Language Development in Preschoolers: Home Environment (page 3)
The importance of parents’ interactions with their children and the learning contexts created for children at home has been documented by various researchers (Berk & Spuhl, 1995; Payne, Whitehurst, & Angell, 1994). Of particular importance is the way parents foster language acquisition through scaffolding or supporting the children’s learning within zones of proximal development. Scaffolding involves parents’ supporting children’s learning by helping their children engage in verbal and nonverbal tasks that children cannot perform alone. Parents adjust the amount of help provided to children, taking into consideration their current level of performance (Moerk, 1974). As a child increases in competence in a task, her parent gradually decreases the amount of assistance. Gradually, the child can engage successfully and independently in performing the task. Critical features of parental teaching behavior have been identified to include “warmth, responsiveness, patience, and an appropriate degree of structure and control” (Berk & Spuhl, 1995, p. 165).
Scaffolded interactions often occur in problem-solving settings such as putting together a puzzle. They also occur in daily routines such as putting on a child’s shoes. Scaffolding is also part of establishing and sustaining conversations with young children. Language combined with actions are the components of this scaffolding. Learning is supported or assisted both by what the parent says to guide the child’s thinking and actions and by what the parent does in gesture or action to support or assist the learning. Parents’ task-relevant speech during these scaffolded interactions also contributes to the development of children’s internal or private speech (Winsler, Diaz, & Montero, 1997). As reported in Winsler et al., when parents gave verbal directions to their children in scaffolding the accomplishment of a task, children were more likely to use similar speech to themselves to direct their own actions when attempting to independently complete the same task.
When parents are engaged with their preschoolers in conversations, they support or scaffold the conversation through questioning, expansion, and extension. Gradually, as a child takes a more active role in conversations, parents reduce the level of verbal support. Dinner-table conversations are an example of scaffolding. In the following conversation, the father provides a scaffolding to his son so that he can share their experience with the family at the dinner table.
Dad: Mark, let’s tell Tommy [older brother] what we did today. [pause] Where did we go today, Mark?
Mark: To the park.
Dad: And what did we see the workers doing at the park?
Dad: Yes, that’s right, they were planting a big tree.
In countless conversations such as this, parents create a scaffolding by using questioning, expansion, and extension, and their children gradually learn how to assume a more active role in sharing information. As Mark’s conversational competency increases, his father reduces his support, so that Mark’s dinner table conversation might sound like this:
Dad: Let’s tell Tommy what we did today, Mark.
Mark: We went to the park. Wow, guess what? They have a big slide now. Do you want to go with me?
In a longitudinal study of literacy development and home–school experiences, Beals (2001) reported that mealtime talk, whether it was explanatory or narrative, was positively associated with increased vocabulary scores. In addition, mealtime narratives were associated with children’s ability to respond to comprehension questions (on an unfamiliar storybook). Thus, oral language experiences at home contribute to literacy-related competencies.
The role of the home literacy environment in contributing to later language and reading competencies has been documented by numerous research investigations (Mason, 1980; Ricciuti, White, & Fraser, 1993; Teale, 1986). A critical activity appears to be shared picture book or storybook reading. Payne, Whitehurst, and Angell (1994) reported that preschool children’s receptive and productive vocabulary was correlated with the following specific aspects of children’s individual literacy environments:
- Frequency of reading with child
- Child’s age when shared reading began
- Number of picture books in the home
- Frequency with which child asks to be read to
- Frequency of child’s trips to the library
Similar findings have been reported for bilingual children, indicating that storybook reading at home is closely associated with higher linguistic and cognitive competencies (Santiago, 1994).
The frequency of storybook experiences in the home appears to be a critical event in fostering children’s acquisition of language knowledge. DeTemple (2001) reported that children who were read to three or more times weekly were more likely to show emerging literacy skills than children who were read to less. Consider for a moment the cumulative volume of storybook experiences. If a child’s storybook experiences begin at age 1 and continue three to four times a week, by the time the child is 4 years old, he will have had 156 to 208 storybook interactions each year for a total of 468 to 624 at age 4. These cumulative experiences foster children’s developing competencies to comprehend and use language.
When parents share storybooks with preschoolers, they use language to describe the actions pictured and to tell or “read” the story, enhancing children’s receptive language. When children have opportunities to participate frequently in the storybook sharing, their productive language is enhanced as they ask questions, comment, or even attempt to re-create the specific language of the text. Children’s involvement in storybook sharing increases as the storybook becomes more familiar (DeTemple & Beals, 1991); thus, it is important for children to have opportunities to experience repeated readings of their favorite storybooks. Parent talk that uses the storybook as a stimulus or springboard to remember similar events, stimulate children’s questions, draw inferences, or make predictions appears to be strongly associated with children’s emergent literacy competencies (DeTemple, 2001).
Opportunities to engage in language and literacy-related experiences at home are influenced by the availability of books and writing materials (Teale, 1986). In homes where books and writing materials are available, children are likely to engage in emergent reading behaviors. Frequent use of public libraries to obtain books for the preschool child may not only be determined by parental inclination but may also be influenced by the library’s location and parents’ work schedule.
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