Guest post by Helena Taelman: Children influence their teacher’s language!

This is the result of a breakfast talk… Dr Helena Taelman discusses some interesting new research on the dynamics of a preschool classroom.

In order to battle children’s language delays from early on, teachers of preschool classrooms nowadays often get interaction training (or responsivity education). The purpose of this training is that they learn to facilitate communication with the toddlers, and they learn to give advanced language models. However, the effects of these trainings are often disappointing: teachers implement the techniques at a low rate (e.g. Neuman & Wright, 2010), and children do not always make measurable language progress (e.g. Cabell et al., 2011).

A new study by Laura Justice and colleagues takes a new angle at this phenomenon. In a close analysis of teacher-child interaction patterns, they found that the syntactic complexity of a child utterance was mirrored by the syntactic level of the following teacher utterance: if a child used a simple utterance, chances were higher that the teacher responded with a simple utterance. The reversed pattern was also found, but with a somewhat lower incidence: if a teacher used a simple utterance, chances were higher that the child responded with a simple utterance; if a teacher used a complex utterance, chances were higher that the child responded with a complex utterance.

This means that children themselves shape the teacher’s communication pattern, a factor that seems to be ignored in teacher-directed language interventions so far.

The study makes me think of another recent study by Wright (2012). She found that teachers offered less word explanations in classrooms with mostly low SES children than in classrooms with mostly high SES children. Moreover, if they provided explanations of words, these were less sophisticated words. This fact may again be caused by the children themselves who offered the teachers less/more conversation leads to talk about sophisticated words?

The authors of the study suspect that the communication dynamics in a classroom may differ substantially from the communication dynamics at home, where adults might be less intended to mirror children’s level of syntactic complexity. As the researchers do not know how teachers can be taught to overcome the natural tendency to mirror children’s utterances in order to provide more advanced language models, they urge for more research on this topic.

Helena Taelman

(working at a teacher training department HubKaho)

Abstract of the research:

This study examined the transactional, utterance-by-utterance dependencies in the syntactic complexity of teachers’ and children’s talk during small-group conversations in preschool classrooms. The sample included 39 teachers and select children in their classroom, which targeted enrollment to children experiencing documentable risk factors. Patterns of sequential dependencies demonstrated a bi-directional interdependence in teachers’ and children’s complex syntactic use, whereby both teachers and children appeared sensitive to each other’s use of complex syntactic forms. Teachers’ use of complex syntax increased the likelihood that children’s adjacent utterance would contain complex syntax; similarly, children’s use of complex or simple syntax increased the likelihood that teachers’ adjacent utterance would mirror their syntactic level. Associations were small to moderately large in strength, but varied across individual classrooms. The findings point to complex, bi-directional relationships underlying the complexity of talk within the classroom language environment.


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