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Florida Learning Disabilities Research Center


alphabet blocks and apple on books

Teaching Our Kids How to Talk Takes More Than Just Talking

By: Mia Daucourt

Classrooms are made up of children from a diversity of backgrounds. They differ in terms of culture, the parental support they receive, their level of wealth and access to resources, and the opportunities they are given to engage in activities that foster their mental and emotional growth. Importantly, these early differences in children’s upbringings have a significant effect on how they achieve in school. These early environmental differences make an especially big difference in children’s early language skill development. Although early exposure and experience matter for all academic skills, they are especially important for oral language, which requires exposure to a wide array of words in a variety of situations to develop.

Unfortunately, not every child has the opportunity to grow up in a language-rich environment. In fact, many children from impoverished backgrounds end up struggling to keep up with the other children in their kindergarten and elementary classes because they have had very limited, low-quality language input. As a result of not having the same opportunities to hear and learn new words, to converse with more experienced speakers, or to interact with toys or resources that support their language and vocabulary development, economically-disadvantaged children often fall behind their peers in language achievement. In order to combat these gaps in oral language skill development and make up for the lack of quality language input children experience in their homes, many parents send their children to preschool so they can be taught important academic skills by a teacher. Are preschools really helping though?

Building children’s oral language skills requires high-quality and purposeful language modeling, but what children are learning in preschools may not be cutting it. A recent study by Phillips and colleagues (2018) used a newly-developed classroom measure, called the Classroom Learning Environment and Observation Scales (CLEOS), to assess the quality of the language instruction children were receiving across different types of preschool classrooms. They observed 3-4-year-olds in either subsidized child care, public preschool, or Head Start programs in order to evaluate the quality of language instruction across different preschool settings, and specifically, whether the quality may be lower in lower socioeconomic environments.

While other classroom measures capture the quality of the overall classroom environment, the CLEOS zeroes in on language instruction by focusing on language, vocabulary, and book reading. The scale also differentiates whether the language instruction is focused on acquiring vocabulary (either explicitly or indirectly) or on building broader expressive language skills, like being able to engage in back-and-forth conversation. Furthermore, the CLEOS measures quality by adding up the total number of times an instructional activity is observed, in general, and by keeping track of the classroom contexts in which each type of language instruction is used. The possible classroom contexts in which language instruction can occur include: circle time (when all children are gathered for non-reading activities, like singing and finger plays), small group (when children are divided by teachers to play and work together), centers (when children choose to participate in a small group activity, like play, blocks, science, library, or art), gross motor activities that could be indoors or outdoors, and transitions (when children are in between activities and doing things like lining up to go outside or cleaning up the room).

Results from the CLEOS measure showed that, overall, early education classrooms aren’t doing much to support children’s early language skill development. The language instruction that was observed was not high quality and did not directly target children’s language skills. Instead, most preschool teachers expected children to learn about language indirectly from the language exchanges that happen naturally in a classroom environment. The problem with the incidental nature of language instruction is that it does not allow for individualized feedback. Thus, children do not have a chance to respond directly so they could develop their back-and-forth conversational skills. This also meant that there were very few instances where new words were taught directly to help children develop their vocabularies. One exception to the general pattern of incidental instruction was that experienced teachers were more likely to teach children language skills directly. However, in general, the majority of preschool teachers were just not taking advantage of the chances they had to teach children language skills. For example, 25% of the preschool classrooms observed did not use any book reading at all. Books provide an engaging tool to teach kids new vocabulary, while showing them how words are used within a story with illustrations to support teaching. Shared book reading also gives teachers a chance to model back-and-forth conversation asking students questions based on what they have read. Unfortunately, a quarter of preschool classrooms were completely missing out on such a simple, effective language teaching opportunity. Interestingly, the teachers who did use book reading in their classrooms also demonstrated higher quality language teaching overall.

When high-quality language instruction was observed, it was most likely to be seen during circle time and center activities, when children have less opportunities to individually respond to prompts and receive individualized feedback from teachers because they are in larger group contexts. On the other hand, activities that allowed for more one-on-one attention, but were less traditionally-educational, like meal times, included little to no language instruction, even in the case of just incidental language instruction. This meant that teachers were not taking advantage of their chances to engage in casual conversations with their students in order to teach them how to use language in authentic contexts.

These results signal a clear need for better preschool language environments. It is imperative for the development of children’s oral language skills that policymakers, schools, and administrators focus on improving teacher training, with an emphasis on making language instruction direct, rather than incidental. The use of the CLEOS in Phillips and colleagues (2018) study was especially beneficial because it captured the overall classroom language environment in many different classroom contexts. In doing so, the CLEOS is useful for figuring out which areas need work, like taking advantage of mealtimes in order to engage students in one-on-one conversation, and which areas are already working, like using shared book reading as a time to teach kids new words. By capturing the exact types of instruction and contexts that need to be targeted, the CLEOS also provides precise feedback for setting goals that are actionable, concrete, and attainable. It’s important that we work to improve preschool language environments to focus on direct language instruction and help children develop their early language skills, and the CLEOS may be just the tool to make it happen.

Phillips, B. M., Zhao, Y., & Weekley, M. J. (2018). Teacher language in the preschool classroom: Initial validation of a classroom environment observation tool. Early Education and Development, 29(3), 379-397. doi: 10.1090/10409289.2017.1408371