Maximizing the language acquisition benefits of preschool

While the so-called “word gap” between children from low and high socioeconomic circumstances continues, as it has for decades, to get much attention, researchers are continuing to dig deeper into the quantity and quality of language with which young children interact. There is more to successful language acquisition than just pouring more words into their ears. A new study from a University of Miami (FL) team led by Lynn Perry adds some small-scale evidence to support the primacy of quality over quantity in language interaction, but also adds a twist.

The twist is perhaps the most interesting part. Rather than focusing on the much-studied parent-child interactions at home, Perry and company looked at language interaction for children in a daycare setting, recording and analyzing the quantity and quality of language in five-minute increments during forty-two recording days over a full year. This includes adult-child and peer-peer interactions in both structured and unstructured situations. Using the Language ENvironment Analysis (LENA) device, the researchers were able to collect data on the quantity of language expressed by each child, the quantity of language heard, differentiation of adult versus peer language, and language quality as defined by conversational turns between children and adults or peers (as opposed to passive language reception). No data were collected on content of language heard or expressed via recording.

All the children in the daycare center selected for study were between the ages of two and three, and all tested below the 30th percentile in expressive vocabulary size at the beginning of the study—just the type of kids whose exposure to language needs examination and perhaps intervention. Though only thirteen children ultimately participated in the full study, a sufficient number of recordings were collected to analyze the data. Children’s expressive vocabulary was tested at three time points—one month prior to the first recording date, approximately six months into the study, and one month after the final recording date—using the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory Words and Sentences form (MCDI). The goal was to determine which, if any, aspects of language interaction correlated with changes in children’s language usage as recorded on the LENA device and via MCDI scores over time.

Language usage patterns showed a significant relationship between children's input from peers and their own vocalizations; in other words, kids who vocalized more also tended to receive more from other kids. Talking begets more talking. There was also a significant relationship between children's conversational turn-taking with adults and their own vocalizations, such that children who spoke more also engaged in more turn-taking. However, the quantity of input that children received from adults was negatively correlated with their own vocalizations. Though it is necessary for adults to talk for turn-taking to occur, evidence suggests that simply directing more words at a child can be detrimental to his or her own usage.

Interestingly, vocalizations of all types occurred most frequently during periods of structured activity, especially the beneficial conversational turn-taking, both with adults and peers. The analysts determined that, overall, 72 percent of an average day in the daycare classroom was spent in unstructured activities (outdoor play, lunchtime, etc.) and just 28 percent in structured activities (storytelling, circle time, etc.). As the call for more and better preschool programming grows, this script may need to be flipped if such a setting is to contribute significantly to language acquisition and development.

All students greatly increased their MCDI scores from the beginning of the year to the mid-point; all but one child did the same from the mid-point to the end of the year. These results were not surprising but, consistent with other research, conversational turn-taking emerged as a prime correlate to both increased language usage and increased MCDI scores. This was true of both adult and peer interactions, although conversation with adults was more closely correlated than conversation with peers.

The sample here is too small—again, just thirteen young children—to generalize the outcomes, but these correlational results for youngsters previously known to have limited expressive language suggest that concrete steps can be made in the preschool setting to support growth in this area. As preschool programs become more widespread, encouraging structured activities that pay purposeful and frequent attention to conversational turn-taking with adults and plentiful opportunities for children to hear and use language together are must-haves.

SOURCE: Lynn K. Perry, et al, “A year in words: The dynamics and consequences of language experiences in an intervention classroom,” PLOS ONE (July, 2018).

Jeff Murray
Jeff Murray is the Ohio Operations Manager of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute,