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Six principles of language development and how to support them in early childhood settings

Written By: Lisa-Maria Müller
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Lisa-Maria Müller, Chartered College of Teaching

This research summary is based on a talk by Prof Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, which you can access here.

Early childhood practitioners have an essential role to play in supporting children’s language development. It is, after all, with them that many children spend most of their waking hours. It is therefore essential that early childhood practitioners develop an understanding of the principles of language development and how best to support it in their practice. This summary outlines six basic principles of language acquisition that have been confirmed in numerous studies over the past decades of linguistic research. After discussing each principle, we suggest a few ways in which early childhood practitioners could build on this knowledge to support children’s language development in their settings.

1) Children learn what they hear most

It is well established in the research literature that there is a link between the amount of language children hear and their own language development. Simply put, the more language children hear, the more words they produce. This is because children use statistical learning processes (unconsciously, of course) to deduce patterns of sounds and words in the language they hear (Saffran et al., 1996). It has been suggested that one of the reasons why amount matters is that it increases processing speed (Weisleder and Fernald, 2013). In this study, researchers compared how much input children received from their caregivers. Those who received more input were more efficient in processing familiar words aged 24 months and had a larger vocabulary. This shows that the amount of input matters.

Implications for your setting:

  • Ensure that children, individually and as a group, receive rich language input through conversations, stories or songs
  • Provide caregivers with strategies for how best to support their children’s language development at home and encourage them to use the language they feel most comfortable and fluent in.

 

2) Children learn words for things and events that interest them

Children are agents of their learning and this equally applies to word and language learning. It has been shown repeatedly that children are more likely to learn words that they are interested in; a phenomenon that has been described as the principle of relevance (Bloom, 1993). It is based on the idea that relevance is ‘the single property that makes information worth processing’ (Sperber and Wilson, 1986, p. 46). This means that children will attach labels to things that are interesting to them (Pruden et al., 2006). They are also more likely to keep paying attention if both adult and child pay joint attention, rather than if the child has to look at an object that the adult finds interesting (McGillion et al., 2017).

Implications for the classroom:

  • Pay attention to what children are looking at and support them to learn what they are interested in. Follow their lead
  • When reading to children, pick books that are relevant to children’s lives and interests. This helps them to picture themselves as readers (Ward, 2012).

 

3) Interactive and responsive environments support language learning

Interaction is key to language learning. In practice, this means talking with children rather than talking at children (Tamis LeMonda et al., 2014). While the first principle highlights the importance of language input, i.e. the amount of language children hear, it is important to remember the importance of interaction, questions and turn-taking. Other strategies include:

  • expanding on what children are saying
  • noticing what they are interested in and commenting on it
  • labelling what you are looking at
  • asking questions and waiting for children to answer/react.

 

It is important for children’s language development that adults wait for their reactions instead of simply talking at children (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015; Catmill et al., 2013). In a study looking at the impact of quantity versus quality of input, researchers found that quality alone and quality in combination with quantity mattered most. Quantity, i.e. the amount of input, alone only played a minor role in children’s language development (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015). A seminal yet controversial book (Hart and Risley, 1995) argued that differences in children’s language development are due to their socio-economic statuses. But newer evidence suggests that the picture is a lot more complex than that, and that there is actually a lot of variability in terms of the quality and quantity of input that children receive from their caregivers. So, it is true for all groups of children, no matter what socio-economic background, that back and forth, interactive conversations have a positive impact on children’s language development (Masek et al., 2021).

Interestingly, interactive video chat can be as effective for children’s language development as face-to-face interaction. But simply watching a video passively does not have the same positive effect (Roseberry et al., 2014).

Interruptions during learning sequences can have a negative impact on word learning. A study comparing word learning in toddlers (Reed et al., 2017) showed that children learned new words better when the learning session was not interrupted. This highlights the importance of continuing a conversation as long as a child is interested in the topic.

Brain imaging data sheds further light on these findings and shows that 4-6 year olds who have had more contingent, i.e. more interactive conversations that follow the child’s conversational lead, show more activation in Broca’s area (also known as the motor speech area) – an area of the brain that is crucial for language processing (Romeo et al., 2018; 2021).

This has important implications for early childhood settings:

  • Make sure to talk with children rather than talking at them, waiting for their reactions, building on what is interesting to them and expanding on what they say
  • Where possible, share with caregivers the importance of interaction and contingency, so that they can build on your work when speaking to their children at home
  • Ensure that word learning sessions are not interrupted, so they can have the most impact.

 

4) Children learn best in meaningful contexts

Context is essential for children’s early word learning. Studies looking at word learning during play showed that children learned more words in situations where these words were referring to objects they were playing with than without that context (Fisher et al., 2013). For example, block playing provides an excellent context for children to learn the shapes and colours of building blocks but also spatial words. A study with 4-year-olds showed that block playing provides an excellent context for children to learn spatial words, which in turn positively impacts their outcomes in science later in life (Ferrara et al., 2011).

  • Make sure to always present words in context and to relate them to what children are doing. This will help children to contextualise the new knowledge and improve their word learning
  • Share with parents how activities such as block building provide many opportunities to develop children’s vocabulary, starting from colours and shapes to spatial words, and encourage them to use such activities in their home languages to help develop children’s full linguistic repertoire.

 

5) Children need to learn diverse examples of words and language structures

It is also important that children hear rich and diverse language to develop their vocabulary skills. Gestures supporting word learning can have an additional benefit. Studies on academic language development show that children who heard more ‘academic’ vocabulary aged five had larger vocabularies in second grade (Year 3), which in turn positively impacts reading development and academic achievement (Weizmann and Snow, 2001; Huttenlocher et al., 2002).

  • Gradually introduce a broader range of vocabulary and synonyms, including more complex and academic words, ideally building on children’s interests. For example, if a child is particularly interested in dogs, dinosaurs or construction sites, this might provide an opportunity to introduce a wider range of dog or dinosaur breeds and broaden the range of construction vehicles that children can name
  • Share with parents the importance of academic language development and how they can best support this at home. For multilingual families, it is particularly important to highlight the notion of ‘domain-specific’ language knowledge, e. the fact that children will only learn words for the contexts in which they use either of their two or more languages. For example, if a child uses English only at nursery and Farsi only at home, it is unlikely that the child will learn nursery-specific words in Farsi. Reading books covering a wider range of contexts can help develop children’s language skills across all their languages.

 

6) Vocabulary and grammatical development are reciprocal processes

Vocabulary and grammar develop in synchrony during the first years of a child’s life. Vocabulary can help children to learn grammar and vice versa. Sometimes, grammatical context helps children to learn new words (see principle four) (Levine et al., 2020). This is why it is so important to teach new words in the context of rich grammatical structures, not in isolation. Word lists alone are not the most effective way to teach children new words.

  • Introduce new words in the context of rich grammatical structures rather than relying too heavily on word lists
  • For multilingual children, their vocabulary and grammar knowledge in each language is also related (Conboy and Thal, 2006). This is why it is important that caregivers are encouraged to speak to their children using a wide range of vocabulary and rich grammatical structures. Reading books in the home language can further support this.
References
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  • Cartmill EA, Armstrong BF, Gleitman LR et al. (2013) Quality of early parent input predicts child vocabulary 3 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(28): 11278–11283.
  • Conboy BT and Thal DJ (2006) Ties between the lexicon and grammar: Cross‐sectional and longitudinal studies of bilingual toddlers. Child Development 77(3): 712–735.
  • Ferrara K, Hirsh‐Pasek K, Newcombe NS et al. (2011) Block talk: Spatial language during block play. Mind, Brain and Education 5(3): 143–151.
  • Fisher KR, Hirsh‐Pasek K, Newcombe N et al. (2013) Taking shape: Supporting preschoolers' acquisition of geometric knowledge through guided play. Child Development 84(6): 1872–1878.
  • Hart B and Risley TR (1995) Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H Brookes Publishing.
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  • Masek LR, McMillan BT, Paterson SJ et al. (2021) Where language meets attention: How contingent interactions promote learning. Developmental Review 60: 100–961.
  • McGillion M, Herbert JS, Pine J et al. (2017) What paves the way to conventional language? The predictive value of babble, pointing, and socioeconomic status. Child Development 88(1): 156–166.
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