Sunday, June 20, 2010

Preschool Language Intervention: Part 2 (Cavanaugh)

Today, Christie Cavanaugh, Ph.D. continues her description of a preschool language intervention, providing specific examples and models to encourage rich use of oral language in early childhood. Readers are encouraged to download Christie's slides and use them with educators and parents. For part one, see last week's post.

The reference to incidental teaching in last week’s post reminds us that teaching language to young children should be purposeful, yet accomplished in the context of children’s play or “incidents” of opportunity. Hart and Risley (1975) described incidental teaching in reference to language teaching as a naturally-occurring interaction between a child and adult, usually in the context of free play and that the child-initiated interaction is considered an opportunity for the adult to impact a child’s skill development. Child initiation, adult support, and naturally-occurring situations are fundamental principles that have underscored decades of research in this area related to naturalistic language intervention. 

Incidental language teaching is both implicit and child-centered due to the nature of following children’s leads and using these contexts to determine how to scaffold appropriately and elevate language appropriately. Hence, this approach is also explicit because we plan purposefully to ensure that children have a variety of topics (e.g., theme-based centers to expand background knowledge and experiences) from which to initiate language. We also know development to determine children’s language levels and use this to provide support for elaborating language and providing models of rich vocabulary and sentence structure of increasing complexity. Planning ahead allows us to generate multiple opportunities to use new vocabulary embedded in various contexts to serve as models and prompts for children to integrate new language into their repertoires. Bonnie Raitt’s lyrics, “Let’s give ‘em somethin’ to talk about . . .” resonates with our actions of planning purposefully.

Click slide to enlarge or save/download.
A simple tool for teachers to use as an environmental prompt or cue to assist in modeling efforts is something I’ve labeled as “The Teacher’s Word Wall” (see slide at right).

This word wall serves as a reminder for teachers to use sophisticated language or expressions in place of common, routine comments produced in the child’s environment. The table provides examples of alternate ways to say common expressions, like “Great job” or “thank you.” Because some of these alternatives may not be part of one’s typical vocabulary when conversing with young children, the adults present and talking to young children can easily glance at the word wall and select an option to insert into a comment or dialogue. Over time as the common expressions are replaced with more sophisticated options in a fluent manner, the children will hear them used multiple times and eventually weave them into their speaking vocabulary. The idea is to replace the expressions often to continue building on children’s vocabulary.

Click to enlarge.
An extension of the “Teacher’s Word Wall” includes vocabulary, anchors for conversation or conversation starters, prompts (questions and comments), and actions that relate to a specific theme. This slide relates to a flower shop themed center.”Again, these cues serve as reminders for adults to embed the language into the context of playing with children. 

We do have a strong research base for some very simple, effective strategies. These translate to simple actions: Talk to children, converse, plan for the opportunity for children to use their language, follow children’s leads (but remember to plant a few seeds), model, model, model, prompt (comments and questions), use rich vocabulary, build background knowledge, make connections between words, concepts, and topics.

The personal narrative Susan Ebbers provided in a prior post, describing how her early childhood experience of looking for buds in spring helped her to immediately understand the word dormant several years later, illustrates the importance of early language experiences for building background knowledge and comprehending both oral and written language. Susan was interested and initiated the interaction, her mother followed her lead to use this interaction to provide the oral vocabulary (appropriate support and modeling), and the dialogue on Susan’s initiated topic deepened her understanding. All of this impacted her understanding of related vocabulary and concepts in the written form. This is a very simple, yet powerful example and many like these help us realize that the goal of building children’s oral vocabularies is attainable, but there are many who will rely on us to model and disseminate the simplicity.

Responses are encouraged and appreciated, especially if they include examples to disseminate to early childhood teachers.

References and Resources

  • Byrnes, J. P., & Wasik, B. A. Language and literacy development: What educators need to know. New York: Guilford Press.
  • Copple, C. & Bredekamp, S. (Eds). (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
  • Hart, B., & Risley, T. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap. American Educator, 27, 4-9.
  • Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children. Baltimore: Brookes.
  • Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1975). Incidental teaching of language in the preschool. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8, 411-420.
  • Israel, S. E. (2009). Vocabulary lists and activities for the PreK-2 classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Otto, B. Language development in early childhood (3rd Ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill.
  • Otto, B. (2008). Literacy development in early childhood. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
  • Owens, R. E. (2008). Language development: An introduction (7th Ed). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Soderman, A. K., & Farrell, P. (2008). Creating literacy-rich preschools and kindergartens. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
  • Warren, S. F., & Kaiser, A. P. (1986). Incidental language teaching: A critical review. Journal of Hearing and Speech Disorders, 51, 291-299. 


  1. Pat Farrell6/24/2010

    Being a parent, I talked like this with my kids like crazy. These things are easy to do. Why isn't it happening in schools?

    1. Pat, I didn't see your post until I recently reviewed this post. It's great that you used rich and advanced vocabulary with your kids! I think teachers and parents are becoming more aware of the role they play in preparing young children for the kind of academic words heard in schools. But please pass the message along!
      The most common words are always on the surface of our mind, the tip of our tongue, so those "high-frequency words" tend to be used when we are otherwise occupied, or thinking of several things at once. Parents and teachers are often, by necessity, multitasking. In order to use words like "entrance" instead of "door" or "form" instead of "make" or "debris" instead of "litter" we have to make a conscious effort, and be deliberate about it. It's just not all that natural. 😋


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