by Karen Nemeth
Language is like a cake. We love cake because of the way the ingredients are combined – not because of the separate ingredients. The more we learn about first and second language development and DLLs, the more important those combinations of ingredients become.
A bag of ingredients is not equal to a cake. A cake is the result of artfully mixing the right balance of ingredients and then baking it all together. Once the cake starts baking, you can not break it back down to its component parts. That’s like language. Teaching separate lessons on the alphabet, or the parts of a book, or phonemes is like setting out the ingredients of the cake. They are important components of literacy but those separate lessons do not automatically combine together effectively to build language – not first language OR second language.
One thing we do know about language is that it develops and thrives due to the natural, interesting, engaging conversations adults have WITH children- especially when those conversations happen around books and stories. A recent article by Tim Shanahan and Christopher Lonigan in Language Magazine backs this up. They say “Even more vexing is the fact that teachers — the most important source of language input in preschool classrooms — have a history of using language in ways that may not be consistent with the interactions found by research to be conducive to language learning. Teacher’s interactions that best encourage language learning include having conversations that stay on a single topic, providing children opportunities to talk, encouraging analytical thinking, and giving information about the meanings of words.”
They also caution their readers that “…phonological representations are part of the linguistic system and the ability to gain access to these representations may in part be a by-product of early vocabulary development.”
Shanahan and Lonigan make the case that the separate skills teachers are teaching in kindergarten and first grade reading/literacy classes are dependent on the foundations laid in the first five years of a child’s life during deeper, richer, more integrated conversations wherein the child hears sophisticated language and is encouraged to produce lots of oral language. Teaching phonemic awareness as a kindergarten skill is less likely to be successful if those early vocabulary comprehension activities have not laid the adequate foundation.
Shanahan and Lonigan urge teachers to combine the ingredients of language development: “Combining shared book reading along with other language activities with explicit decoding instruction in the context of a supportive and responsive classroom, can make the difference between a child whose literacy development is at or above standards or one who struggles with reading, writing, and literacy throughout his or her K-12 education.”
I see a strong connection between the Shanahan and Lonigan position to what David Dickinson and Michelle Porche wrote in their 2011 article for Child Development. When Dickinson was interviewed about the article for Vanderbilt University’s newsletter, he said:
“One preschool teacher behavior that predicted children’s growth was the frequency of sophisticated vocabulary use during informal conversations. Such exposure predicted children’s kindergarten vocabulary, which correlated with fourth grade word reading. Teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary also correlated with children’s kindergarten print ability, and through that word reading skill, the early vocabulary exposure indirectly affected grade-four reading comprehension.” on David Dickinson and Michelle Porche’s study published in Child Development, May/June 2011.
Now, I ask all you bakers out there:
How can we help early childhood teachers and parents understand that the conversations they have with their children may be the most important thing they can do to support the child’s later language and literacy development – far more important than teaching shapes, colors and the ABCs? And how can we help teachers understand that what dual language learn in those early conversations in their home languages really is of critical importance to informing all of the home language AND English literacy development that happens when the child enters school? I have observed so many preschool classrooms where alphabet lessons are taught every day and passive listening to books happens every day, but any child in the classroom could go three, four or more days without a single face to face conversation with that teacher. Conversations are even more lacking for children who don’t speak the teacher’s language. Here’s an article I wrote for Exchange with strategies. I hope you’ll share some suggestions here so we can continue to bake better cakes!