Literacy acts in Early Years involve more than merely reciting a text, viewing pictures on the page or learning new vocabulary. Literacy is a dynamic process, which not only involves an individual and a text, but rather a “transpersonal” phenomenon simultaneously involving “social, cultural, and linguistic acts” (Cummins, 2005, p. 98). With this understanding in mind, the purpose of this Week Ahead will be to demonstrate how parents can develop children’s language abilities through exploring text and print resources (e.g. picture books) to develop and scaffold children’s language abilities.
Given the fact that “language and literacy development begins within the home and through family experiences,” many researchers have suggested that parents be trained in using stories to serve as a foundation for “decontextuali[s]ed discussions” which has been correlated positively with gains in language and literacy development in Early Years (Jimenez, 2006, pp. 431, 433; Sehlaoul, 2008, p. 288). The following studies provide insights into how parents can utilise literacy acts to develop their children’s language abilities at home.
The Hu and Commeyras Study
The Hu and Commeyras (2008) study sought to investigate how utilizing wordless picture books in conjunction with literacy events, such as storytelling, would enable a young Chinese elementary school student to further develop her spoken, written, and reading abilities in both English (L2) and Chinese (L1). The researchers cite the fact that very few studies have focused on bi-literacy among individuals who use both Chinese and English in their daily lives (pp. 1-2, 5). The child in this study had only been in the United States for a month and had recently started attending English classes at an Early Years setting (p.5). Chaochao was required to meet with the researcher, three times a week for ten weeks to discuss ten different wordless children’s picture books about animals, school, and the seasons (pp. 5-6).
When the researcher and Chaochao met on Mondays, they engaged in pre-reading activities where the researcher assessed Chaochao’s knowledge concerning the pictures in the book by asking her to name the pictures. In addition, the researcher familiarised the little girl with the content of the story and presented word labels based on the textbook pictures. After this, she was allowed to tell a story about the pictures in the book in both English and Chinese. In addition to recording these sessions, the researcher transcribed her stories and “corrected the grammar of Chaochao’s sentences and wrote the correct sentences on cards” which were to be utilized during the second meeting. On Wednesdays, Chaochao engaged in what the researcher referred to as “reading activities” and was thus allowed to tell her story again, read flashcards containing English and Chinese vocabulary that she used in her stories on Mondays, in addition to reading “the biliterate text that [the researcher] had made.” On Fridays, she participated in post-reading activities. She was allowed to retell her story again while the researcher expanded on sentences and words that Chaochao used during the previous sessions. These expanded activities consisted of the following:
- Picture searches (the researcher read a word from the vocabulary cards from Chaochao’s earlier utterances while Chaochao searched.)
- Recitation and Word-Picture matching.
- Creating sentences using words from the vocabulary cards.
- Creating sentences based on pictures within the book.
- Pairing words in Chaochao’s sentences with words from the vocabulary cards
- “Invented spelling of Chaochao’s words and her own sentences in English” (pp. 6-9).
The researchers in this study concluded that, as a result of the storytelling sessions, Chaochao “began to use more vocabulary and make longer sentences in both English and Chinese storytelling” (p. 13) Interestingly, she made the greatest improvement in terms of sentence length and word use in her native Mandarin. Furthermore, the researchers found that Chaochao’s sentences became more and more complex throughout her meetings with the researcher, and she also made fewer errors in English, especially in regard to tense. Finally, she was able to steadily make gains in her ability to read words that she produced when she met with the researcher. As a result, Chaochao improved her Chinese as well as English language abilities (pp.13-19).
The Jimenez Study
Jimenez (2006) set out to determine the effectiveness of training Spanish parents in developing reading techniques and strategies to promote the development of their children’s competencies in the home language. The researchers sought to examine if the aforementioned training would enable children to increase the “quantity and variety of [their] language during storybook reading interactions in the home language” (pp. 435-436). The participants consisted of 16 primary school children, who were selected from southern California (p. 436).
The researchers began the intervention and training of the parents by assigning one of two research teams to visit each family every other week. When researchers met with the participants’ parents, they informed them about the study and assessed the parents’ literary practices in the home. In addition, the researchers had the parents read a book, which they had previously read, to their children. During subsequent visits, the researchers taught the parents “six shared reading strategies over three separate sessions” which were presented in the following order:
- Connecting with the text. (e.g. Are you similar to the main character or different?)
- “[P]raising and encouraging child’s responses.”
- Asking more elaborated and well-developed questions. (e.g. What do you think of the main character?)
- Scaffolding the child’s responses by adding new ideas and more details. (I wonder if Jack grows beans on the farm.)
- Speculating about future events in the story (What will happen next?).
- “[I]ntroducing new vocabulary” (e.g. He is very happy and excited) (p. 437).
The researchers found that, in line with previous research, children’s production of the target language increased as parents implemented the various learning strategies. In addition, the researchers found that parents were more likely to give their children time to speak during reading sessions as their competencies in the techniques and strategies increased. The most frequently used strategies by the parents were number (1) and number (3) listed above. The researchers conjecture that these two strategies were the most frequently used because they “were also the most rewarding” in terms of assisting children by further scaffolding the development of their linguistic skills (pp. 437-444).
In conclusion, parents can benefit from having children talk about the stories that are read at home while extending their children’s ideas and understanding about key concepts that appear in stories. The secret to success in developing children’s language as they talk about their favourite stories lies in the following types of intervention:
- Allow children to be autonomous and decide which books would be read and what would be discussed in those books.
- Make “declarative statements” and allow children the chance to respond to those statements.
- Ask various types of questions (‘open ended’ and ‘closed’) and give children time to respond to those questions.
- Scaffold a child’s response to the text or question by using more “advanced language” or demonstrating more “complex” versions of the child’s utterances (Lim & Cole, 2002).
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