Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Conversations with Children & Literacy

Our school's speech and language pathologist talked with some of the teachers last week about the importance of conversation. She discussed how talking WITH children in order to increase their vocabulary and their understanding of language is vital in their literacy development. She referred us to an article by Lesley Maxwell, MS, CCC-SLP, in Advance for Speech Language Pathologists and Audiologists entitled "Practical Strategies for Rich Vocabulary Instruction." The article emphasizes the place of vocabulary learning as a component of literacy:

Understanding relationships between words and concepts is a very important aspect of vocabulary knowledge. Students become flexible thinkers when they are asked to consider how and if words are related.

....Good vocabulary instruction is explicit and has measurable outcomes, but the most important element in any classroom with a strong vocabulary focus is the teacher. Teachers who love language and use words well will inspire their students to enjoy the beauty and complexity of language and the joy of learning new words.
Then as I read my latest copy of Reading Research Quarterly, I saw an article entitled "A primary-grade teacher's guidance toward small-group dialogue" by Ellen McIntyre, Diane W. Kyle, and Gayle H. Moore. As part of their research, they outlined contributions from various studies about classroom discussion. Here are the findings of one:

Recently, a team of researchers (Almasi et al., 2004) conducted a series of studies in two states on the relationship between peer discussion and student achievement in the primary grades. This study illustrated a positive relationship between amount of peer discussion and how much the students valued reading, focused on text, and contributed linguistically complex responses during discussions. Further, the study showed that older students (second and third graders) were more adept at having sustained and focused dialogue, especially with respect to the amount of content-related talk. But even kindergarteners in the treatment group were able to participate in peer discussions, some with very little teacher scaffolding, illustrating that young children can partcipate in classroom dialogue.
The authors conclude that:

Developing a dialogic classroom is not just about developing skills, but about ensuring an overall classroom that promotes collaborative work and the sharing of ideas. As many past educators have shown, creating a space for children to construct new understandings through talk takes consideration of the classroom community in general, and it may be risky for some teachers(Fairbanks, 1998).
This is a topic that has especially fascinated me for the past year. Last year I attended a professional development day in which Ellin Keene was the featured speaker. During her presentation Ellin taught a model lesson with a group of third grade students. The purpose of the lesson was to encourage rich conversation about and deeper understanding of the children's book Freedom on the Menu. Whenever Ellin asked a question and a student replied, "I don't know," she would respond, "Yes, but if you DID know, what would you say?" I felt uncomfortable. She was putting the children on the spot. However, I underestimated the children's ability to think and verbalize their thinking. By making the children think more deeply, the conversation quickly became more meaningful. The children had understanding far beyond the surface. By the end of the lesson, Ellin was able to take herself out of the conversation, and the children continued it on their own. I was hooked on the idea of using rich vocabulary and helping children develop skill in conversing with each other. Encouraging and facilitating children's conversations about what they read is a wonderful way to improve their comprehension, vocabulary and interest in reading.

Other posts and information related to conversation, communication and learning:
The Reflective Teacher uses Valentines Day for a writing and discussion lesson which includes vocabulary study.

Sarah Plain and Tall compares the way teens learn social skills today with that of her generation. She writes that:
the explosion of internet use by teenagers is almost replacing face-to-face social contact. Youngsters prefer talking via mobile phone or MSN (instant messaging) to actually… talking.
Irish Eyes write that communicating via the internet is far better than relying on television for social skills: Previous research has discovered that extensive television viewing has a negative effect on children's social skills. The difference is in the interactivity. If you take the time to snap photos, mash up music or write enthusiastically, you are producing web content and that is levels above merely consuming information of nicking music tracks.

The U.S. Department of Education program "American Reads" provides information for parents, teachers and school on helping children become literate. In one of their brochures, they describe a study to determine how family income affects the words that a child hears. Here are the results:

Number of words heard at home per hour by 1- and 2-year-olds learning to talk:
low-income child 620
middle-income child 1,250
high-income child 2,150

Number of words heard by age 3:
low-income child 10 million
middle-income child 20 million
high-income child 30 million

In another part of the U.S. Department of Education webpage for parents was an article entitled "Helping Your Child Become a Reader." It provided the following information:

As your child grows older, continue talking with her. Ask her about the things she does. Ask her about the events and people in the stories you read together. Let her know you are listening carefully to what she says. By engaging her in talking and listening, you are also encouraging your child to think as she speaks. In addition, you are showing that you respect her knowledge and her ability to keep learning.
However in looking at qualities of effective teachers, engaging students in conversation was not mentioned.

Talk With Kids is a guide for parents in discussing current events with their children. It is produced by The National Institute for Literacy which offers information for parents and teachers in helping children become better readers.

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