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:

 

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:

 

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:

 

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:

 

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).

 

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).

 

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.

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