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Applying lessons from the lab to the classroom: Using play to promote language development.

Applying Lessons from the Lab to the Classroom:
Using Play to Promote Language Development
Haruka Konishi1 Megan Johanson1 Jennifer Chang Damonte1
Roberta Michnick Golinkoff1 Kathy Hirsh-Pasek2
University of Delaware1; Temple University2
[To be translated into German] In C. Kieferle, E. Reichert-Garschhammer, & F.
Becker-Stoll, F. (Eds.) Sprachliche bildung von anfang an - Strategien, konzepte und
erfahrungen. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
This research was funded by grants to the fourth and fifth authors: From NSF (SBR9615391),
NIH (R01HD050199), and IES (R305A100215; R305A110284).
Applying Lessons from the Lab to the Classroom: Using Play to Promote Language
If falling in love is anything like learning how to spell, I don't
want to do it. It takes too long. -- Glenn, age 7
As Glenn observes above, learning to spell takes a long time. So does learning language
and learning how to read. Some children sail through and some have a harder time. Much of this
has to do with the kind of environment children find themselves in. Some environments promote
language acquisition and pre-literacy skills while others are less than ideal. Hart and Risley
(1995) reported that by three years of age, children from low socio-economic status (SES) homes
hear roughly 25% of the words that pass the ears of their peers of higher SES. Their classic study
found that the amount of parental input is tightly linked to differences in children’s vocabulary
size. At three years of age, children of professional-level families knew 1,116 words while
children of families on welfare knew but 525 words. Moreover, follow up studies demonstrate a
strong correlation between children’s vocabulary size at age three and their Peabody Picture
Vocabulary Test scores (a measure of receptive vocabulary) at age nine. In the U.S., the gap in
children’s academic achievement (e.g., vocabulary size, literacy) is often associated with SES
(Hoff, 2009).
Additionally, early language abilities have tremendous consequences for children’s later
literacy skills (Dickinson, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2010; Fernald, Zangl, Portillo, &
Marchman, 2008). Strong early language skills help children become skilled readers. Children
need to master both phonemic awareness and decoding to learn to read. Phonemic awareness, or
the idea that spoken words are comprised of separate sounds (phonemes) (Liberman, 1973), is
necessary to understand how English orthography works. English is an alphabetic written
language; written symbols (i.e., letters) systematically represent the smallest units of sound
(phonemes) (Scarborough, 2009). Similarly, decoding printed words requires learning the
correspondences between particular letters or letter groups and phonemes (Scarborough, 2009).
A longitudinal study by Storch and Whitehurst (2002) found a moderate-sized effect (d = .43) of
oral language ability on fourth-grade reading, supporting the assertion that early language
experiences are important to children as they build their vocabularies and engages them in the
mechanics of reading.
In America, the correlation between children’s SES and academic achievement is
sometimes confounded by the fact that some of these low performing students are children of
immigrant parents. The poverty rate for immigrant families is 21% compared to 14% in
native-born families in the US (Haskins, Greenberg, & Fremstad, 2004). To what extent is this
trend generalizable to other countries? A similar phenomenon appears to exist in Germany. The
latest Program for the International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that on average, the gap
between second-generation immigrant children and native students in Germany is 90 points, an
educational deficit that is the equivalent of approximately two years of study. This report
demonstrates the tremendous challenge facing the German educational system. However, the
large size of the German immigrant population does not fully account for immigrant children’s
underperformance in German schools. Immigrant societies such as Canada, Australia, and New
Zealand, show significantly better results than Germany (OECD, 2002). Second-generation
15-year-olds with an immigrant background in Canada score three times higher on average than
their counterparts in Germany. In Germany, the gap between native and immigrant children is
particularly pronounced in those cases with poor immigrant families that do not speak German
(Auernheimer, 2006). Additionally, German primary schools appear to have difficulty alleviating
the socio-economic and cultural problems that immigrant students face (Ibid.).
The United States has not fared much better than Germany if at all. The American
education system still labors under a persistent 25-year achievement gap. In fact, since the
implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2001, kindergarten through third grade classrooms
across America have become narrowly focused on reading and math test scores. A report from
the Alliance for Childhood (Miller & Almon, 2009) suggests that 30% of kindergarten teachers
in Los-Angeles and New York claim to have no time for student-chosen activities or play.
Approximately 80% of the teachers interviewed indicate that they spend 20 minutes each day in
test preparation. For example, children often spend a significant amount of time memorizing new
vocabulary words for their upcoming test. The motivation behind the attempt to increase
children’s vocabulary input is essential for trajectories of language and literacy acquisition (Hart
& Risley, 1995). However, the techniques used to increase vocabulary are antithetical to 40 years
of research on language development (Harris, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2011).
The large literature on language and literacy acquisition can provide a useful guide to
fostering strong language skills in children. Distilling from the literature, we suggest six
principles that can be used to promote language learning in children of all backgrounds,
including children of immigrants who do not speak the country’s language in their homes. We
present each principle and supporting evidence, arguing that language development is enhanced
by playful learning rather than from rote memorization.
Principle 1. Children learn the words that they hear most
Research unequivocally shows that the amount of input children receive influences their
language acquisition (Goodman, Dale, & Li, 2008; Hart & Risley, 1995; Hoff, 2003; McCartney,
Scarr, Philips, & Grajek, 1985; Naigles & Hoff-Ginsberg, 1998; Smolak & Weinraub, 1983).
When learning to speak, children’s first words tend to be the words that they heard spoken most
often by their mothers (Harris, Barrett, Jones, & Brookes, 1988; Huttenlocher, Haight, Bryk,
Seltzer, & Lyons, 1991; Naigles & Hoff-Ginsberg, 1998). In fact, research demonstrates that the
amount of early language exposure predicts children’s later vocabulary growth rate (e.g., Hart &
Risley, 1995; Huttenlocher et al., 1991). Again, there are marked SES differences: parents of
lower SES talk to their children less than higher SES parents (Gottfried, 1984; Heath, 1989),
affecting their later language development beginning in early childhood.
Along with the sheer amount of words that children hear, the variety of words they
encounter is also a crucial component of language development. Research shows that children
who are exposed to a wider variety of words will use a greater diversity of words in their own
speech (Huttenlocher, Waterfall, Vasilyeva, Vevea, & Hedges, 2010). Lexical richness (number
of different word types) in children’s input is positively correlated with the level of children’s
vocabularies, both in terms of understanding other’s speech and formulating their own speech
(Bornstein et al., 1998). Moreover, the ratio of word types to the total word count more
accurately predicts children’s vocabulary development than just the total number of different
word types that children encounter (Hoff, 2003; Hoff & Naigles, 2002; Huttenlocher et al., 1991;
Pan, Rowe, Singer, & Snow, 2005). Perhaps of even greater importance than the ratio of word
types to total word count is the exposure to sophisticated words that children are unlikely to
already have (Dickinson, Flushman, & Freiberg, 2009; Malvern, Richards, Chipere, & Durán,
2004). Such sophisticated input may allow children to expand their vocabulary.
Parents are important for children’s vocabulary growth but so are teachers at childcare
facilities (Hoff, 2006; Hoff & Naigles, 2002; Hoff-Ginsberg, 1991; McCartney, 1984; NICHD
Early Child Care Research Network, 2000, 2002, 2005). Teacher’s input quality (the complexity
and variety) is crucial for children’s syntactic development (Huttenlocher, Levine, & Vevea,
1998; Huttenlocher, Vasilyeva, Cymerman, & Levine, 2002).
Much research examining the link between children’s vocabulary growth and teachers’
input has focused on book reading. Books provide a medium that facilitates vocabulary learning
through text, including the presentation of low frequency words (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001;
Weizman & Snow, 2001). Books provide the opportunity for repeated and varied exposure in a
context that is helpful and engaging for children (Elley, 1989). In addition to vocabulary gains,
storybook reading provides an opportunity to engage children in a conversation regarding the
meaning of the story, which in turn facilitates vocabulary learning (Feitelson, Goldstein, Iraqi, &
Share, 1993). In sum, both quantity and quality of input from a variety of sources influences
vocabulary development, allaying potential future language and literacy difficulties. The next
principle discusses the types of input that facilitates language development.
Principle 2. Children need to hear diverse examples of words and language structures
Children can attach a novel label to an object or action after a single exposure, an
occurrence termed fast mapping (Arunachalam & Waxman, 2011; Carey & Bartlett, 1978;
Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, Bailey, & Wenger, 1992; Kucker & Samuelson, 2012; Waxman, Lidz,
Braun, & Lavin, 2009). However, children’s understanding of a newly learned word is limited
and the ability to retain the mapping between a novel term and its referent in the real world is
short (Horst & Samuelson, 2008). Horst and Samuelson found that children struggle to retain an
object-label mapping over a 5-minute delay. Retaining a label-referent mapping over time is
crucial for slow mapping, the process by which children gain additional information about new
lexical entries and form adult-like representations of words (Kucker & Samuelson, 2012).
During the process of slow mapping, hearing words repeatedly and in varying contexts helps
children form a more complete representation of the newly learned term (Booth, 2009).
Part of knowing a word means being able to extend the newly learned name to other
appropriate category members, while at the same time not applying it to non-category members.
For example, knowing that cats say “meow” and dogs say “arf”, even though they share many
perceptual features, is an important part of the formation of complete and distinct concepts of
cats and dogs. Thirteen-month-old infants can succeed at this task by extending the label of an
object to new members of the same category (Waxman & Markow, 1995). Similar work has
compared children’s ability to extend novel words for objects and actions (Arunachalam &
Waxman, 2011; Imai et al., 2008; Waxman et al., 2009). In these studies children watched video
clips of unfamiliar actions with unfamiliar objects. Children heard a novel label for either the
action (e.g., “He’s pilking the balloon!”) or the object (e.g., “He’s waving the pilk!”; Waxman et
al., 2009). After viewing the event, 24-month-old children extended the novel noun even when
the action changed, but only extended the novel verb when provided with rich linguistic and
observational structure (e.g., “The man is going to pilk the balloon!”; Arunachalam & Waxman,
2011; Waxman et al., 2009).
Imai et al. (2008) looked at the mapping of novel nouns and verbs to similar objects and
events in English, Japanese, and Chinese. Again, nouns were learned and extended more easily
than verbs, but verb learning required different amounts of grammatical and pragmatic support
depending on the language. Specifically, Chinese-speaking children required pragmatic and
grammatical support while English-speaking children required only grammatical support. Thus,
children can learn a new noun or verb with limited exposure and can extend a noun to unfamiliar
objects, but require more linguistic and contextual support to extend a newly learned verb.
It is clear that word learning requires more than just exposure to the word over a single
teaching opportunity and sparse linguistic cues. The more exposure to new words, and the wider
the contexts of their use, the more complete children’s understanding of new words will be
(Elley, 1989). Since children with different backgrounds vary in the amount of adult language
exposure they experience (Weizman & Snow, 2001), it is important to ask how we can improve
children’s vocabularies. Can classroom experiences bring up children’s vocabulary levels? An
exploration of spontaneous adult language suggests that meal times promote more diverse and
complex language than reading books with children (Ibid.). However, in a shared book reading
experiment, children’s understanding of a word increased when adults provided scaffolding that
increased in difficulty each time that word appeared (Blewitt, Rump, Shealy, & Cook, 2009). For
example, first parents might ask the child to point to the label referent in a storybook (e.g., a
monkey). The next time the word ‘monkey’ appears parents might ask the child if they remember
seeing the monkey at the zoo. Finally, parents might ask the child what monkeys eat. This work
suggests that simply reading a story to a child will not automatically teach children new words.
Only certain methods of book reading (i.e., scaffolding) aid children in language development.
To summarize, children need diverse examples of word-object mappings and time to
process the full meaning of a word. Moreover, engaging children in increasingly difficult
questions about new words aids this process beyond simply providing definitions. The next
principle explores the relationship between grammar and vocabulary and the effect it has on
language development.
Principle 3. Vocabulary learning and grammatical development are reciprocal processes
Children’s vocabulary size and grammatical understanding not only increase
simultaneously (Dixon & Marchman, 2007), but also influence each other. First, syntactic
bootstrapping, the process of using syntactic elements in a sentence to determine the meaning of
a new word, enables children to infer the meaning of new words by attending to the linguistic
context in which the word is used (Gleitman, 1990; Gleitman, Cassidy, Nappa, Papafragou, &
Trueswell, 2005). For example, children use information about noun order in transitive sentences
to interpret novel verbs (Gertner, Fisher, & Eisengart, 2006). More specifically, children
interpret the first character named in a sentence as the agent of an event, not the patient.
Conversely, the second character named is interpreted as the patient, not the agent. In the
sentence ‘Mary kissed John’, Mary is the agent and John is the patient. However, this method
sometimes leads to incorrect interpretations, as in the sentence ‘Mary and John ran’, because
they are both the subjects and therefore both agents (Gertner & Fisher, 2012). Moreover, the
amount of syntactic information provided when learning a new verb is directly related to whether
children can extend the verb to events involving different objects (Arunachalam & Waxman,
2011; Imai et al., 2008). Children who heard the full sentence “The man is pilking the balloon!”
extended the label “pilking” to new scenes whereas children who heard a similar sentence but
with subject and object pronouns “He’s pilking it!” did not (Arunachalam & Waxman, 2011).
Arunachalam and Waxman (2011) propose that children need linguistic structure to interpret a
novel verb and the use of a known object (in this case, balloon) provides this information. Imai et
al. (2008) suggest that the amount of linguistic structure necessary to learn a verb may even vary
by language.
Several other factors affect children’s ability to learn new words, such as perceptual cues,
social cues, vocabulary size, and prior experience with the referent (Blewitt et al., 2009;
Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006; Jones & Smith, 2005; Kucker & Samuelson, 2012; Smith, Jones,
Landau, Gershkoff-Stowe, & Samuelson, 2002). In fact, the ability to map words onto novel
items interacts with infants’ vocabulary. Specifically, 18-month-old children with large spatial
vocabularies mapped a novel preposition (i.e., “She’s putting it toke!”) onto a novel spatial
relation (i.e., support) but children with smaller vocabularies detected a novel spatial relation
when hearing either a novel preposition or noun (Casasola & Bhagwat, 2007). Children did not
form the same mapping when a novel noun was presented (i.e., “It is a toke!”). Presumably,
these children recognize that prepositions must refer to relations and nouns do not. Infants with
smaller spatial vocabularies are uninhibited in their word-referent mapping, probably because
they do not have enough language knowledge to disrupt these mappings. In general, vocabulary
level is a better predictor of grammar than age is (Mariscal & Gallego, 2012).
In addition to using grammatical information to learn the meanings of novel words,
children can use their knowledge of vocabulary words to advance their grammatical knowledge.
Children’s vocabulary is a predictor of their grammar (Conboy & Thal, 2006; Mariscal &
Gallego, 2012) and children’s grammar benefits from hearing a known word in varying contexts.
For example, 4-year-old children’s syntactic abilities improved when they were exposed to
complex language (Huttenlocher et al., 2002). Additionally, in a book reading study, 4-year-old
children experienced a boost in understanding and producing passives after repeated experience
with passive sentences (Vasilyeva, Huttenlocher, & Waterfall, 2006).
In conclusion, vocabulary and grammatical ability are reciprocal processes and children
with weaker language skills may not benefit from language exposure to the same extent as their
peers who have a better understanding of language. To address this difference, specific language
interventions and educational programs must be put into place to provide extra support for
children who are struggling to learn language. The next three principles offer suggestions as to
how we can provide interesting, engaging, and meaningful interactions to boost children’s
language development.
Principle 4. Children more readily learn words for things and events that interest them
Children encounter numerous objects and events that are unfamiliar to them in their daily
lives. How do they choose which objects and events to attend to? Research suggests that children
are more successful in language learning when caregivers build on what children find appealing.
Pruden and colleagues discovered that infants as young as 10 months of age could associate a
label with interesting, perceptually salient objects (e.g., colorful, noisemakers) but not with
boring objects (e.g., a homogenous beige plastic bottle top opener) (Pruden, Hirsh-Pasek,
Golinkoff, & Hennon, 2006). The same is true for learning action words. Brandone, Pence,
Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek (2007) showed that children learned the names of actions they found
interesting at 22 months, but they did not learn the name for boring actions until they were 34
months old.
This finding, in conjunction with research in the joint attention area, highlights the
importance of the choice of topic when parents engage in conversation with children. Joint
attention occurs when two individuals simultaneously focus on an object or event (Baldwin,
1991; Bruner, 1978). This happens when one individual alerts the other to share a focus of
interest by pointing, eye-gaze, and other verbal and non-verbal cues. Joint attention stimulates
and promotes children’s early vocabulary learning (Akhtar, Dunham, & Dunham, 1991; Harris,
Jones, Brookes, & Grant, 1986; Tomasello, Mannle, & Kruger, 1986; Tomasello & Todd, 1983).
For example, children learn object names more easily when a parent identifies an object the child
is already paying attention to, as compared to when a parent labels an object that the child has
not shown interest in (Dunham, Dunham, & Curwin, 1993). In fact, children learn fewer words
in situations in which mothers redirect their attention rather than follow the child’s attention (e.g.,
Dunham et al., 1993; Hollich, Hirsh-Pasek, Tucker, & Golinkoff, 2000; Golinkoff, 1981). The
more parents redirect infants’ attention the fewer words toddlers learn (Baldwin & Markman,
1989; Carpenter, Akhtar et al., 1998; Carpenter, Nagell et al., 1998; Schmitt, Simpson, & Friend,
Another way to stimulate children’s interests, which benefits their vocabulary learning,
is to have children participate in symbolic play with their peers. Symbolic play refers to a
“story-related reality” (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2008), in which children take on identities of
fictional characters and enact a story using appropriate props and contextual descriptions
(Dickinson, Cote, & Smith, 1993; Nicolopoulou, McDowell, & Brockmeyer, 2006; Pellegrini &
Galda, 1990). Symbolic play engages children to use imagination, social skills, problem solving,
and group cooperation to participate in the story (Nicolopoulou, 1993). Children rely on verbal
communication to discuss aspects of the play itself such as major plot points, character
descriptions, the assignment of characters, and permissible behavior given a character’s role (e.g.,
what is acceptable behavior for a doctor) (Vedeler, 1997). While engaging in play, they work at
duplicating the talk associated with particular roles (e.g., talking like a doctor), making them use
more rare words and offering them opportunities to use specialized vocabulary (e.g.,
stethoscope) (Harris et al., 2011).
In addition, preschool children engage in discussion during pretend play centered on
language when inventing imaginary scenarios, using complex mental-state verbs (e.g., say, talk)
(Pellegrini & Galda, 1990; Pellegrini, Galda, Dresden, & Cox, 1991). Participation in pretend
play predicts language and reading skills at the kindergarten level (Bergen & Mauer, 2000;
Dickinson & Moreton, 1991; Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Pellegrini & Galda, 1990). Moreover,
there is evidence that the amount of time 3-year-olds engage in pretend play predicts to their
vocabulary size two years later (Dickinson, 2001a). In addition, pretend play also develops the
linguistic skills necessary for literacy (Nicolopoulou et al., 2006). As these examples illustrate,
playful activities increase children’s interest, attention, and motivation to learn, resulting in
improved language skills (Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 2003; Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, &
Singer, 2009; Singer, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006).
Principle 5. Interactive and responsive environments build language learning
What are the types of interactions that facilitate language development among children?
Children’s language skills appear to be strongly related to proximal measures of quality in
parent-child interaction such as sensitivity, cooperation, acceptance, and responsiveness
(Hirsh-Pasek & Burchinal, 2006; Landry, Smith, Swank, Assel, & Vellet, 2001; Tamis-LeMonda
& Bornstein, 2002; Wakschlag & Hans, 1999). However, what exactly does a sensitive,
interactive, and responsive parent-child interaction entail?
Sensitive and responsive environments involve interactive rather than passive contexts.
For example, passively hearing words through television does not guarantee that language
learning will occur (Kuhl, Tsao, & Liu, 2003; Roseberry, Hirsh-Pasek, Parish-Morris, &
Golinkoff, 2009), and indeed may take time away from adults who otherwise take turns in
interactions with children and share periods of joint focus and positive affect, providing the
scaffolding necessary to promote language development (Bradley et al., 1989; Bronfenbrenner &
Morris, 1998; Clarke-Stewart, 1973; Howes, 2000; Katz, 2001; Tomasello & Farrar, 1986). Thus,
it is important to talk with the child rather than talking at them since interactive contexts
encourage optimal language acquisition.
Another element of responsive interaction includes noticing children’s interests and
commenting on them. Studies show that physical or verbal reinforcement, and sensitivity to
children’s requests, interests, and feelings are significantly associated with academic
achievement and cognitive growth (Bornstein & Tamis-LeMonda, 1989; Burchinal, Campbell,
Bryant, Wasik, & Ramey, 1997; Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Howes, Phillips, & Whitebook,
1992; Howes & Smith, 1995; Landry et al., 2001). Additionally, in storybook settings, children
whose parents engage in conversations that go beyond the explicit information presented in a
storybook performed better on vocabulary measures as compared with children whose parents
focused primarily on the explicit message of the story (De Temple & Snow, 1992). Therefore,
sensitive parental interactions build on the child’s interests and perspective and encourage more
conversation rather than limiting it.
Sensitive interactions are especially beneficial when accompanied by rich linguistic input.
A study that investigated the effect of interactive book reading on the language and literacy
development of 4-year-olds demonstrated that children who were asked open-ended questions
and encouraged to engage in conversation scored significantly better on the Peabody Picture
Vocabulary Test III than children who were simply read to (Wasik & Bond, 2001). Similarly, a
longitudinal study that examined teacher-child conversations (with 4-year-olds), found that
exposure to higher quality conversations and richer vocabulary during free play and group book
reading related to children’s language comprehension and writing skills at the end of
kindergarten (Dickinson, 2001b; Tabors, Snow, & Dickinson, 2001). This was true even when
controlling for children’s language ability (i.e., the mean length of their utterances) at age three,
parental income, education, and home support for literacy (e.g., reading). In sum, interactions
that take the child’s perspective, encourage engaging conversation, and use rich linguistic input
facilitate language development.
Principle 6. Children learn best in meaningful contexts
Research on memory suggests that people learn best when information is presented in
integrated contexts rather than as a set of isolated facts (Bartlett, 1932; Bransford & Johnson,
1972; Bruner, 1972; Neisser, 1967; Tulving, 1968). For example, remembering a line in a
dramatic play is easier than the same words without context. The same is true for children.
Meaningful connections between words are also fostered in studies that use thematic play as a
prop for language development. Christie and Roskos (2006) find that children who learn
connected vocabulary for categories of objects like hammers, hard hats, screwdrivers, tool belts
(i.e., the category of building) better remember and use these words than children who do not
learn in an integrative way.
Additional support for children’s increased language production in meaningful contexts
comes from the work of Ferrara, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe, Golinkoff, and Lam (2011). To
investigate how play affects children’s use of spatial language (words like above, around,
through), parents and children were assigned to 1 of 3 conditions: free play with blocks, guided
play, or play with preassembled structures. In the free play condition, parents and children were
asked to play with a set of blocks as they would at home. In the guided play condition, the parent
and child were given five numbered photographs depicting the steps to build either a garage or a
helipad (much like the instructions one receives for IKEA furniture assembly). In the
preassembled play condition, a glued together model of the garage or the helipad was given to
the dyad. The results indicate that parents in the guided play condition produced significantly
higher proportions of spatial talk than parents in the two other conditions, and children in the
guided play condition produced significantly more spatial talk than those in the free play
condition. Thus, although interaction with blocks naturally elicits increased levels of spatial
language compared to other play contexts, children’s production of spatial words is especially
enhanced in guided play. Pedagogical approaches that employ scaffolded tasks with predefined
objectives (i.e., guided instruction) confer particular benefits for children.
Educational theory also suggests that guided play approaches promote superior learning,
retention, and academic achievement compared to direct instruction or mixed method practices
(Burts, Hart, Charlesworth, & Kirk, 1990; Burts et al., 1992; Hirsh-Pasek & Golinkoff, 1991;
Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006; Love, Ryer, & Faddis, 1992; Marcon, 1993; Roskos, Tabors, &
Lenhart, 2004). With guided play approaches, educators can structure an environment around a
general curricula goal by encouraging children’s natural curiosity and exploration (Fein &
Rivkin, 1986; Harris et al., 2011; Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009; Marcon, 2002). Research supports the
notion that vocabulary learning is effective when it takes place in a playful context. Han, Moore,
Vukelich, and Buell (2010) examined the influence of playful instruction on vocabulary
development. Low performing 4- and 5-year-olds from Head Start classrooms were randomly
assigned to either the explicit instruction only condition or the explicit instruction and play
condition. Using picture books, children in both conditions were taught 64 words in total, twice a
week for four months. The findings show that children in the explicit instruction and play
condition were significantly more likely to correctly name the target words at the end of the
study than those in the explicit instruction only condition. Research and educational theory
encourage conversations that take place between adults and children in the context of playful
activity and that build on children’s interests. Playful learning may offer children new lexical
concepts that are more likely to be retained than direct instruction alone (Harris et al., 2011;
Golinkoff, 1986).
In the United States and in other countries such as Germany, the gaps in academic
achievement between poor and advantaged students are substantial (Post & Pong, 2000; Rowan,
Cohen, & Raudenbush, 2004). The U.S. Department of Education (2001) reported the following
key findings regarding the effects of poverty on student achievement in reading and math. The
students were in third through fifth grade from 71 high-poverty schools. The students scored
below the norm in all years and grades tested. Students who lived in poverty scored significantly
worse than other students. Schools with the highest percentages of poor students scored
significantly worse than other schools. Numerous studies have found similar links between SES
and academic achievement. Additionally, poor students tend to continue underachieving
throughout grade school compared to their advantaged student counterparts (Strand, 2010).
Early language ability is crucial for children’s academic success. Language is implicated
in understanding mathematics (e.g., Jordan, Glutting, & Ramineni, 2010), in science (e.g.,
Bornstein et al., 2006) and in comprehending literature. Getting off to a poor language start will
hamper children’s later academic performance (Rowe, Raudenbush, & Goldin-Meadow, 2012).
Thus, the adoption of a set of evidenced-based principles for language learning could play an
important role in supporting optimal language development and in narrowing the achievement
gap. The principles offered here encourage a combination of pedagogical approaches, including
providing children with clear and easily digestible definitions as well as allowing children to
explore the meanings of words via playful interaction. Years of research in language
development support these principles. We know that by increasing the quantity (principle 1) and
diversity of language input (principle 2), recognizing the complementary roles of vocabulary and
grammar (principle 3), and having conversations about topics that interest children (principle 4),
in interactive (principle 5) and meaningful contexts (principle 6), we can help children in both
the US and Germany make significant progress in their language development and academic
achievement. Children of all backgrounds can profit from the implementation of these principles.
It is time to translate the rich research in our field into practice!
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The effects of a book reading technique called interactive book reading on the language and literacy development of 4-year-olds from low-income families were evaluated. Teachers read books to children and reinforced the vocabulary in the books by presenting concrete objects that represented the words and by providing children with multiple opportunities to use the book-related words. The teachers also were trained to ask open-ended questions and to engage children in conversations about the book and activities. This provided children with opportunities to use language and learn vocabulary in a meaningful context. Children who were in the interactive book reading intervention group scored significantly better than children in the comparison group on Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test-M and other measures of receptive and expressive language. Book reading and related activities can promote the development of language and literacy skills in young children.
Successful acquisition of the ability to read with comprehension is essential for school success and for full participation in the mainstream technological society. The ability to read with comprehension draws on multiple intellectual skills, with vocabulary and other language abilities being of central importance (Hoover and Gough, 1990; Rapp, van den Broek, McMaster, Panayiota and Espin, 2007). Although vocabulary has long been recognized as important to reading success (Anderson and Freebody, 1981; National Reading Panel, 2000), instruction in the early grades in the United States traditionally has focused heavily on issues related to decoding (i.e. letter knowledge, phonics and associated phonemic awareness ability). Explicit, intentional instruction related to building vocabulary has tended to begin around fourth or fifth grade and in some cases has been delayed until high school. But mounting evidence suggests that by attending narrowly to ‘basic skills’ at the expense of vocabulary, later reading comprehension abilities suffer.
This chapter explores how a combination of influences can lead to observable changes in language comprehension. It speculates about how such an integrated model could help us see atypical development as part of the continuum of typical development and how aging might affect the more normative processes of language learning. It uses one aspect of language development, word learning, as a test case. The chapter is organized in four sections. Firstly, it reviews theories that have been posited to account for word learning. It then describes a theoretical alternative that incorporates the best of the theories in an integrative framework and allows for testable hypotheses about word learning. This alternative is the emergentist coalition model (ECM). Thirdly, it examines the impact of an integrated theory for approaching questions in language development for both normal and atypical children. The ECM provides a richer picture of the factors necessary for language acquisition, and in particular lexical acquisition, to occur. © 2006 by Ellen Bialystok, Fergus I.M. Craik. All rights reserved.
Efforts to give preschool children a head start on academic skills like reading and mathematics instead rob them of play time both at home and school. Indeed, the scientific evidence suggests that eliminating play from the lives of children is taking preschool education in the wrong direction. This brief but compelling book provides a strong counterargument to the rising tide of didactic instruction on preschool classrooms. The book presents scientific evidence in support of three points: children need both unstructured free time and playful learning under the gentle guidance of adults to best prepare for entrance into formal school; academic and social development are inextricably intertwined, so academic learning must not trump attention to social development; and learning and play are not incompatible. Rather, playful learning captivates children's minds in ways that support better academic and social outcomes as well as strategies for lifelong learning. This book reviews research supporting playful learning along with succinct policy and practice recommendations that derive from this research. © 2009 by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Laura E. Berk, and Dorothy G. Singer. All rights reserved.