Creating a Language-Rich Environment Increases Literacy Potential in Young Children

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"Maria said the cutest thing today..."

Parents are always amazed at new words their children use. Every parent has probably said "Where did she come up with that?" The answer, of course, is that the child heard it in the home or at childcare. These are the two places where children spend most of their time, and where they learn to communicate with others.

But the acquisition of new words is more than just a "cute stage" children go through. It is an essential part of their literacy development. Children learn to use language when their parents talk and interact with them in everyday conversation. And researchers have found that the number of words spoken to children in the first three years of life and the quality of the feedback they receive have a significant impact on their success in school.

Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children (Hart and Risley, 1995) is a study of 42 families with children 3 years old and younger. The researchers videotaped family interactions and measured the number of different spoken words per hour a child heard at home from infancy to age 3. They counted only those words spoken by family members, other caring adults and older children - not words heard on radio or television.

The researchers then measured language proficiency at ages 7, 8 and 9. The results showed a dramatic difference between children whose parents actively engaged them from birth on, as contrasted with those parents who seldom conversed with them and relied only on basic vocabulary.

The authors found big differences based primarily on how much parents interacted with their children, according to Scott McConnell, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology and interim director of the Center for Early Education and Development University of Minnesota. High-income families talked with their children about six times more than families in the other socioeconomic groups. As a result, by age 3 children in these affluent families had at least six times as many words in their vocabularies as did children living in welfare households.

McConnell says even parents who don't have extensive vocabularies can easily overcome this difference. "The breadth of speech is important, but it is through regular and frequent verbal interactions with their parents that children increase their own language skills," McConnell said.

All parents can help children develop language skills through these kinds of interactions:

Speaking and listening

1. Talking with children about their daily exper-iences (not just yours).

2. Having them describe objects, events and relations.

3. Doing fun things with language, like making up stories and poems, and playing rhyming games.

Reading and writing

1. Writing in different ways: drawing, scribbling and making letter-like forms.

2. Reading a variety of materials, including storybooks, signs and symbols, recipes and the newspaper.

3. Dictating stories to an adult who transcribes them and reads them out loud.

A literacy-rich environment - at home and at childcare - encourages children to take an active role in their own learning, interacting with other children, as well as adults. Adults should ask questions, but not direct a child's responses or dominate activities. Parents and caregivers should be open to spontaneous conversation and encourage young children to express themselves freely and easily.

Research shows that young children who are given time and attention, whether through sharing books, playing word games, describing things they've seen and done, or just drawing pictures and talking about them, will have a step up in acquiring language skills necessary to move quickly and confidently into literacy.
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