial arts, from turtles to the life of the local business community. No matter what the topic, the units are designed to cut across traditional disciplines and approach the topic through reading and vocabulary, writing, drawing, and storytelling, and other hands-on research and information-gathering activities, including taking field trips, conducting interviews and surveys, and graphing.
But, as Dickinson and Smith discovered in their early collaboration with teachers, enhancing literacy instruction requires that teachers also address a host of seemingly more mundane issues that influence the life of the classroom, from more effective time management to the thoughtful arrangement of physical space. For instance, simply making the time to sit down with one or a small group of students can be a challenge for busy teachers, yet it is an important step in building habits of conversation. Dickinson has seen how content-based instruction can also address these logistical issues. “The richer the curriculum and content, the easier it is to find time to talk and work in small groups,” he explains. “We often hear from teachers after they’ve done an especially interesting unit, ‘My gosh, the children behaved themselves.’”
In one assignment, teachers are asked to consider the structure of their day and how it might be promoting or inhibiting literacy activities. “Because managing transitions with small children is a challenge, we encourage teachers to work in bigger blocks of time so there is less time spent on logistics and more time for real instruction,” explains Chalufour. In another assignment, teachers are asked to draw a map of their room and analyze what they see. Where are the books located? What opportunities are there for writing? How comfortable is the library area for both children and adults? “I’ve been in many classrooms where the library sits vacant” Chalufour explains. “Yet it is crucial that Head Start students experience the pleasure of reading together in small groups because many of them don’t get this experience at home.” After reading an article on the importance of the library area, several of the teachers in the course tried spending more time there and were surprised by the results. “They hadn’t realized what a magnet they were,” Chalufour says. “The children would come to sit with them and read.”
Perhaps most importantly, content-based instruction provides teachers and students with material for the sort of rich conversation that the Home-School Study has shown to be critical to full literacy growth. These units invite teachers to move beyond strict skills-based activities to engage children in talking and learning about ideas and concepts that they encounter in the world around them. “We want teachers to recognize that children have the capacity to wrestle with big ideas: What does it mean to be fair? How do numbers work? How do things grow?” explains Smith. “We want teachers to see that this makes the work more stimulating for them as well as for the kids.”
Originally published on June 22, 2006