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Time to debunk the adage that children should be seen, not heard
Laura Justice is testing the extent to which hearing the spoken language in preschool helps develop reading skills later.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Laura Justice is testing the extent to which hearing the spoken language in preschool helps develop reading skills later.

By Anne Bromley

Laura Justice has visited many preschool classrooms, but the one where “there was not a peep from the kids” stays with her.

A place like that just makes her want to cry, Justice said. The teacher gave directions and the pupils did what they were told.

Leaning forward in her chair, Justice, an assistant professor at the Curry School, demonstrated a different approach. A teacher would say, “Good morning, children!” in an exuberant voice, tell stories, include lots of questions to engage the children and let them respond, give lots of praise and encouragement and make sure there’s singing and reading aloud.

That kind of classroom isn’t just more fun. Talking to young children prepares them for reading, too, Justice said.

Learning to talk is a milestone for babies, one of the hallmarks of humankind, and one of the most important facets of cultures around the world, she said. Children learn their native language naturally, absorbing from day one the patterns and rhythms they hear from the people around them.

“Grammar, knowledge of the sound system, vocabulary — these are all natural achievements,” Justice said.

If children don’t hear the language spoken a lot, not only will it weaken their oral knowledge and skills, but it will also delay reading development and academic achievement. It’s a drawback not just for children who have hearing impairments, but also at-risk children — children who have other developmental disabilities, stressful home situations or live in poverty.

Justice is one of seven researchers nationwide to receive a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to test the intensity of teaching language skills in preschool curricula and how it affects student reading level and success in elementary school. The new four-year study is one of several projects she is involved in to assess the oral language skills of children at risk and determine ways for preschool teachers to help students improve those skills.

She and researchers Alice Wiggins, Robert Pianta, Sara Rimm-Kaufman, Khara Pence and Karen La Paro are seeking to determine, through random clinical trials, whether certain preschool curricula work better than others to boost language, literacy and social skills. Through Justice’s project, the Curry School is teaming up with Culpeper Head Start, Culpeper County Schools and Wise County Schools to evaluate a specific language-focused curriculum along with the 10 curricula the schools are currently using.

“There are hundreds of preschool curricula out there, but no evidence of their effectiveness,” Justice said. “This is a more scientific investigation that will look for what works.”

The curriculum she is testing emphasizes “a language-rich classroom,” as she called it. Recent research has shown that the way parents and caretakers talk to their children and allow them to respond in the first three years of life makes a huge difference later in developing reading skills.

According to Justice, teachers who talk to their pupils and allow them to respond and use language should boost the academic level of at-risk children to that of more privileged children.

She mentioned a groundbreaking book published in 1995, “Meaningful Differences,” that examined youngsters’ exposure to language. The authors posited that in a year’s time, children from welfare families were exposed to 3 million words while children of professionals were exposed to 11 million words. The latter group of students had a bigger vocabulary and was doing better in school several years later.

Whether socio-economic or cultural differences account for the paucity of language use at home, preschool can level the playing field and give at-risk children the opportunity to reach their more affluent peers academically, she said.

Justice and her research team will visit the preschools to pretest students on language and math skills, will sit it on classes monthly and document qualities of classroom and curriculum.

But the grant offers more benefits to teachers and pupils — it provides for free books at the beginning and end of the yearlong study.

“Reading stands for a lot more than just literacy in a child’s world,” Wiggins said.


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