Sunday, June 13, 2010

Preschool Language Intervention, Part 1 (Cavanaugh)

Christie L. Cavanaugh, Ph.D. has been an educator for 30+ years, earning her degrees from Tusculum College, Vanderbilt University, and The University of Texas at Austin. She spent many of her 30+ years in early childhood settings, preparing future teachers, and providing professional development to educators in the areas of language and literacy. She continues this work as an educational consultant and also as a literacy consultant for a reading intervention project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as part of the National Research Center on Rural Education Support. This is the first of a two-part series on preschool language intervention (read Part Two here).

"Oh, I've got it!" These were the sentiments one of my former students expressed when I was sharing a model of a language and literacy-enriched play center for preschool. These centers provided multiple opportunities to build vocabulary and background knowledge (with little monetary investment). The model's theme, a flower shop named "Flower Power," generated rich vocabulary for young children: 

arrangement, bouquet, garden, dish garden, dozen, floral, florist, fragrant, greetings, celebrations, decorations, purchasing, deliver, tending, order, place an order, pruning, soil, vase, bud vase, planter, nutrients, mist, moss, embellishment (as well as specific flower names and parts)

Upon discussing prompts for language and modeling scenarios that are likely to occur in a flower shop, including writing notes to place on plastic holders that are often inserted into floral arrangements, my student asked, 

"What if my children have never been to a flower shop? How will they know what to do?" 

My reply was simply, "Exactly!" That's precisely why we do what we do when we create these centers. We think through the language and the actions that are important components of a particular setting and then model it in a center. 

Her emphatic response, "Oh, I've got it!" became an acronym for Opportunities to Impact Vocabulary Elaboration and Growth Intentionally through Incidental Teaching.
I asked my student-teachers to develop thematic and language-prompting play centers for preschool. In doing so, they prepared "prompts" to help integrate vocabulary and build background knowledge. Prompts are comments and questions that teachers use to invite children to talk about the experience. "Mands" are used to elicit more elaborative discussion. The teachers also created a list of actions or scenarios that serve as anchors for using the language, and of course, opportunities to embed written language (collection of theme-related books, signs, labels, resource books, calendars, appointment books, menus, writing pads, or notes, etc.). 

The early childhood period spans birth to eight years and promoting language should begin early in infancy. Early childhood is the time to establish a strong foundation for oral vocabulary development and this goal is accomplished without tremendous effort and expense. 

However, despite the apparent simplicity of the model, similar language-rich experiences are not consistently provided in early childhood education. Conversing with young children is essential yet I continue to hear preschool teachers and other professionals use simplistic language in terms of semantics and syntax and conversing about topics that are limited to children's current and/or past experiences. This is particularly worrisome when we consider the vocabulary gap that exists among children at risk for academic difficulties and it further contributes to an academic achievement gap.
Policies and lessons for young children that reflect a deep understanding of the language-literacy connection are needed. Educators and parents must recognize that building oral language and background knowledge in early childhood predicts eventual comprehension of the written word. It is important to build relationships between phonology, morphology, semantics, syntax, and pragmatics. Make explicit connections across these language components throughout and beyond the early childhood years.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children's (NAEYC) shifting philosophy articulated in the most recent position statement on Developmentally Appropriate Practice (2009) recognizes the value of teacher input and a balance between teacher-directed and child-centered activities. A quick examination of pre-kindergarten standards in several states reveals that we have a responsibility to teach deliberately and appropriately (see Texas, Nebraska, Florida, Illinois, Virginia state standards or guidelines for Pre-K for examples). A more purposeful and conscientious role of the "teacher" for promoting language and literacy development among other developmental domains is not only supported but encouraged. Furthermore, Hart and Risley's longitudinal study (1995) revealing the varied quantity and quality of language experiences for young children and how language experiences in the home relate to school success actually built upon work they began more than four decades ago. Their work serves as the basis for one of the most established bodies of research in early childhood. Revisiting this body of research (that includes vast work from A. Kaiser and colleagues) reminds us of some basic principles that can guide our actions in education, described below:

Incidental teaching as a language intervention was first implemented with groups of preschoolers considered at-risk based on socioeconomic status or identified as "impoverished" in the 1960's. We can extend the meaning of "impoverished" beyond socioeconomic status into language or vocabulary or background knowledge and recognize that the strategies are ageless.
Incidental teaching as a language intervention aims to increase young children's opportunities to talk (particularly spontaneous language use). Strategies that promote spoken language include following children's leads, determining children's skill level and scaffolding for growth, modeling, expanding, elaborating, providing feedback in the form of additional mands or models, and using the child's environment to elicit language strategically. Connections can be drawn between this work and others that share common characteristics such as naturalistic intervention, environmental arrangement strategies, the features of effective instruction, embedded learning opportunities, and other vocabulary enhancing strategies for young children. Below, I provide examples to illustrate a few of these strategies:

      Child: (points to flowers) Flowers are pretty.
      Teacher: (following child's lead): Yes, those flowers are colorful and gorgeous (Elaboration and extension) instead of "Yes, the flowers ARE pretty (repetition and slight extension).
      Child: (chooses the bakery center for play) I want to cook something.
      Teacher: (again, following child's lead after arranging an inviting center): Great! Let's create something delicious together. Do you have a special recipe in this cookbook to guide us (elaboration, embedded vocabulary with support)? Tell me how we'll make it (open-ended prompt) instead of "I want to cook with you."
The teacher continues to converse, narrate, and model vocabulary and syntax during play and also uses opportunities for the child to say key vocabulary words using mands and models (to emphasize the important connection between phonology and semantics).  For example, the teacher might prompt, "These chocolate-flavored biscuits you created are scrumptious! Scrumptious is another word for delicious. Say 'scrumptious' (model). 

The teacher might scaffold by allowing the young child to first say the word in two parts by syllable and then model putting it together. Later, the teacher might prompt by saying, "This cake is not only delicious, it's ______," (mand or prompt) waiting patiently for the child to insert the new vocabulary word.
Starting with a theme or topic allows teachers to create webs of connections so children see relationships between concepts, experiences and language.
If more adults who spend any time with young children embrace these fundamental yet implicit instructional principles we just might be able to chunk (not chip) away at the vocabulary gap. 
Responses are encouraged and appreciated, especially if they include examples to share with early childhood teachers. I will elaborate more on these ideas in next Sunday's issue of Vocabulogic. Read Part Two here.


  1. Thank you, Christie. The approach you illustrate in this post offers much to young children--and on many levels.

    Question: Is there a particular book, website, or article you might recommend, either for practical application or for more of the theory behind implicit language instruction through thematic play centers?

  2. In our Early Reading First preschool classrooms, we used a simple method to help the teachers and paraprofessionals remember key vocabulary words to introduce/incorporate into learning center play. Key vocabulary was listed and posted by the center at the eye-level of the adults in the room. For example, key vocabulary for a bakery shop dramatic play center might include cookie sheet, rolling pin, spatula, measuring spoons,cooking utensils, recipe, dozen, chef, ingredient, and so forth. A wonderful book that describes 40 different learning centers with suggestions for vocabuarly and activities is: The Complete Learning Center Book, Revised by Rebecca Isbell published by Gryphon House.

  3. Thank you, Michele. I will order the book.

    I am all for keeping it simple, so I like your reminder strategy-- posting key vocab at eye level for adults.

  4. Christie Cavanaugh6/14/2010

    Thank you for the comments, Michele and Susan. The suggestion you offer, Michele, is very similar to one that I'm including in the second post on this topic. These simple cues are powerful reminders for teachers and adults working with young children and are especially useful for elevating the language input children are receiving. I will post additional resources as part of the second post.

  5. You passionately depict what we all want for our young children in preschool. Kids learn through experiential connections. What better way to use rich vocabulary than in the moment, context of play and learning. We can increase our US reading comprehension lag through your powerful example!

  6. Christie L. Cavanaugh6/18/2010

    Thank you, Erika. I continue to recognize and believe that we can make a huge impact through language and play, but that it requires knowledge, planning, and effort to maximize the impact. If all of this were much more transparent in classrooms and other early childhood settings through what we say and hear, we would begin to realize huge benefits.

  7. Anonymous1/10/2013

    You might be interested in the book Early literacy in action: The language focused curriculum for preschool by Betty Bunce (Brookes Publishing 2008). It describes the use of dramatic plays similar to your Flower shop or Bakery Shop but includes more than 50 with descriptions of how to set up and different vocabulary and structure to use. It is for children with and without communication challenges. There are also descriptions for other activities such as art, story reading and retelling, pre-academic readiness for the three-five year olds.

    1. Thanks. I had not heard of that book!


Comments are published after they are reviewed, to ensure they are not SPAM.