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Table Talk

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As Catherine Snow, a Harvard education professor and one of the study's principal investigators, points out, these skills require practice. "It's not that these skills are so hard or so inaccessible,'' she says, "but [children] have to develop fluency with them.''

Most research on children's literacy up until now has focused on how children learn to decode words phonetically or on emergent literacy skills, such as knowing that print is read from left to right. Little attention has been given to oral-language development and how it contributes to the complex interplay of skills that reading requires. Similarly, much of the growing body of research on the factors that predict educational success has tended to focus on either the home or the school--not on both.

The Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development, led by Snow and David Dickinson, an associate education professor at Clark, is attempting to fill in those gaps. Launched seven years ago, the project thus far has received more than $1.2 million in funding from the Ford Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the federal Head Start program.

The study grew out of earlier research by Snow on "turning points'' in children's lives. She examined the home and school experiences of disadvantaged children as they moved from the 2nd to 7th grades, and her findings became the subject of a book, titled Unfulfilled Expectations. But the study left many unanswered questions. "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 to focus on younger children. Thus, the current project began by looking at the experiences of 3-year-olds. The research team focused its attention on 85 low-income families (65 are still in the project) living in eastern Massachusetts. "We know about middle-class families,'' Snow says, "[but] we don't know much about how to be a successful kid from a poor family.''

Since the beginning of the study, the researchers have visited all the families in their homes at least once a year. There, they've interviewed the mothers and children and observed them playing together. They've also taped the mothers reading the well-known picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar to their children. "That's a book that offers lots of opportunities for the mother to display the type of behavior that we're interested in,'' project director Patton Tabors explains. "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.''

The researchers also have asked the families to tape-record dinner-table conversations. "In some sense, we are showing the best of these families,'' Snow admits, "but there's still enormous variation.'' The taped conversations range from those that consisted entirely of requests for more milk or vegetables to rich dialogues about sharks or the meaning of the word "oxygen.''

In addition, team members have observed the children at their schools, beginning in preschool. (Half of the children attended Head Start programs, the others publicly subsidized day-care programs.) Initially, they attached tape recorders to children's backs, capturing their conversations at play and at snacktime. What's more, they recorded discussions between the teachers and groups of students and observed teachers reading stories to children.

The participating youngsters now attend some 22 different elementary schools, ranging from inner-city and suburban public schools to private schools. A small number 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 researchers are still recording their experiences--both at home and at school. The data collected so far fill rooms at both Clark and Harvard. And the research team is beginning to draw some conclusions.

In one analysis, it looked at the frequency with which families--and preschool teachers--used unusual vocabulary words and found that children who were most often exposed to such words as 4-year-olds had bigger vocabularies than other kids by the time they reached kindergarten. These children were also better at defining simple words--something other studies suggest leads to better literacy skills later on in elementary school.

The researchers also discovered that young children who were exposed to narrative talk over meals had an easier time understanding stories and learning new words in kindergarten and 1st grade. Explanatory dinner-table talk enhanced their vocabularies, as well. The findings, Tabors says, "make a very strong case for why eating together is critical.'' Children who sit down with their families have the opportunity to hear new vocabulary words, to negotiate their turn to speak, and to recount the events of the day.

And the same is true of mealtime in preschools, says Dickinson, who heads up the school-based component of the study. The findings indicate that mealtime discussions with teachers enhance children's vocabulary skills, even after the researchers controlled for home 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.''

Overall, Dickinson says, the kind of stimulating discussion the research team is focusing on occurs infrequently in preschools--10 percent or less of the time children spend talking. The rest of the time, he says, teachers are giving directions or asking students to name colors, recite the alphabet, or offer a personal preference on a given subject. The bottom line, the researchers say, is that children benefit from lots of adult talk--in both the home and school settings.

Still, simply interacting with or reading to children isn't necessarily enough, Tabors warns. What's important, she says, "is the quality of those interactions.'' Does a parent or teacher stop and ask the children what they think will happen next in a story? Does he or she relate things in the story to other events in the children's lives or interpret what is going on? The "non-immediate'' talk that arises from such questions, Tabors explains, may be the key to a youngster's later success in school.

The investigators suspect the real payoff for children who have been exposed to this kind of talk will come in about the 4th grade, when reading becomes less a decoding task and more a comprehension task. It's at this point, for example, that students must learn from what they read and must write for audiences who have not read the same text or shared the same experiences.

So far, only a small number of the children in the study have reached this stage in their schooling, but their experiences tend to reinforce 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.

Still, the researchers concede that they have not yet teased out all the factors that may contribute to a child's success. "We're missing something more in the affective [realm],'' Snow says, "the degree to which kids are made to feel competent and capable of learning.'' If the project continues to receive funding, the team will tackle those kinds of questions as the participating children move on into the middle school grades.

A key question that remains unanswered is whether the home or the school exerts a stronger influence on children's literacy. Tabors wonders, for example, whether a good preschool experience can really compensate for an unstimulating home environment. Ultimately, she says, "I think we'll be able to answer that question.''
--Debra Viadero

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