• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 09th September, 2014

“Magic words”: increasing preschoolers’ vocabulary in 15 minutes a day

strong>Preschoolers who lack sufficient home stimulation for language development often fall behind their peers in the vocabulary they will need for reading. A Canadian study finds that if educators at childcare centers use specially developed storybooks and actively engage the children, at-risk preschoolers learn more “magic words.” A broad vocabulary is a crucial foundation for learning to read in early elementary school. It is even more important a few years later when children transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” But the gap between low-income and middle-income children in the number of words they learn is both large and persistent, perhaps as large as 2,000 words by the mid-elementary years.The gap begins with children’s early exposure to language. If children are not hearing a wide range of words at home, can preschool programs help make up some of the difference? A recent randomized trial in Montreal preschools serving low-income children suggests that they can. Researchers designed a list of 175 words and incorporated them into storybooks. Teachers were asked to use the books and a series of accompanying activities in 15-minute sessions four times a week. Preschoolers whose teachers followed the program learned more of the words than those who followed their usual routine. And fidelity mattered: the more closely the teacher followed the program, the more words the children learned. The Quebec studyThe reading program aimed to stimulate French language development among preschoolers in low-income communities. Low-income children are often considered at risk of restricted vocabulary either because their parents have low levels of education or because their parents speak a language apart from the community language (here, French). Storybooks were designed based on a list of words that were identified as useful for children, likely to be known by middle-income pupils but not low-income pupils. These were words (in French) like “striped,” “defend,” and “immense.” These “magic words” are supported with a short text and illustration, and are accompanied by a simple definition by the teacher. To provide repeated exposure to words, each storybook integrates four to six of the magic words taught previously, along with five or six new ones. There are four 15-minute sessions each week. Each book is read twice in two consecutive sessions; half the words are taught in the first and half in the second session. Children are asked to raise their hands when they hear a “magic word” and to repeat the word. The educator then gives a short definition and shows the illustration. After reading the book, the children are asked to identify the word based on meanings and illustrations. They then engage in an activity that helps them use the word and differentiate correct and incorrect usage. For example, calling a tiger “striped” is appropriate, while calling a blank piece of paper “striped” is incorrect. The last part is an activity to help children generalize the use of the word. In the case of “striped,” the teacher may ask which word can be used to describe a shirt with lines of different colors. The value of fidelityIn the randomized controlled trial in Montreal, 22 educators based in 12 French-speaking childcare centers were assigned either to deliver this intervention or to carry on with their usual routine. In total, there were 222 preschoolers in the study.Children in the intervention learned more of the targeted words than children in the control group, who received no systematic, explicit instruction. Educators delivered the intervention with varied adherence to the protocol – one in four educators did not conduct the intervention correctly. The least faithful implementation was for the activities after reading. Analyses showed that the better the implementation, the greater the vocabulary gain. However, even children whose teachers did not closely follow the program gained more of the targeted vocabulary than children in the control group. Such interventions that can be implemented in usual practice have the promise of making storybook reading in preschools more valuable in stimulating language development. This is an important goal for preschools, as children from poor families often lack the home environment that facilitates development of vocabulary. Whether the intervention has effects long and large enough to increase school readiness remains to be researched. *********Reference: Vuattoux, D., Japel, C., Dion, E., & Dupéré, V. (2014). Targeting the specific vocabulary needs of at-risk preschoolers: A randomized study of the effectiveness of an educator implemented intervention. Prevention Science, 15(2), 156-164. DOI 10.1007/s11121-013-0379-5

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