Category Archives: Language & Literacy

Teaching Language is Not Just About Saying More Words

The Oto Monitor

There is a new product called Oto – “the First Monitor for Your Baby’s Healthy Brain Development”. (Learn about it at https://www.oyalabs.com/)

They’re  electronic monitors you place around your home. The website says they use AI and Natural Language Processing to tally how many words a child hears, how many engaged, back-and-forth exchanges you have with your child, and the quality of your language including the ratio of positive to negative words.

If this were an academic study that I’d been asked to participate in with my child, I would absolutely say yes, because it would be fascinating to participate and see the research results!

But I’m a little troubled by the marketing of the device. It says “These indicators are proven to be critical for their IQ and emotional development.” The implication is that this device is essential for helping you ensure your child reaches their full potential. They also say “The number of words you speak to your child daily is a core metric – the more language, the better child’s outcomes.”

I worry that the parents who purchase this device would then become anxious, feel guilty when they weren’t talking, and become overly focused on talking and talking and talking to their child. This onslaught of words would be exhausting for me to produce as a parent and exhausting for a child to hear and may totally miss the point of how children most effectively learn language.

Bronson and Merryman (source) say “For years, the advice has been that the way to kick-start a child’s language learning was to simply expose kids to massive amounts of language. However, as we explain in our book NurtureShock, the newest science has concluded that the central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the child’s ears. Rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the child and respond accordingly.”

Let’s look more at what we know about language learning.

Can there be too little language in a child’s world?

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There are definitely “linguistically poor” households, and this can absolutely lead to significant “vocabulary gaps.” In general, children from households with lower income and lower family education know fewer words. (source of chart above) Some examples from research:

  • A child in a low income home will hear an average of 616 words in an hour, a child in an average professional home will hear 2153. (source)
  • In one year, children from poor families hear 250,000 utterances at home, while children from wealthy families hear 4,000,000.  (source)
  • By age four, middle and upper class children hear 15 million more words than in working-class families, and 30 million more than in families on welfare. (source)
  • By second grade, a middle income child will know ~6020 words. A low income child will know ~4168. (source)
  • By 18 months, toddlers from disadvantaged families are already several months behind more advantaged children in language proficiency. (source)
  • 5-year-old children of lower SES score two years behind on language tests. (source)
  • When 18 month olds were shown two objects, then one was named aloud, higher SES toddlers could identify the right object in 750 milliseconds, lower SES toddlers were 200 milliseconds slower to respond. That slower mental processing speed means they have a harder time keeping up with teacher’s words. (source)

Not only are there fewer words spoken in a lower income household, the discussions that do happen are likely to be focused on daily life, such as what to eat, work schedule, and other practical topics. They are less likely to have wide-ranging discussions around the dinner table on a variety of topics. The parents may also work multiple jobs, which means less opportunity for reading bedtime stories. This may lead to the same words being used a lot, and fewer novel words that broaden the child’s vocabulary.

Also, in single parent households or homes where one partner is away at work, it may be more likely that the television is on in the background much of the time, which leads to less engagement and conversation between parent and child. (Source)

A child who understands fewer words and has slower processing speed  when they begin school will not just start behind – they’ll stay behind. As the teacher talks and some kids understand all the words and all the concepts, and some kids can’t even understand the words used, they get lost before reaching the concepts. (source for graph below)

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So yes, if there are too few words being used in a child’s environment, that child can be word poor. And yes, that will create academic challenges. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean the answer is to just talk a lot more…

What Is Responsive Language?

Imagine two scenes.

  • A toddler is sitting and poking at her cheerios and poking at her spoon so it rattles on the table. The parent, wanting to be sure the child is receiving mental stimulation, talks about their day: “As soon as you’re done with your breakfast, we’re going to put your new red shoes on and we’re going to go for a walk, and maybe we’ll see some butterflies again. Remember, the last time we went to the bakery to buy bread and we saw two blue butterflies?” The child keeps poking at her food as the parent talks. “I’m going to get a book now – we can read it together.”
  • As the toddler pokes, she looks up at the parent for their reaction. The parent sits with the child and says “you’re poking your cheerios with your finger. You pushed them all into a big pile on that side of your dish.” As the parent speaks, they point at the big pile. The child pushes a few more cheerios into the pile. “Now there are five more cheerios in the pile.” Then the child pats the spoon. “You’re using your hand to pat the spoon. The spoon makes a fun noise, doesn’t it?” The parent pats the spoon and says “It’s going rattle, rattle.” The toddler rattles the spoon some more, parent says “rattle, rattle” again. Then the child holds up the spoon to show it to the parent. “You picked up the spoon – can you use it to pick up some cheerios?”

In the first example, the parent’s voice is mostly background noise for the child whose attention is focused on the cereal and the spoon. There is also the chance of “criss-cross labeling” where if every time the child touches the spoon, the parent happens to talk about butterflies, the child could get confused about whether the thing they’re touching is called butterfly.

In the second example, the parent closely observed the child’s actions and where the child’s attention was focused, then talked about that. This gives the child the words for what they are experiencing in the moment with all their senses. This builds a much stronger connection between the words and their meaning. When you talk about a spoon later, the child can remember this moment and remember what the spoon felt like in their hand and the noise it made on the table.

To some parents, it may seem like talking about cheerios and a spoon is boring. They may feel like they need to jazz up the child’s learning with talking about bigger ideas. But slowing down to your toddler’s pace and tuning in to what they are in the process of exploring offers a meaningful connection for their learning.

There are three characteristics of responsive language: it’s prompt (happens within seconds of the child’s behavior, it’s contingent (related to the behavior) and it’s appropriate (parent responds in a positive and meaningful way). (source)

So, if a child showed a parent a ball, the parent would quickly respond, “Oh, you have a  ball in your hand!” If the child said “ba”, the parent would say “Ball. Yes, it’s a green ball.”

Does responsive language increase learning?

  • One study showed that when parents were more responsive, their children would reach all these milestones sooner: imitating parent’s words, first words, speaking 50 words, combining words to make a “sentence” and talking about the past.
  • A parenting style that includes parental warmth, high expectations and clear routines is associated not just with language ability but also better memory and higher achievement. When parents use a lot of negative strategies, their children have more limited language skills. (Source)
  • Children who hear more child-directed speech – not just overheard speech – process language faster and learn words more quickly. (source)

Here is a summary of other research:

In the second year, when infants begin to understand and produce words and simple phrases, responsiveness predicts the sizes of infants’ vocabularies… the diversity of infants’ communications… and the timing of language milestones… Infants of high-responsive mothers (90th percentile) … achieved language milestones such as first words, vocabulary spurt, and combinatorial speech, 4 to 6 months earlier than infants of low-responsive mothers… Toddlers of low-responsive fathers were 5 times more likely to display cognitive delays than were toddlers of high-responsive fathers… fathers’ responsiveness to their 2- and 3-year-olds predicted toddlers’ cognitive and language abilities within and across time… (source – includes citations for all studies)

How can you use responsive language?

Dr. Dana Suskind, author of Thirty Million Words recommends three steps for parents and caregivers to expand a child’s vocabulary:

  1. Tune In by paying attention to what your child is focused on
  2. Talk More with your child using lots of descriptive words
  3. Take Turns with your child by engaging in his or her conversation. (source)

Additional recommendations:

  • The Hanen Centre says that step 1 is OWL: “Observe Wait Listen. The parent needs to give the child the opportunity to take that first turn, so that the parent has something to respond to.”  (Learn more about OWL – Observe, Wait, Listen.)
  • Their next step is follow the child’s lead: imitate what the child says, interpret (what the child would say if they had the words), comment (giving the child words to describe what they are doing) or join in child-directed play. (Learn more.)
  • Use parentese – that sing song higher voice parents use to talk to babies.
  • Use motion – point to things as you talk about them, touch them, shake them. All this helps the child focus their attention while you label the objects.
  • Talk about what they want to talk about (what they are doing or are paying attention to in the moment). Don’t change topics quickly.
  • Don’t interrupt their attempts to communicate with you. Wait for them to get their thought out. Look at their face to show you are listening.
  • Children also benefit from hearing lots of different people speak – at different pitches, tempos, and with different accents and facial expressions. So take them out in the world, so they have an opportunity to interact with diverse people.
  • Reading to your child is also a huge influence on language learning. Learn about how to read to a child and lots of other literacy topics.

Don’t feel like you have to talk all the time

For brain development in general, children need three things: novelty (new experiences), repetition (the chance to explore something over and over to learn about it in depth from all angles), and down time (restful periods without lots of input when they can process all that they’ve seen and heard). This is true of language too.

Children need new words, they need to hear the same ones over and over in different contexts, and they also need quiet time for their inner thoughts to unfold. It is fine to have long periods of silence at home too. Even if you choose to have an Oto monitor listening in.

Learn more about responsive language:

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Inspiring children who are resistant to writing or drawing

yodaSome children LOVE to write and draw. And some don’t. My middle child was passionate about it, and was competent with pencil, marker and crayon by about 18 months. (Part of that interest was probably due to having a sibling who was 3.5 years older, and was working a lot on writing and drawing skills.)

Our youngest shows no desire at all to write or to draw, which is not uncommon amongst boys. (And honestly part of this may be due to environment. He virtually never sees the people around him write anything. We type on our laptops and phones and mobile devices, but rarely put pen to paper.)

We’ve found three ways to motivate him. First, follow his interests. Since he’s wild about Star Wars, it’s easy to engage him with things like “Hey, you want to learn how to draw Yoda?” (See above.)

Second, make writing a powerful tool for getting what you want. If he wants something that I don’t care whether he has or not, I make him do a written request. The first one was “Kiss” when he wanted a Hershey’s kiss. Later on, he was begging for white cheddar cheez-its. We found him a picture of the box online, and he had to copy all the words down before we gave him any crackers. We’ve made writing worth while.

[Note: I work with parents of toddlers. Sometimes a parent will voice concern to me that their child is slow to learn to speak. The same principles apply: follow their interest – talk about what they are looking at or doing, not about what YOU are interested in at the moment. Make language powerful. If they point at juice, don’t give it to them. Say “Do you want milk or juice?” You’ve just given them the words they need, but they need to SAY juice to get juice.]

Third, offer interesting media / sensory experiences. You can pour flour or salt into a dark-colored dish, and let them write and scribble in there. You can give them a stick and encourage them to draw in sand or dirt. Offer bath tub crayons at bath time. Or finger paint anytime. Or a paint brush and water to write on the sidewalk on a hot day. If your child likes to use apps on your mobile device, most allow them to use their finger to draw with – but you can also purchase a stylus for them to use to practice holding a pen.

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When should kids learn to read?

readThe Alliance for Childhood and Defending the Early Years just released a report called Reading Instruction in Kindergarten – Little to Gain, Much to Lose, discussed in a Washington Post article titled “Requiring kindergartners to read — as Common Core does — may harm some.” This post looks at what we know about children and early literacy learning.

When I was a child in the 60’s, I came into kindergarten knowing how to read – I could easily read any picture book. I was the only real reader in the class – but I came from a big family of early readers. By the end of the year, my classmates were all expected to have their alphabets down, and more kids were reading. By the end of first grade, most kids were reading. Those who weren’t got a little extra help in second grade and were caught up by the end of the year. That may reflect the normal range in developmental capabilities.

But today’s kindergartners are being taught to Common Core standards. In kindergarten, there are over 90 standards kids are expected to meet, including:

  • Recognize and name all upper- and lowercase letters of the alphabet.
  • Associate the long and short sounds with common spellings (graphemes) for the five major vowels.
  • Use the most frequently occurring inflections and affixes (e.g., -ed, -s, re-, un-, pre-, -ful, -less) as a clue to the meaning of an unknown word.
  • [And, by the end of the year:] Read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding.

Is this do-able for some kids? Absolutely. My kids all read before kindergarten. My youngest just turned 4 and has already mastered the standards I just listed. (And believe me, it’s not because we drilled him with flashcards or worked with worksheets for hours… we’re much too lazy as parents to do that! We just did simple things to create a good environment for literacy learning, and he took it from there.)

But NOT ALL KIDS are ready to read at this young age!

Kids develop in predictable patterns, but not at exactly the same rate. And they’re stronger in some areas at any given time than in others. For example, although my kids were early readers, they also each had areas they were “behind on” for their age, which were the challenges they needed to work on in kindergarten.

Dr. Arnold Gesell found that all children go on the same path of development; however, some go faster, some go slower, and all have spurts and set-backs
along the way. The obvious example is the age that children learn to walk. Some children learn to walk as early as nine months, some as late as 15 months. But that is all normal and we all agree that the early walker is not a better walker than the later walker. … Some children learn to read at age three or four years, others not until seven years or later. That range is quite normal. The most compelling part of the reading research is that by the end of third grade, early readers have no advantage over later readers. Some later readers even go on to become the top in their class. Reading early is not an indicator of higher intelligence. In fact, children at the top of their class in kindergarten only have a 40 percent chance of being at the top of their class at the end of third grade.

When we focus on academically based standards, it’s hard for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for that, but it’s also hard for kids like mine who needed skills that weren’t necessarily on the list of things a teacher is now “supposed” to teach. “In a survey… of early childhood teachers… 85% of the public school teachers reported that they are required to teach activities that are not developmentally appropriate for their students.”

And when teachers are asked to teach non-developmentally appropriate content, they have to do it in non-developmentally appropriate ways.

We hear increasing reports of kindergartens that use worksheets and drills, rely on lengthy whole-group lessons, and require teachers to frequently pull children out of the classroom to administer assessments. A parent recently wrote: “My 5-year-old son started Common Core Kindergarten this year in California. Even though it’s only been two months he is already far behind. … [W]e are required to do … [worksheets] four nights a week. It’s the same boring thing over and over again… I know he’s not stupid but I’m being told in not so clear terms that he is. It’s very disheartening.”

Drills and worksheets are not the way kids learn.

Well, in the short-term, they can be. Direct instruction CAN help children memorize specific facts and learn specific skills, but it doesn’t foster the curiosity and creativity that can be beneficial for learning in the long run. (Learn more in this article on “Why Preschool Shouldn’t Be Like School.”) And, the “boring” work can drain the passion for learning from our kids, which I believe is key for long-term academic success. And, for kids who aren’t developmentally ready for the work, it can make them feel stupid. I know of boys who weren’t ready to read at age 6 and 7. They learned at that age that they were “stupid” in school subjects and continue as young adults to think of themselves that way.

The report states: “We could find no research cited by the developers of the CCSS [Common Core] to support this reading standard for kindergarten… of the people on the committees that wrote and reviewed the CCSS, not one of those individuals was a
K-3rd grade teacher or an early childhood professional.”

What does the research show?

 There is no solid evidence showing long-term gains for children who are taught to read in kindergarten. In fact, by fourth grade and beyond, these children read at the same level as those who were taught to read in the first grade.

So, what is developmentally appropriate for preschool and kindergarten? Play-based learning.

Children learn best when they are engaged in activities geared to their developmental levels, prior experiences and current needs. As they construct their ideas through
play and hands-on activities that make sense to them, children’s knowledge builds in a gradual progression that is solid and unshakable. They build a foundation of meaning that provides the basis for understanding concepts in language, literacy, math, science and the arts. In active learning, their capacities for language development, social and emotional awareness, problem solving, self-regulation, creativity, and original thinking develop, transforming them into effective learners.

Being able to read well will also depend on the strength of a child’s oral language development. Active, play-based experiences in the early years foster strong oral language in children. As children engage in active learning experiences and play, they are talking and listening all the time. They attach words to their actions, talk with
peers and teachers, learn new vocabulary and use more complex grammar. As they build, make paintings, and engage in imaginative play, they deepen their understanding of word meanings. As they listen to and create stories, hear rich language texts, sing songs, poems and chants, their foundation for reading grows strong.

What’s the evidence that play-based preschool and kindergarten works in the long-run?

In one study, in the third grade there was little difference between students who had been in play-based preschools versus academic achievement programs. By 6th grade, the kids from the academic preschools earned lower grades than those who were in play-based preschools. A German study in the 70’s compared kids from play-based vs. academic preschools. In fourth grade, those from play-based programs excelled “on all 17 measures, including being more advanced in reading and mathematics and being better adjusted socially and emotionally in school.” So, they’re not only successful academically, but also socially. In an American study from the 60’s, children from impoverished households were assigned to either play-based preschools or to a scripted, direct-instruction approach. There were similar short-term gains for all children in the first year. But at age 23, there were significant differences. 47% of the kids from the direct instruction classroom needed special education for social difficulties versus 6% of the play-based alumni.

When looking for preschool or kindergarten for your child, you can look for play-based options. If they are in a kindergarten that follows Common Core standards, you can look for ways to balance that out at home with lots of child-directed free play. You can create a literacy-rich home environment without pushing reading. If your child is ready to read young, they will do so. If they’re not ready, they won’t feel stressed or stupid.

If you are the parent of a toddler, don’t feel any pressure to teach your child to read. But, you can create an environment full of literacy materials that show reading is exciting and fun.Read my ideas on this or follow this lead:

[In play-based settings] Teachers employ many strategies to expose children to rich oral language and print —without bombarding or overwhelming the child. These may include telling stories, reading picture books and big books, singing songs and reciting poems, reading from posted charts (using pointers to read along), drawing and writing with invented and conventional spellings, taking dictation from children, and helping children write their own stories. In organic and meaningful ways, teachers often use print — labeling block structures, cubbies, and interest areas, writing recipes, transcribing the children’s stories, and making charts for attendance or classroom jobs.

photo credit: ThomasLife via photopin cc

Story-Telling – Narrating Wordless Movies

If you’re looking for a great way to build language and literacy skills, as well as observation and interpretation skills, try this. Find an animated short movie with no words. Play it through once, just watching. When your child says “Again, again” as all children do, play it again. This time, you narrate it – just describe what you’re seeing and what’s happening in the movie. Then, when they say “Again!” say “OK, but this time you have to tell me what it’s about, and what you see.”

You’ll notice that at times, your child uses the same words you did to describe the scene. Sometimes she will mix in her own descriptions and interpretations of things you commented on. Sometimes something completely different catches his eye, and he tells the story of some element you barely noticed the first time.

It’s a fascinating insight into what your child notices and what they ignore, and good practice for future reading, and for farther-in-the-future book reports or movie reviews.

I’ve linked to a Glen Keane video above, which is where we discovered this technique. There are also some fabulous Pixar shorts (think about For the Birds, with all the birds on a wire…. or Geri’s Game with the old man playing chess with himself, or the Blue Umbella or the opening sequence of Up where it traces the history of Ellie and Karl’s marriage). Or think of Fantasia and Fantasia 2000 from Disney. Or there’s tons of YouTube videos that your friends post on Facebook every day showing cute animals doing entertaining things. Show those to you child and ask him to explain what he sees.

Story-telling about your child’s life

storyWhile older children may love stories of fantastic creatures in faraway lands, younger toddlers often prefer stories grounded in the real world. Books about getting up in the morning, getting dressed, eating breakfast, going for a walk. All those familiar events that they recognize for their real lives. Your toddler may like even better hearing stories about his own day, told storybook style…

On her Clear Parent blog, Cate Pane recently shared a post titled Please Tell Me a Story about how her husband would “spin a yarn” for their child – making up stories that include details from the child’s own life. I shared with her about “Ben stories” and she suggested I share them here…

So, I read a lot of books to my son. Really, a lot. It’s a good thing we’re walking distance from a library full of free books. But my bedtime rule is only two books at bedtime. That’s it. Not negotiable for more. (I don’t want to establish a habit for negotiation with him… I know lots of parents who get caught up in this and suddenly end up with hour-long bedtime routines they can’t break out of.)

But sometimes, I can see that 2 stories wasn’t enough to settle him, so I ask him if he wants a Ben Story. He always say yes!

All I do is review events from his day, or tell him a story of a recent event, like a trip or a class or a play-date with a friend. But I tell it story-book style: “Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Benjamin. And he lived in the town of Kirkland, in the state of Washington, in the United States of America, on Planet Earth. One morning, he woke up and put on his swimsuit and guess where that little boy went? He went on a short journey, out the door, down the sidewalk, past the magical Bee Bush, across the street with the walk light and into the park until he arrived at the swimming pool. And what do you think he did when he arrived at the pool?”

What do I like best about these Ben stories?

  • Ben stories can be as short or long as I want them to be, based on how much free time I have, how long I think it will take him to settle, and so on.
  • They can serve as a nice settling down routine. (Many experts recommend doing a ‘day in review‘ with your child to help them let go of the day and move into the night.)
  • They help him feel knowledgeable and competent as he recognizes the things we talk about
  • They can reinforce events and people I want him to remember. “Ben’s aunt Jamie was visiting and she read him a bedtime story…”
  • They can reinforce new learning. For example, the other day when I told him the story of our hike in Big Finn Hill park  I reminded him of how he helped us figure out which way was left and which way was right, and I had him show me again how the fingers on his left hand make an L shape for left.
  • They honor that he is special and his story is special – it’s not just people in faraway land who have stories worth telling.

Some times I use finger puppets when telling Ben stories.

When he is in his bedroom, supposed to be napping, I often overhear him with the puppets, using them to tell the story of his day.