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Table Talk

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Cambridge, Mass.

The image of the family gathered around the dinner table has long held a cherished place in American culture. It conjures visions of Norman Rockwell portraits, Thanksgivings, and Ozzie and Harriet.

Now, however, research coming out of a joint project between the Harvard graduate school of education and Clark University's education department is beginning to suggest that such occasions are important for more than sentimental reasons. They help to build children's literacy.

When parents and preschool teachers read to children and then stop to interpret what they read, when they take children on outings where they hear new vocabulary terms, and when they play fantasy games with children or engage them in mealtime talk that goes beyond "please pass the salt," they provide opportunities for children to exercise certain kinds of oral-language skills.

These kinds of skills, which the researchers call "decontextualized" or "non-immediate" language abilities, may spring from children's exposure to talk that goes beyond the here and now and relies more heavily on the words themselves to paint a picture for the listener. Children who are skilled at such talk, for example, are good at reporting on an event to someone who was not there, telling a story, defining words, or using rare vocabulary words.

These researchers say there may be a link between that kind of talk and children's literacy success later on in school--particularly when children reach 4th grade and reading involves more than just sounding out words.

"It's the way you need to sound to sound like a smart kid, and those are skills that require practice," says Catherine E. Snow, a Harvard education professor and the project's principal co-investigator. "It's not that these skills are so hard or so inaccessible, but they have to develop fluency with them."

Most research on children's literacy up to now has focused on how children acquire phonetic skills--the ability to decode words--or on emergent literacy skills, which are such pre-reading skills as the ability to recognize that print is read from left to right. By contrast, little attention has been paid to oral-language skills and how they contribute to the complex interplay that is reading.

Similarly, the bulk of the growing body of research on the home and school factors that predict school success has tended to focus on either the home or the school--but not both.

The Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, which Snow leads with David K. Dickinson, an associate education professor at Clark, attempts to fill in those gaps.

The study partly grew out of Snow's previous efforts to look at the turning points, both at home and at school, in the lives of children from poor families as they moved from 2nd to 7th grade. That study became the subject of a book, called Unfulfilled Expectations, but it left many unanswered questions.

"One of the things I learned was how hard it is to understand from observations what is going on with older children," Snow says now. "You'd sit there for six hours, and you wouldn't see anything in the way of interaction or teaching or motivation."

Also, "if you saw the kids as 2nd graders, it was clear they all had potential to do well in school," she says. "By 6th grade, they had lived longer, and it was clear the forces of society had impinged on them in negative ways."

What she needed to do, she reasoned, was start studying children at younger ages. Thus, the current study, launched seven years ago, began with children who were 3 years old.

Caterpillars and Conversation

Costing more than $1.2 million so far, the project has been funded variously over the years by the Ford Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and by federal Head Start grants.

It began by focusing on 85 working-class, low-income families living in eastern Massachusetts. Sixty-five of the families are still in the project.

"We sort of know about middle-class families, and we don't know much about how to be a successful kid from a poor family," Snow says. The researchers believe that the kind of talk they were interested in studying already goes on in many middle-class families.

From the time at least one of the children in each of those families turned 3, researchers have visited them annually in their homes. There, they interviewed the mothers and, more recently, the children as well. They asked the mothers and children to recount a recent event, and they observed and recorded them as they played together. The mothers read the picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar to their children while the researchers audiotaped the session.

"That's a book that offers lots of opportunities for the mother to display the type of behavior that we're interested in," explains Patton O. Tabors, the project director. "It contains labeling information like colors, numbers, and objects, but there's also a story line and opportunities for mothers to talk about things like metamorphosis. We wanted to see if over the course of the three years, they would move from labeling, et cetera, to more sophisticated behaviors."

Tape recorders also were left behind every year so the families could record a conversation that took place while they were at the dinner table.

"In some sense, we are showing the best of these families, but there's still enormous variation," Snow says.

Even with the recorders running, the conversations ranged from those that consisted entirely of requests for more milk or vegetables to rich dialogues about sharks or the meaning of the word "oxygen."

Researchers also went into the children's preschools to observe them. (Half of the children went to Head Start programs, and the others attended other publicly subsidized day-care programs.) They attached tape recorders to children's backs and captured their conversations at play and snacktime. They recorded discussions between the teachers and the entire class, observed teachers reading stories to children, and recorded smaller group interactions between those students and their teachers.

The researchers are continuing to track the children now that they're in elementary school, following them to as many as 22 different schools. The schools range from inner-city public schools to suburban schools to private schools.

The home visits are also continuing. Rather than have the mothers read The Very Hungry Caterpillar now, however, the researchers ask them to help their children write a letter to the book's author, Eric Carle. The mothers and children are also recorded as they play with magnets and discuss such topics as who the child's best teacher is.

Rooms Full of Data

Now, a small number of children in the study have reached the 5th grade. Others, because they joined the study later or were held back in school or both, are in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades.

The data collected on these families fill rooms at both Clark and Harvard. And researchers are beginning to sift through it all and to draw some conclusions.

In one of the analyses they have done so far, they looked at the frequency with which families and preschools used rare vocabulary words. Their finding: Children who, at age 4, were in settings in which rare words were used more often had bigger vocabularies by the time they reached kindergarten. They also scored higher on a task that required them to give definitions of simple words--skills which, other studies have suggested, translate to better literacy skills later on in elementary school.

The researchers also found that the amount of narrative talk that went on during mealtime was linked to children's abilities in kindergarten and 1st grade to understand stories and to learn new words. And explanatory talk at the dinner table also tended to enhance their vocabularies.

During book-reading sessions--both at home and in preschool--the proportion of "non-immediate" talk that went on bore a direct relation to children's pre-reading skills a year later.

Children who engaged in a lot of pretend play with their playmates in preschool were also good at giving definitions, understanding stories, and even mastering print-related skills by the time they reached kindergarten.

The researchers also found that some situations gave themselves over to promoting these kinds of oral-language skills more easily than others. One of those occasions was mealtime.

"It makes a very strong case for why eating together is critical," Tabors says, even as fewer families at all levels of society are finding time to do that.

"I think people are uneasy in their hearts about not sitting together, but they're not quite sure why," she says. "After all, everybody gets fed."

But dinnertime offers opportunities for children to hear new vocabulary words, to negotiate their turn to speak, and to recount the events of the day for family members who were not there.

And the same is true for mealtimes in preschool, says Dickinson, who heads the school-based portion of the study. In fact, those kinds of school opportunities were found to enhance children's vocabulary skills, even after the researchers controlled for home-based factors that usually have a strong bearing on children's school success, such as the mothers' level of schooling.

"A lot of teachers don't see that sitting and talking with children at mealtime is part of the curriculum," he says. "They're walking around the room or talking with other adults."

The problem, however, is that the kind of talk the researchers are interested in occurs infrequently in preschool--it accounted for 10 percent or less of the time during which children were engaged in talking while they were in school, according to Dickinson.

The rest of the time, he says, teachers are giving directions or asking students to name colors, recite the alphabet, or tell a personal preference.

The bottom line, in any setting, these researchers say, is that children benefit from lots of adult talk.

"I think the message that you should read to your children has gotten through to parents," Tabors says. "What we're saying is that it's the quality of those interactions." Does a mother or teacher stop to ask children what they think will happen next in the story? Do they relate things in the story to other events in children's lives? Do they interpret what is going on? Those are the situations that expose children to the kind of "non-immediate" talk that may be key to school success.

Conquering 4th-Grade Slump

But the findings the researchers have come across so far are only "moderate to strong." They come from a battery of tests and activities developed by the project for that purpose and that were administered to children in the study in the spring of their kindergarten and 1st-grade years.

The investigators suspect the real payoffs for lots of early exposure to non-immediate talk will come when the children in the study reach what Jeanne Chall, another reading researcher, has termed the "4th-grade slump." That's when reading becomes less of a decoding task and more of a comprehension task that requires children to learn from what they read, to write for audiences who have not already read the same text or shared the same experiences, and to understand the subtle rules of different voices and genres.

That's when the vocabulary words heard long ago could help to fill in students' background knowledge or the explanatory talk might provide a sort of mental model for the book reports a child has to write.

Of the small number of children in the study who have reached that stage in their schooling, a few look as though they fit the researchers' hypothesis. One child with lots of early exposure to non-immediate talk has been formally identified as gifted and talented; another has been called very bright by teachers.

"It's a hypothesis that is increasingly getting confirmed by the findings," Snow says.

But the researchers also have yet to tease out all the other factors that may have contributed along the way to children's success.

"We're missing something more in the affective--the degree to which kids are made to feel competent and capable of learning," Snow says. The researchers plan to tackle those kinds of questions if they receive funds to continue the project as the children go into middle school and junior high school.

Tabors also talks about examining the complex power relationships between mother and child and the role they play in developing children's literacy. And Petra Nicholson, another researcher in the project, has been looking at how parents' and teachers' expectations for children and parents' sense that they are their children's first teachers contribute to children's later success in school.

What the researchers have now is a motherlode of data that has provided fodder for more than 50 published studies. In addition, scholars from around the world have come to Massachusetts to mine the data for cross-cultural comparative studies.

A key question that remains unanswered is which of the two environments being studied--the home or the school--exerts the stronger influence on children's literacy.

"If we consider the preschool setting compensatory," Tabors says, "what is it compensating for? Is it reasonable to expect a setting a child attends a couple hours a day to be one where a difference can be made?"

"I think," she adds, "we'll be able to answer that question."

Further information on this topic is available from:

Beals, D.E. (1993) "Explanatory talk in low-income families' mealtime conversations." Applied Psycholinguistics, 14, 489-513.

Beals, D.E. & Tabors, P.O. (1994). "Arboretum, bureaucratic, and carbohydrates: preschoolers' exposure to rare vocabulary at home." Unpublished manuscript.

DeTemple, J.M. & Beals, D.E. (1991). "Family talk: sources of support for the development of decontextualized language skills." Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 6(1), 11-19.

Dickinson, D.K. & Smith, M.W. (1991). "Preschool talk: patterns of teacher-child interaction in early-childhood classrooms." Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 6(1), 20-29.

Dickinson, D.K. & Smith, M.W. (1994). "Longterm effects of preschool teachers' book reading on low-income children's vocabulary and story comprehension." Reading Research Quarterly, 29(2), 105-122.

Dickinson, D.K. & Tabors, P.O. (1991). "Early literacy: linkages between home, school and literacy achievement at age five." Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 6(1), 30-46.

Snow, C.E. (1991). "The theoretical basis for relationships between language and literacy in development." Journal of Research in Childhood Education. 6(1), 5-10.

Snow, C.E. (1993). "Families as social contexts for literacy development." New Directions for Child Development, 61, 11-23.

Snow, C.E. (1994). "What is so hard about learning to read? A pragmatic analysis." Pragmatics from Theory to Practice. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 165-184.

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