By: Kyle Snow, Ph.D.
There’s new research on how infants learn language. Here’s why it’s important:
1. We already knew that vocabulary acquisition was important to children’s success in school.
2. This new research tells us that how children process words (vocabulary) is also important. Dr. Ann Fernald, a researcher at Stanford University, explains the concept of language processing in this video and describes the study in this video.
3. Teachers can learn from the new research and adapt how they speak to children.
4. Teachers can make sure to give children time to process instructions and additional time to respond.
5. Programs that reach children very early on (like home visiting services that educate parents on children’s language development) and early education programs can make a difference.
A recent New York Times story highlighted the latest findings from a series of research studies related to children’s language development during late infancy (18-24 months and older). Dr. Anne Fernald has long studied how infants learn language. Her latest findings reveal income-based differences in children’s vocabulary starting as early as 18-months. What’s exciting about this research is that it both confirms and extends what we already know about the potential impacts of living in poverty on children's language development. And the more we know, the more we can positively impact children.
The new research adds to a growing body of work that identifies income-based disparities long before children enter school. In her work, Fernald found differences in vocabulary as early as 18-months of age, with a large vocabulary gap emerging by the time children reach 2-years. These results amplify the results from analysis of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth cohort, reported by Child Trends, which found disparities in general cognitive functioning as early as 9-months of age.
Vocabulary – Size and Speed Matter
Fernald’s research extends our current understanding by not just looking at the size of children’s vocabulary, but how children process words in their vocabulary. Consider what it takes to use vocabulary – a series of words is heard, their meaning is interpreted, and then some response (maybe none) is produced. “Everyone come here and each take a cookie” requires some pretty good vocabulary skills. Each child needs to figure out what the words mean, and then process what they mean within the rest of the sentence. Speed of processing is important because a child’s working memory (think of this as the mental space that is currently used to guide activity) is limited in size and duration – if a child spends too much energy and time trying to figure out what a single word means, he or she will not have as many resources to act on that information, and in this case, miss out on a cookie. While we have begun to recognize that the size of children’s vocabularies may differ based upon their family’s incomes, Dr. Fernald’s study is the first that I know of that looked explicitly at processing language. The resulting knowledge – not only do children from lower income homes tend to have smaller vocabularies as early as 18-months, they also process language less quickly than their peers from higher-income homes. The differences are so pronounced that at 24-months of age, children from low-income homes are processing language at same speed as children from higher-income homes could when they were 18-months old.
What does this mean for young children?
As summarized by Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, early experience affects brain development and lays the foundation for children’s development. We know from a wide range of research that disparities in children’s development and learning related to living in poverty persist and sometimes grow larger over time. This is especially true when there is no change in the nature of children’s experiences. In a recent paper, Drs. Clancy Blair and Cybele Raver concluded that “Poverty presents a remediable rather than a static set of environmental conditions that must be borne by families and children.” In other words, we can change the nature of children’s experiences. Programs like home visiting for new parents can affect the child’s language experience at home. Access to high quality early care and education outside of the home can extend the opportunities for children to learn and develop. Dr. Fernald’s findings that important disparities are present as young as 18-months underscores the need for high quality programming to be available as early as possible - before pre-kindergarten programs which generally begin at age 3.
The research tells us that by waiting to act until children are 4-years old, we have wasted precious time in closing known, predictable gaps in children’s learning and development. We also would have ignored the arguments of Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, who has argued that investments made earlier carry the greatest return on investment (see also this summary).
For teachers working with young children, these findings suggest the need to provide vocabulary-rich experiences for all children. It also means recognizing that children differ in how quickly they can act on instructions or respond to questions. While the differences in processing speed reported in the research are fractions of a second, even these small differences can be important. They suggest using language in ways that allow for children to completely process words and ideas before moving on to new words and ideas. Use short sentences. Also allow all children time to respond. Some of this may be habit – not calling on the first child to respond, for example. But considering that differences in how quickly children react may be due in part of differences in how they process language may provide new insight into their learning and behavior.
Learn More with these Additional Resources:
Author Q&A with Mary Benson McMullen, one of the editors of Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Focus on Infants and Toddlers – November 4-8
Research on Children’s Language Experiences:
The Early Catastrophe: The 30 million Word Gap by Age 3: The ground-breaking findings from the Hart and Risley study in 2003 underscored the different language experiences children have based upon whether their families lived in poverty or above the poverty line. Their work was largely considered to have importance in describing the differences in children’s language experience when they entered school.
This past April, The Terri Lynne Lokoff Child Care Foundation (TLLCCF) awarded NAEYC member Lisa Janis the 2013 Helene Marks Award as National Child Care Teacher of the Year! "It is such a gratifying feeling to know that everything I have been working for is being recognized! It's so rewarding to know other people acknowledge early childhood education as the foundation of children’s education," said Janis, in the June/July issue of TYC.
The Helene Marks Award is presented to the child care teacher who is selected from among the top ten applicants of the National Child Care Teacher Awards. The recipient receives the Helene Marks Award and the honor of being named the National Child Care Teacher of the Year and an additional $1,000.
We are so excited about the upcoming online Q&As featuring Annual Conference speakers and authors of our books and articles.
These online events feature experts on a range of early childhood topics who answer questions online. These events are free and open to everyone.
|Online Author Q&A|
If you've never participated in one of these online Q&A's give it a try. Think of how you might imporve your practice, solve a problem or learn something new through the information you reflect on in the author's book and pose your question.
Here are some details on the events for the rest of the year:
STEM Learning Through the Arts: Join Akua Femi Kouyate & Amanda Layton Whiteman, two of our Annual Conference Opening Keynote speakers, in an online Q&A on Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts. Ask questions before the conference session and lean how you can find synergies between STEM and the arts in your classroom. - October 21-25
Developmentally Appropriate Practice: Focus on Infants and Toddlers: Pose a question to Mary Benson McMullen, professor, researcher and one of the authors of a the new DAP books focused on infant and toddlers. Learn more about DAP and how you to apply it to your work with infants and toddlers. - November 4-8
Class Meetings: Teachers, you won't want to miss the December Q&A with Emily Vance, author of Class Meetings: Young Children Solving Problems Together. Ask questions and learn about how to use class meetings effectively to support positive changes in class and individual communication and problem-solving skills. - December 2-6.
Be sure to visit our Online Q&A page to participate!
Along with our coalitions and other national organizations, we are participating in a Twitter Storm to urge Congress to vote on a clean continuing resolution. Join us on Thursday, October 10 from 2 -2:30 pm (EST) for a #JustVote Twitter Storm! We invite groups to share stories, resources, and messages highlighting all of the shutdown issues affecting children and families and the reasons the government shutdown should end.
NAEYC put out a statement on Monday – Whole Child, Whole Budget – on the need to move forward with a real budget, using real appropriations bills and the right investments. The proposed approach in the House of Representatives to fund one program at a time for a few months is not workable and not the right solution to this impasse. Feel free to re-tweet the NAEYC statement link or post it to your Facebook!
Sample Twitter Storm Tweets (feel free to use):
1. Children and families deserve a federal budget that invests in them on behalf of all of us. #JustVote
2. Don't delay any longer. Pass the funding bills, invest in children now. #JustVote
3. Whole budget is needed to support the whole child and family. #JustVote
If You Don’t Have Twitter…
We are hearing from many that Congressional offices are not picking up their phones. However, calls are still being tallied through the below number.
Call your Representative toll-free: 1-888-659-9562 Wednesday through Friday, October 9 – 11.
Picking apart the funding program-by-program instead of a real appropriations bill is the wrong way to solve this impasse. Children and families don’t come in pieces, nor should the funding for the programs that help them prosper and reach their potential. It’s time to end the shutdown and to invest in our children and families.
Please share this invitation with all of your networks, families and friends
Saturday, October 5th is World Teachers' Day, and to celebrate we are sharing a few of the many teachers who inspire us!
By: Karen Nemeth
Sometimes our experiences help to make us better educators. But sometimes our beliefs based on those experiences can lead us astray. That is exactly what Dr. Linda Espinosa points out in her important new report, Challenging Common Myths About Young Dual Language Learners: An Update to the Seminal 2008 Report.
In the field of early childhood education, we certainly understand that young children think differently than adults. Their level of cognitive development means they are not just small grownups - they are unique and fascinating learners. Still, many people are subject to believing myths about young dual language learners (DLLs). They may assume children learn language just like they do as adults learning a second language.
Perhaps the most striking conclusion of Dr. Espinosa's report is that bombarding preschool DLLs with more English may actually result in LESS success in learning English. Full immersion in a new language may work for adults, but that's because adults have the cognitive ability to translate internally, because they already have a firm, long standing fluency in their first language.
Preschool DLLs are still in the process of learning their first language. They don’t yet know enough in either their home language or in English to form a robust foundation for their future learning, so they need access to what they have learned in both. A preschooler told me recently, "I just don't know all the rules of the world yet!" Dr. Espinosa is suggesting that, until children are old enough to understand all the rules of language in either language, they need support in both languages.
Think of it this way... A person may be fully bilingual, but there will be some vocabularies they know only in one language. Here’s an example. A bilingual woman recently introduced me for a presentation I would be giving to a Spanish speaking audience this way: "En este....en este... en este...Workshop!” Although she was fluent in both English and Spanish, having learned Spanish as a child, she had never had to use the Spanish word for workshop. That was a word she only knew in English. This is what happens as young children are developing. They know some things in one language and some things in the other. They need BOTH sets of words as funds of knowledge to learn new concepts and experience the full experience of language development.
Dr. Espinosa also makes it clear that learning in two languages is active, challenging work. Young children are certainly good at it. But, they are not "sponges". They need thoughtful, intentional teaching strategies and classroom environments that are designed specifically to meet their needs. Simply offering a high quality, English-only program won’t be sufficient for DLLs. The early education they do receive must be part of a seamless, coordinated system that extends from preschool through at least third grade. This may present many practical challenges since different agencies may be providing the programs at different points in a child’s educational career. DLLs make up about 25% of our current population of young children. They are the fastest growing segment of our population. Every school district can benefit from improving the systems in place for these children and collaborating with every agency that serves them.
Something else to consider: as this growing body of research has built a clear case for the value of growing up bilingual with supports for both languages such as better working memory, enhanced executive function, ability to switch easily from task to task, and to persist in a challenging task – maybe we should be thinking about helping ALL children grow up with the benefits of learning and thinking in more than one language. As Dr. Espinosa states, “All children appear to benefit cognitively, linguistically, culturally, and economically from learning more than one language.” (p. 19)
In my book, Basics of Supporting Dual Language Learners: An Introduction for Educators of Children from Birth through Age 8, I’ve summarized some of the current research and included strategies for putting the research into practice. What does a linguistically and culturally appropriate classroom look like? What do administrators need to know about supervising and supporting staff in a diverse program? We answer questions like these and provide a basic introduction for teachers across the early childhood education age range.
The good news is that the new research summarized by Dr. Espinosa supports many of the developmentally appropriate teaching practices we all appreciate for early childhood education – but simply suggests that we use those strategies in more thoughtful ways that support new language learners. And, as Conor Williams says in his blog post about the Myths report, the advantages of growing up with two languages should be something we want for every child in our country.
For more information about teaching young DLLs, look for the DLL tips in every issue of Teaching Young Children or look for in-depth articles in Young Children such as the ones found here: http://www.naeyc.org/yc/resources_03_2013.
Karen Nemeth is an author, speaker and consultant on teaching young children who are dual language learners. She has written several articles and a book for NAEYC. She is on the board of NJTESOL/NJBE and is the co-chair of the National Association for Bilingual Education Special Interest Group on Early Childhood Education. She provides a wealth of information to support the field at her website: www.languagecastle.com.
How do you integrate your interests and passions into your work? Do you have plans to share your passions with the children in your program this year?
In the April/May 2013 issue of Teaching Young Children, author Jacky Howell wrote Following Your Passion: Introducing Young Children to Basketball which discussed ways teachers can share personal interests with children to help them learn. Here are some more ideas, adapted from an online discussion.
Sharing Your Passion by: Jacky Howell
I believe that teachers can and should share their interests and share who they are in the daily life of a classroom. It’s an important part of relationship building. Here are some things I’ve tried or have seen other teachers try.
Biography boards: When I visited the Hilltop Children’s Center in Seattle, Washington, I was struck that the teachers had created their own biography boards so families and children could learned about the teachers and staff who worked at the program.
I was inspired and created my own biography board. On mine I placed not only pictures of my family, but also my favorite basketball players, beach pictures, animals and more. Each year I taught, I updated my board with a current photo of my favorite NCAA team, University of Maryland Women's Basketball team, the Terrapins (U of MD team) and the WNBA team, the Washington Mystics. A small basketball net was always part of my classroom as was an autographed basketball. Just as we hopefully surround children with pictures and items of people and things they love, I believe strongly in the “bringing yourself to work” idea. Children naturally ask questions about the photos and items their teachers share in the classroom. These questions prompt the discussion and further exploration.
Special events: Sometimes teachers introduce a topic important to them as part of a special event to inspire children’s interest. One teacher who is very much interested in environmental awareness used Earth Day as a way to introduce recycling and caring for the school surroundings. Interesting questions evolved from this, including one on “how do you know what is trash?”
Passions teachers and children share: Caring for animals was always an ongoing topic of investigation in my classroom as we had animals that needed attention and, as one three year old said, needed “love”. Each year I found that the passion for pets and caring for animals was one that the children and I shared.
Do you have plans for sharing your passions this year? What are they?
We just wrapped up our very first International Institute which took place August 19-23rd at NAEYC Headquarters in Washington, DC. Nine leaders from six countries gathered for this five-day intensive event to learn about and share best practices for creating and supporting comprehensive early childhood systems.
We were truly humbled by the overwhelming enthusiasm of the participants who remained energized and engaged throughout the week. We shared, discussed, and explored NAEYC position statements, program accreditation standards, books, periodicals, and many other NAEYC resources. These presentations facilitated participants’ thinking about early childhood systems development in their countries.
From their unique cultural context, participants from The Philippines, Brazil, The Cayman Islands, Inner Mongolia, Panama, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates shared their strengths, lessons learned, and diverse approaches for supporting early childhood development. It is clear that as early childhood educators and advocates, we have a shared vision for young children and their families, despite the long distances between our home countries and the varying cultural perspectives from which we view the world.
We have much in common, As early childhood educators we all feel pressure to support families in understanding the importance of developmentally appropriate practices. Like parents here in the United States, parents across the globe are increasingly concerned that their young children learn reading and math skills in ways that are not aligned with their children's stage of development. Identifying resources that can help educators support parents’ understanding of appropriate learning activities in ways that truly prepare young children for academic success is a continuing challenge. As a group, we explored how NAEYC resources could help to address this challenge.
In our discussions throughout the week, we confirmed that early childhood educators in the US and around the world care deeply about their work and value membership in professional associations like NAEYC. Although NAEYC is a national association representing primarily US educators, there is great interest in the association in other countries. Participants in NAEYC’s International Institute believe there is a role for the association in their countries as well as the larger global community.
The time we spent together this August will lead to quality enhancements in the early childhood programs we touch. The Institute deepened our conviction for advocacy on behalf of all young children and their families.
I look forward to sharing more about NAEYC’s international efforts as they unfold.
Have you talked to early childhood educators from other countries? What did you find you had in common?
Director, Quality Enhancements Initiative
The June 2013 issue of Teaching Young Children (TYC) features a Q&A about teachers and cell phones. NAEYC Author Holly Elissa Bruno (What You Need to Lead an Early Childhood Program: Emotional Intelligence in Practice) also adds her thoughts about teachers using their personal cell phones in the classroom. What are your thoughts on teachers having cell phones in the classroom? Does your program have a policy on personal cell phone use?
Q: Dear Director Danni,
My coworkers and I often use our smartphones as resource tools. Although our program policy requires teachers to leave their smartphones in the staff room, I think we’re missing out. We could use the phones to capture the children in action, play new songs, email photos of children to theirfamilies, and more. How can we work with our director to make smartphones a tool in the classroom?
A: Dear Inquiring Teacher,
I agree that smartphone technology is wonderful! In the classroom, you can use it to document class projects and children’s developmental milestones; deliver literature, music, and other content in new ways; and communicate quickly with families—both with words and images. And, of course it lets you keep in constant touch with friends!
Oh, wait. That last one is the problem, isn’t it?
People are used to texting, posting, and calling at all times. Sometimes they can’t resist the temptation to do it while at work. I’ll bet you know at least one colleague with this problem. Such minor but frequent distractions are harmful to a safe and productive classroom environment. It’s also hard to monitor. Frustrated directors have responded with blanket prohibitions on personal phones in the classroom.
Here’s another problem: It is not appropriate for teachers to use their personal smartphones to record children in the classroom. There are confidentiality issues related to pictures, video clips, and emails on personal devices. For example, you might accidentally share a child’s photo on a social networking site that would probably make families uncomfortable - and should concern you, too.
Besides, I think programs—not individual staff—should carry the cost of all equipment used for teaching and learning. If smartphone technology brings good tools to the classroom, then the program needs to invest in those tools. Ask your director if the program can purchase tablets for each classroom. They have the same functionality as smartphones (except for the phoning) and can be setup to support communications from the program’s email address. Tablet prices are coming down rapidly. Even if your director looked at this option a few months ago, have him or her look again.
What are your thoughts on teachers having cell phones in the classroom? Does your program have a policy on personal cell phone use?
With so much to see and do, attending the NAEYC Annual Conference & Expo can be both exciting and daunting! To make the most of your experience, it’s important to have a game plan. Here are some tips* for what to do before, during, and after the conference. We want to hear from you, too, so share your tips below.
Before the Conference
Decide what you want to get from the conference and what your goals are.
Use the Itinerary Planner to prepare your schedule. Think about: the topics most relevant to your work, the sessions that address your professional development needs, and which special events you want to attend. Include time to explore the Exhibit Hall, network with others, and explore Dallas, TX.
Need to document your conference attendance to meet program or state requirements? Find out in advance what is required so you can get credit for participating.
Decide how you will organize the information and handouts you’ll collect at the conference.
Pack business cards or address labels with your contact information to share with all the new colleagues you’re going to meet.
Pack comfortable clothes and shoes. Leave enough room in your suitcase to carry your materials and purchases home, or plan to mail them back.
During the Conference
Dress in layers so you can stay comfortable.
Get as much out of the sessions as possible.
Ask questions, respond to presenters, and get clarification if there’s something you don’t understand.
Take part in small group activities and discussions.
Talk to other attendees and share your contact information to stay in touch after the conference.
Give yourself plenty of time to explore the Exhibit Hall. Carry water and snacks with you. Know that some men’s restrooms will be converted to women’s restrooms in the convention center to accommodate the large number of female participants. Male attendees should find out early where the “nonconverted men’s rooms” are.
If you have a problem and don’t know how to solve it, go to the NAEYC Conference Headquarters for assistance.
Pace yourself so that you have almost as much energy by the end of the conference as you had at the beginning.
After the Conference
Take time to unwind and decompress!
Catch up on your responsibilities at work and at home before planning how you’ll share what you’ve learned.
Organize your handouts, business cards, and notes.
Make copies of handouts to share with colleagues.
*Includes ideas from an article that appeared in the September 2005 issue of Young Children on pages 68-71, by Margaret A. McGuire.
How do you prepare for the NAEYC Annual Conference? What tips do you have for maximizing your conference participation? How do you share information with colleagues when you return home?