Professional development for early childhood language and literacy

In the field of education, professional development (PD) is intended to improve both classroom teaching and children’s learning. A new study, published in Journal of Educational Psychology, looks at what effect PD has when used at scale with large numbers of educators.

In this large-scale randomised controlled trial, Shayne B Piasta and colleagues examined the effectiveness of a language and literacy PD programme on both teacher and child outcomes in early childhood education. More than 500 teachers across one US state took part in the trial and were randomly assigned to one of three groups: professional development with coaching, professional development without coaching, or a comparison group. Teachers in the PD groups received 30 hours of state-sponsored language and literacy professional development, with those assigned to the coaching groups also receiving ongoing individualised coaching throughout the academic year. Teachers in the comparison group also received state-sponsored PD, but in other subjects.

The results of the trial suggest that PD affected only a few aspects of classroom language and literacy teaching practices relative to the comparison group, and did not affect children’s literacy learning. PD with coaching showed a small positive impact on the quantity of phonological awareness, while both PD with and without coaching had a small positive impact on the quality of teaching in phonological awareness and writing.

Source: At-scale, state-sponsored language and literacy professional development: Impacts on early childhood classroom practices and children’s outcomes (June 2019), Journal of Educational Psychology

What does good professional development for teaching language look like?

Research published in AERA Open examines the features needed for effective teacher professional development (PD) aimed at preparing teachers to support their pupils in mastering language expectations across the curriculum.

Eva Kalinowski and colleagues conducted a systematic review of studies of PD programmes, published between 2002 and 2015, which aimed to support teachers to improve their pupils’ academic language ability in different subject areas. Of the 38 studies they reviewed, all but one were carried out in the US. Eighteen studies used quantitative data only, three used a mainly qualitative approach, and 17 used mixed methods.

Although the researchers were unable to conclude which elements actually influenced the effectiveness of the programmes analysed, they found that all of the studies were effective to some extent, and shared many characteristics considered to be important in successful teacher PD across different subject areas. The forms of PD likely to show some effect for teachers and pupils in this area:

  • were long-term intensive programmes that included multiple learning opportunities aimed at elaborating and practising newly learned knowledge and strategies
  • provided practical assistance
  • enabled and encouraged teachers to work together
  • considered teachers’ needs as well as pupils’ learning processes and languages spoken at home.

Source: Effective professional development for teachers to foster students’ academic language proficiency across the curriculum: A systematic review (February 2-19), AERA Open.

Impact of shared book reading on children’s language development

A meta-analysis conducted by Claire Noble and colleagues explores the impact of shared reading interventions (where an adult reads with a child) on children’s language skills, and whether they are equally effective across a range of different outcome variables, for children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and across a range of study designs.

The analysis included 54 studies conducted between 1989 and 2017. These studies included 316 effect sizes and 5,569 participants. Nine of the studies reported follow-up effects. Children in the studies were typically age 7 years or younger.

Their findings suggest that, while there is an effect of shared reading on language development, the effect size is smaller than suggested in previous meta-analyses (+0.23). They also found that the effect size is moderated by the type of control groups, and when compared to active control groups, is closer to zero (+0.04). In addition, the meta-analysis indicates only modest differences between types of language outcome, no effect for socioeconomic background, and a near-zero effect at follow-up.

However, given the low dosage of many of the studies included in the meta-analysis, the authors caution against the conclusion that shared reading interventions have no real effect on children’s language development.

Source: The impact of shared book reading on children’s language skills: A meta-analysis (October 2018), PsyArXiv

Conversation more important than word exposure for literacy and language development

While it is common knowledge that talking to children helps them develop language and pre-literacy skills, new research from Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania shows that children gain greater language development and pre-literacy benefits the more that caregivers engage them in conversational turn-taking-like exchanges. In other words, talking with children is more beneficial than talking to children.

In the first study to link children’s language exposure to neural functioning, functional MRIs showed that children who experienced more frequent conversational turn-taking with caregivers while listening to stories demonstrated greater activity within the part of the brain in charge of language processing than children who didn’t interact in as many conversational exchanges. These same children also scored higher than their counterparts on standardised language assessments measuring vocabulary, grammar, and verbal reasoning. This was true regardless of children’s socioeconomic status or parental education.

Audio recordings of 36 four- to six-year-olds from various socioeconomic backgrounds measured the number of words children said, the number of words they heard and the number of conversational exchanges in which they engaged for two days. All children were native English speakers who did not significantly differ by behaviour, language exposure, or neural measures on standardised tests. When these measures were compared to the brain scans, researchers found a positive correlation between conversational turns and brain physiology.

Source: Beyond the 30-million-word gap: Children’s conversational exposure is associated with language-related brain function (February 2018), Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797617742725

Preschool language skills a predictor of later reading comprehension

A systematic review published by the Campbell Collaboration summarises the research on the correlation between reading-related preschool predictors, such as code-related skills  and linguistic comprehension, and later reading comprehension skills.

Sixty-four longitudinal studies met the eligibility criteria for the review. These studies spanned 1986 to 2016 and were mostly carried out in the US, Europe and Australia. Overall, the findings of the review found that code-related skills (rhyme awareness, phoneme awareness, letter knowledge and rapid automatised naming) are most important for reading comprehension in beginning readers, but linguistic comprehension (grammar and vocabulary) gradually takes over as children become older. All predictors, except for non-word repetition, were moderately to strongly correlated with later reading comprehension. Non-word repetition had only a weak to moderate correlation to later reading comprehension ability.

These results suggest a need for a broad focus on language skills in preschool-age children in order to establish a strong foundation for reading comprehension.

Source: Preschool predictors of later reading comprehension ability: a systematic review (December 2017), A Campbell Systematic Review 2017:4, Campbell Collaboration

A review of the evidence on early language development

A new review of the evidence on early language development, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation in partnership with Public Health England, has examined the most effective ways to support young children with delays in their early language development between birth and five years old.

James Law and colleagues looked at the existing evidence to find out which interventions have the greatest potential for boosting young children’s language skills and reducing inequalities in outcomes. They identified 44 intervention studies which focused on language and related skills in pre-school. All the studies were randomised controlled trials or quasi-experimental, matched study designs. Positive effect sizes were found in relation to receptive language in 29 studies. They found one of the best ways to improve early language development for this group is by training teachers in early years settings so that they can deliver cost-effective and evidence-based interventions to those children who have fallen behind.

In addition to high-quality early years provision, the researchers identified interactions with parents as key, highlighting the need to promote positive interaction between parents and their children before they start pre-school.

The report also stresses the need for better monitoring of children’s progress at different stages of their development, to catch those children falling behind and to identify those who need targeted, specialised support.

Source: Early Language Development: Needs, provision and intervention for preschool children from socio-economically disadvantage backgrounds (October 2017), Public Health England and Education Endowment Foundation