Language Use of Preschool Children in a Child/Parent Education Program
By Patricia B. Byers
SSTA Research Centre Report #01-06: 41 pages, $11

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Part I: Review of the Literature Part II: Research and Findings Part III: Conclusion References

This report is a summary of a Master’s Thesis by Patricia B. Byers, University of Saskatchewan.

This study examines factors that influence the language use of preschool children in a child/parent education program.  The Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project was initiated to address concerns for at risk children and their families in the community of Nipawin, Saskatchewan.  The families invited to participate in the program were identified as having preschool children who were potentially at risk for school success.

The factors that emerged as having an influence on the children’s use of language in the preschool program were play centre activities, direct instruction, authentic experiences, parent/caregiver involvement and teacher efficacy.  Results showed that the children in the Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project experienced a program that understood the language needs of young children and the powerful influence of a supportive family. 

In this report a discussion is drawn concerning the benefits of providing opportunities for language development and use during the crucial preschool years and the implications that child/parent education programs have for governments, educational administrations, and the general public.

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A changing society has influenced the current generation of children in profound ways.  Progress in technology, knowledge, and communication has affected people differently, allowing for diverse lifestyles.  The overwhelming new developments in society are complicated with issues of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and home literacy (Leseman & de Jong, 1998).  A rapidly changing society makes for a broadened range of background experiences among children.  As the needs of families become more varied and complex, the challenge of providing opportunities for all children to reach their potentials for success becomes an increasingly daunting task.

Family backgrounds and life circumstances put some children at risk for obtaining the stimulation and encouragement necessary to achieve in school.  Researchers have found that it is possible to predict accurately, while children are still in primary school, which of them are more likely to eventually drop out of school and which of them will probably graduate from high school (Howard & Anderson, 1978).  The challenge in responding to the needs of at risk children is now supported with new knowledge about the types of services that can be effective in changing long-term outcomes for young children.  As well, there is a better understanding of the developmental continuum that begins before school and continues into the early years of schooling.  This knowledge can help educators and others devise programs to help such children succeed in school.

Family and school represent the primary environments in which young children grow and develop (Coleman, 1991; Micatin & Mustard, 1999).  Shifts in beliefs, values, and attitudes have contributed to significant changes in the structure of the family, but the family unit continues to be an essential factor in the development of the physical, emotional, and social wellbeing of children.  Researchers recognize the preschool years as a critical stage of development (Bloom, 1964; Corson, 1988; Micatin & Mustard, 1999) for a child's intellectual, social and emotional growth and confirm the fundamental importance of quality parent-child interaction during these early years.

A key predictor of success in elementary school is a child's language ability in the primary school years (White, 1991).  As Chall and Curtis (1991) state in a discussion about responding to the individual differences among language learners, children with difficulty in language skills are at  risk not only for success in school, but for personal, social and civic well-being as well.  Wells (1985) suggests that the quality of the child’s conversational experience is more important than social class or family background in accounting for variation in language development.  The essence of preschool education is to lay the foundation for the potential for success in school and later life.  Considering the powerful influence of a supportive family environment, a possible response to language delay is language intervention during the crucial preschool years, with tandem primary goals: first, to build the language skills of the child; and second, to educate parents in providing an environment to foster their young child's language development.

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During the spring of 1998, the Nipawin Early Childhood Team was organized in an attempt to address concerns for at risk children and their families.  The team included the following coalition of community groups: Social Services, North East Health District, Town of Nipawin, Nipawin School Division, Nipawin Day Care Cooperative, Metis National Eastern Region II, and Nutrition for Kids, Inc.  The team applied for and received a grant from Associated Entities through Saskatchewan's Action Plan for Children.  The grant allowed the team to initiate and implement a program entitled "Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project".

Social workers from Nipawin and public health nurses in the North East Health District estimated that there were at least 25 high risk families in the Nipawin, Carrot River, and Choiceland areas in the fall of 1998.  The purpose of the Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project was to reduce or remove participation barriers by providing a program that combined a quality preschool experience with a strong parenting component.

The program leaders designed the child/parent education program to host three nine-week sessions during the school year.  The preschool sessions were scheduled for two days per week from 9:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.  During the first hour of the half-day preschool, activities were planned for child/parent involvement.  The next hour included workshops planned for the parents and caregivers about issues such as health care, stress, budgeting, and cultural sensitivity.  While the parents were attending the workshop the children continued in the preschool.

Each preschool group included a maximum of 10 to 12 children aged three to four and their parents or caregivers.  The families invited to participate were identified by Social Services, Community Health Services (usually public health nurses) or the Nipawin Early Childhood Team.  Families were identified as being in need of this service and unable to access other existing services.  Participants were selected based on the following criteria:

  1. Child aged three to four years.
  2. Parents’ agreement to attend and participate with their child in the group or to provide another adult participant who was involved with the child's daily life.
  3. Completion of an application form containing health information.
  4. Recommendation from Community Health Services or Social Services based on the needs of the child and his/her family.
  5. Parent's agreement that the child's social skills and language development be assessed before the program.
An individual with training and experience in teaching preschool children was hired to participate in the planning and to lead the preschool program.  A second person was hired to assist with the children's groups.  The parents' and caregivers’ program was planned and led by the Nipawin Early Childhood Team or by other professionals invited to participate.  Transportation and child care for siblings were provided where needed.

Through an early intervention approach to at risk families the planning group hoped that long term dependency on social systems would be reduced.  Specifically, they anticipated that children's language and socialization skills would improve along with increased support to parents.

By targeting preschool children, there should be a reduced need for special education in school systems or, at the very least, earlier identification of learning needs.  Juel (1988) suggests that if we wait for readiness skills to emerge, and do not intervene, the young child in at risk situations will not have success in school.  The Nipawin Early Childhood Team established an intervention program as one approach to breaking the cycle of school failures in families and making education a less adverse and more valued pursuit.

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Need for the Study

The amount of learning accomplished in the earliest years of a child's education is amazing.  Indeed, Beadle (1970) reminds us that about one-half of a person’s intellectual development takes place between conception and age four, and about one-third of whatever academic skills children have attained by age eighteen develop between birth and age six.  Corson (1988) discusses the “critical period” for language development as the time that begins with the onset of babbling and ends at puberty, suggesting that the limits of future language potential are established for the child during this growth period. We now recognize that the kind of experiences the brain is exposed to in the first years of life dramatically influences how it performs for the rest of its life (Kotulak, 1996; McCain & Mustard, 1999).  As more and more is written about the early development of the brain and this crucial time for learning, educators must be increasingly vigilant in promoting the needs of children, educationally and socially. The care and education of young children should be of the highest priority.

Chambers, Arami, Massue & Morrison (1998) describe the profile of a child at risk as a “constellation of individual, family and school factors” (p.358).  These factors include children with low self esteem and poor attitudes toward school; parents with little education who fail to support or encourage learning; and schools with inappropriate or insufficient programs.  Chambers et al. (1998) stress the importance of prevention and early intervention rather than waiting for learning deficits to accumulate before providing remedial or special education services.

Goleman (1995) writes about emotional intelligence, a term he uses to explain the competencies of self-awareness, self-discipline, and empathy. He claims that intervention comes too late in the teenage years and is “the equivalent of solving a problem by sending an ambulance to the rescue rather than giving an inoculation that would ward off the disease in the first place” (p.256).  He affirms that a child’s readiness for school depends on the basic knowledge of how to learn and lists the “capacity to communicate” as one of seven key elements of this readiness.

In their early years study entitled Reversing The Real Brain Drain, McCain & Mustard (1999) discuss the benefits of quality programs for early childhood development and parenting for families from all socioeconomic levels. They describe the powerful new evidence from neuroscience about the early years of development from conception to age six. They confirm that by providing a base for competence and coping skills in the early years of life, school performance, health and behavior will improve the future for all citizens of Canada.

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Purpose of the Study

The primary aim of this study was to determine factors that influence the language use of a small group of children in a preschool child/parent education program.  This research was conducted to provide a broad perspective of the language experiences of preschool children who may be at risk when they enter school, and to point to features that promise more effective intervention in assisting and teaching children during this optimal stage of learning.

A focus on the design of a particular program is essential to help understand what factors influence children’s language acquisition and communication.  As experienced by Howell, Harrison, Stanford, Zahn, & Bracken (1990) in evaluating commercially-produced preschool language curricula, issues such as teacher education levels, experience, instructional procedures and teacher motivation and enthusiasm, may be more important than specific curricula used to enhance children’s language skills.  Efficacy is significant and therefore the nature and type of an early childhood education program has to be heeded when evaluating effectiveness (Elkind, 1996).  In this research, finding out what motivates the children to exchange feelings, ideas, and understandings with others will hopefully indicate significant factors for promoting communication skills.

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Part I: Review of the Literature


A child’s success in school can be viewed as a sequence of events consisting of several language-related skills that create a connection between family and school.  School achievement is linked to a child’s success in learning to read, while learning to read is connected to oral language development and oral language development stems from an environment that is linguistically stimulating (Heath, 1983).  The quantity and quality of children’s language experiences in their preschool years is profoundly important. Vygotsky (1978) maintains that what children learn depends on the company they keep, the activities they engage in together, and how they do and talk about these activities.  Opportunities for children to paraphrase, expand responses and share books with adults provide the link between oral language development and literacy skills (Morrow, 1995).  The anticipated outcome of this review is to provide an enhanced understanding and appreciation of the language needs of preschool children who have been designated as being at risk for school success.

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Children’s Language

It is through language that children learn about their world and then communicate their understanding to others around them (Howell et al., 1990).  As children talk they learn to manipulate oral language and experiment with words to convey meaning.  Most children by age four use the basic form and structure of their language appropriately (Cohen, Stern, & Balaban, 1983).  But like all development, the combination of environmental support and individual differences in ability brings children of the same age to different levels of language facility.  The years from age two to five are especially crucial in the process of acquiring language.  This is the period of time when a child’s vocabulary expands from 250 words to 3000 words, and he or she learns the rules of putting words together properly to speak in complex sentences (Beaty, 1990).  During these years language environment has a significant effect on the child’s overall progress.

A young child's language ability is fundamental to his or her learning.  Language skills are required for interacting in the learning environment and for comprehending curriculum content.  Unfortunately for some children, language and perhaps, more specifically, language at school, is an unpleasant challenge.  Children who have very few literacy experiences or little experience with group participation often have difficulty when they enter the school system.  Some children have a hard time making the transition from their informal home language to formal, decontextualized classroom language, while others come from homes where the environment and language are different from the school environment (Wallach and Miller, 1995).  Naturally, as these children struggle to function in the learning tasks and activities within a large group setting, their self-confidence is put to test.  When children who exhibit language delay are placed in a classroom that is heavily dependent upon language competence, they are vulnerable to academic problems.  Fitzgerald and Karnes (1987) state that "perhaps the most debilitating characteristic of young at-risk and developmentally handicapped children is a lack of functional communication or a delay in the acquisition of early language skills" (p.31).

A familiar theme in the world of education is ‘learning how to learn’.  Naisbitt and Aburdene (1982) assert that learning how to learn is the single most important thing children acquire in school.  Learning involves many things, including the ability to manage large amounts of information in efficient and effective ways, the ability to express what is known, and the ability to record information for future use.  Language processes are recognized as the basis for learning to read and language learning is considered an important part of learning to read (Morrow, 1997).  Children who listen and speak effectively are able to interact successfully with others and develop effective learning strategies and literacy skills (Carrow-Woolfolk, 1988).  Through the implementation of the Common Essential Learnings in the Saskatchewan English Language Arts Elementary Curriculum Guide (Saskatchewan Education, Training and Employment, 1992), teachers are alerted to the strong and direct link between the school and the outside world and the need to make this connection through the child’s language.

The relationship between reading and oral language is evident in studies of children who are early readers.  It has been found that early readers score higher on language screening tests than children who were not reading early (Morrow, 1997).  Early readers come from homes where rich language and a great deal of oral language is used.  Parents who read to their children on a regular basis promote naturally occurring reading ability in their children.  Children who have had a variety of experiences develop a rich oral language and establish a strong relationship between the spoken and written word that often quickly and easily translates to the ability to read the written word (Clements & Warncke, 1994).  These findings indicate that an early childhood classroom with an enriched language environment can benefit all children.

Children who have insufficient language skills often have negative experiences while attempting to use language, creating a fear of speaking in the classroom (Apps, McIntyre, & Juliebo, 1996).  Children with language difficulties are unable to follow the flow of communication during various subject disciplines.  These children often become observers as they are unsure of how to express their wants and needs to the people surrounding them.  Studies have shown that six-year-olds who score poorly on measures of language and higher mental abilities will fall further behind in each of the elementary years (White, 1991).

Apps, McIntyre and Juliebo (1996) analyzed a small group of primary
children to identify differences in language and to develop strategies that would help classroom teachers provide an environment in which language would flourish.  They consider it essential to understand the signs of weak oral language so that children who evidence them can be accommodated with the warmth and support that encourages risk-taking without fear of ridicule.  Characteristics of language proficient children include:

The characteristics of language deficient children include: Teachers have the opportunity to identify expressive and receptive language problems by observing children’s social interaction with peers and adults.  Children’s expressive language problems can be alleviated by teachers as they support their children’s opinions, help them to generate solutions to problems, and encourage their use of exploratory talk (Barnes, 1992).  Teachers can assist children with receptive language problems by using gestures or giving visual or tactile cues along with verbal instructions (Howard, Shaughnessy, Sanger & Hux, 1998).

Language is learned from models and through use.  When opportunities for both are available to children, language develops, broadens, and deepens (Cohen, et al., 1983).  Children have the right to the opportunity to develop to their full potential and the opportunity for lifelong learning so they can transform with the changing world.  To allow language delay to occur in young children when it could be prevented infringes upon this basic right.  Because children are dependent on others for their rights, families and teachers are obligated to provide for them (Myers & Kotchabhakdi, 1988).

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The Preschool Program

There is a window of opportunity in a child’s life that holds his or her greatest learning potential.  This window exists only in the child’s earliest years.  Preschool experiences have an impact on a child’s language development.  Young children like to talk.  They come to school having had three or four years of practice talking and listening. Even children who are designated as having a language delay feel comfortable expressing their desires to the people closest to them.  However, their communication skills have been limited to the home environment and its variation of extended experiences.  When young children come to school they are suddenly put into an environment that hosts a variety of communicative situations, some that are very different than they have been accustomed to.  These differences can be problematic for children with language difficulties (Heath, 1983; Wallach & Miller, 1988; Barnes, 1992).  Some of the reasons are as follows (Howard, et al., 1998):

Children’s behavior and comfort level in the classroom can bear heavily on their confidence in language skills.  A survey of kindergarten teachers revealed their beliefs that the essence for success in kindergarten was the importance of such skills as the ability to communicate needs and thoughts (Elkind, 1996).

Andrew Wilkinson (1971) coined the term “oracy” in the 1960's in England as a parallel to literacy, stressing the importance of speaking and listening skills.  Oracy has a significant role in language development in school.  Teachers understand that language is the central achievement necessary for success in schooling.  Corson (1988) maintains that the nature of the school curriculum determines what constitutes knowledge, what knowledge is passed on through language, and ensures that students' achievement of knowledge is "displayed" in the form of written or spoken language.  Talk is the primary expressive mode of language.  It makes sense then to develop a preschool child’s most crucial language skill if talk is to be used by teachers in evaluating a child’s learning.

Maclure, Phillips, & Wilkinson (1988) call for the view “oracy as a tool for learning”.  This notion advocates an indirect approach to fostering development of students’ language abilities.  In this view, talk is the medium for learning in every subject area of the curriculum, not just language arts.  The assumption is that, through talking, students construct knowledge and, at the same time, develop skill in different modes of discourse.  When children are given the opportunity to practice and use language with other children during work and play they develop understandings of cooperation, independence and competition (Black, 1979).

Encouraging Children’s Language Development and Use

A developmentally appropriate program provides an environment that contributes to the overall development of the children who participate and encourages language development.  The preschool teacher is required to make decisions about the well-being and education of children based on:

Children’s language development in a preschool environment is accommodated with the understanding of some basic principles of early language learning provided by Ward (1997):
  1. Human beings are predisposed to learn language easily.
  2. Language is learned through using it in interaction with others.
  3. Children learn the patterns of language through hearing many examples rather than from explicit teaching.
  4. Although we can discuss the underlying rules of language as discrete systems (syntax, vocabulary), language is learned in use, and all systems learned together.  (p.2-3)
A preschool classroom that is “talk-friendly” has an environment that
calls for communication (Booth & Thornley-Hall, 1991).  The teacher focuses on establishing and maintaining surroundings that help children realize the importance of communication.  The classroom that is talk-friendly motivates children to develop their oral communication skills in a variety of situations.  Children need to understand that their ideas are valued and respected.  Language is learned through hearing and using language.  An environment that creates opportunities for authentic and productive communication assists young children in their growth towards becoming effective and confident speakers and listeners.

The most important characteristic of a talk-friendly classroom is the warm and accepting climate.  Ward (1997) suggests that ongoing social talk and the children’s participation in planned discussions indicates a comfortable learning environment.  Children become more willing to engage in formal language discussions if they have gained confidence in themselves as communicators in relaxed occasions.  For young children to become confident talkers they need to understand that they are free to make mistakes without being immediately corrected.  A sense of trust is built by sharing talking experiences that have been upsetting or unpleasant for others or the teacher.  An emphasis on listening skills helps all children see that what they have to say is as important as any other language user’s talk.

Preschool classrooms are made up of a variety of learners.  Although children learn early to adapt their language to different people and settings, when they enter school they are involved with differences in routines and with people they have not yet encountered.  Here is where they learn to be interested and tolerant participants during conversations. Teachers need to be sensitive to different cultures, divergent learning abilities, and to gender equity.  All children should feel valued and respected in the classroom.  With these differences in the classroom children will learn from experience how to adjust their language.  However, explicit teaching is required on occasion when appropriate language needs to be learned quickly.  A talk-friendly classroom provides an environment fostering a sense of fellowship among children, which hopefully they transfer into society as they grow to become competent communicators.

Research supports the integration of speaking and listening, and the development of language curricula that provide students with opportunities to use language for a wide variety of purposes, in different situations, and with different audiences.  As children talk, they learn to manipulate the oral language and experiment with words to convey meaning.  Young learners benefit from playing with words orally before and while they are encountering them in print (Clements & Warncke, 1994).  Spoken language is used to form social relationships, to communicate, and to learn.

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Child/Parent Preschool Education

A child/parent education program is a proactive approach to addressing the needs of at risk children and their families.  The children are provided with a preschool environment to accommodate their natural curiosity while the parents are given the opportunity to develop the skills and the confidence to help their children.  The children’s language use is encouraged in the context of interactive experiences and the involvement with their parents or caregivers is crucial to the children’s success and attitude toward learning.

The rationale for parent involvement in a young child’s education is based on the assumption that because a child spends the majority of time with his or her parents or family, services to that child’s family should provide the greatest impact on that child’s development (Robinson, Rosenberg, & Beckman, 1982).  Early education programs stress parent involvement because they recognize the “importance of the family, rather than the school, as the ultimate source of children’s values and behavior” (Cole, 1986, p.91), and because “sound early education is an extension of the home, not of the school” (Elkind, 1986, p.636).  A child/parent education program provides parents with an active opportunity to make a difference in the language development of their youngsters by turning at risk learners into empowered learners (Come & Fredericks, 1995).

The child/parent education program described in this research was developed in cooperation with the parents, emphasizing the benefits of their support in the education of the children.  In this study, The Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project evolved from a belief that parents, no matter what their social or economic standing, have the potential for making an educational difference in their children’s lives when offered sincere opportunities for becoming an important member of the educational team (Come & Fredericks, 1995).

Good preschool programs have both short- and long-term positive effects on at risk children (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1985).  Longitudinal studies of preschool programs designed for children considered to be at risk have found to produce significant positive long term effects.  Head Start, a child development program launched in 1965 for preschool children from low-income families, has supported millions of children and their families in both the United States and in Canada (McKey, Condelli, Ganson, Barrett, McConkey & Plantz, 1985). The Perry Preschool Project was a study that examined the lives of 123 African Americans born in poverty and at high risk of failing school (Berrueta-Clement, et al., 1984). The research findings imply that children who have attended preschool repeat fewer grades and require special education classes less often than their peers.  Education level, employment, involvement with the legal system, need for social assistance, as well as family and marital relationships have been positively influenced up to twenty years later.  However, as found in a study by West and Hausken (1996) investigating the benefits of early education programs, a higher number of risk factors such as low maternal education, poverty, mother’s minority status language, and single parenthood reduces the number of preliteracy and numeracy skills gained by preschool children.

Unfortunately, even when a preschool program is available in a community, many of the children who could benefit from the experience are unable to attend.  Possible barriers that prevent families from enrolling their preschoolers are insufficient financial resources, lack of transportation, and parents’ inability to make a commitment to participate because childcare is not available for younger children.  The same barriers often prevent parents from obtaining support as well as information and training which would help them provide a richer environment for their children.  Preschool programs that combine parent participation and education components produce long-term results and, by affecting the parent’s behavior as well, can influence the development of other children in the family.  The premise is that families can and should function as behavioral change agents for their own children (Carney, 1983; Cartwright, 1981).

An important element for success with a program designed to teach parents how to help their children is the relationship established with parents (France and Hager, 1993).  In a child/parent education program, special care must be taken to inform parents of the importance of their role in their children’s educational progress.  Responding to the families’ needs as well as to the preschool agenda promotes a sense of shared responsibility with teachers and sets the stage for continued school success.  A survey of early childhood programs (Campbell & Taylor, 1996) showed that by supporting parents in their role, child/parent education programs can help parents make positive changes in their own educational and employment levels and reduce child abuse and neglect.

Interactional Effects on Language Development and Use

One of the most useful strategies parents can contribute to their children’s development of language is “scaffolding” (Bruner, 1985). This refers to the help provided by an adult while the child is working at a meaningful task.  The child does everything he or she can, and the adult provides help so the child can complete the task successfully (Au, 1993).  A type of scaffolding relating to child/parent education is the “two-tiered” scaffolding described by Gaffeny and Anderson (1991).  The first level of scaffolding involves the support offered to the child by the parent, and the second level refers to the education that is provided to the parents so they can experience success while working with their children.

Parents are a child’s most important teachers.  Parents bring unique skills, knowledge, and individual differences to their parenting role.  Children thrive on encouragement from their families and being involved together in a learning situation that is rich in oral language and hands-on experiences provides children with the opportunity to enjoy learning with the most influential people in their lives.  Group activities that encourage participation and cooperation among family and friends, and free play opportunities that allow children to use their communication and social skills, can build and support a child’s foundation in the learning process.

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Teacher Efficacy

Although the family environment is the primary context for early communication, when children attend preschool the classroom teacher assumes the role of language facilitator.  Kratcoski & Katz (1998) state “a teacher’s ability to plan activities that provide varied linguistic experiences is critical throughout the preschool years” (p.30).  In looking at elements depicting the success of preschool programs, Wright (1983) found that teachers who were highly motivated promoted program quality. The morale of the staff was a significant factor, along with a curriculum that showed a clear focus and purpose for teaching.  In discussing a balanced approach to early childhood education, Lodish (1996) upholds that young children need teachers who can integrate skills into their play activities and make them meaningful.  In preparing language experiences for children, preschool teachers should keep in mind John Dewey’s (1957) dictum from 60 years ago stating that the ultimate test in value of what is learned is its use and application.

In the Bristol Study (Wells, 1985) it was found that there was a clear relationship between the children’s rate of progress in language learning and the amount of conversation they experienced.  What seemed important in the child's conversational experience were the one-to-one situations in which the adult was talking about matters that were of interest and concern to the child. The most effective way for children to experience conversation is through joint construction.  Teachers can adjust their speech to the child’s level of development.  The child’s contribution to the conversation provides the scaffolding with which he or she constructs understanding of the language (Wells, 1985).  The adult listens attentively in order to understand the child’s meaning and then seeks to extend and develop it to help the child.

Fifty years ago Vygotsky (1978) emphasized the view of the teacher as essentially a facilitator of learning.  Vygotsky labeled the zone between what children can accomplish on their own and what they can accomplish with the guidance of adults or older or more competent peers, ‘the zone of proximal development’.  The Vygotsky aphorism is “what the child can do today with help, tomorrow he will be able to do alone”.  Children learn best when they collaborate with the teacher at the point where the child has a clear understanding.

Teacher as Language Motivator

Dumtchin (1988) suggests that teachers use child-centred speech when attending to a child’s topic and incorporating it into the next comment or question.  This provides respect for the child while at the same time making it easier for the child to remember what has been said.  The information is easier for the child to remember and process because it is meaningful.  There are several techniques available when talking to children.  Dumtchin (1988) suggests that some are:

  1. Modeling.  Modeling refers to the adult’s use of grammatically correct speech.
  2. Expatiation.  In using expatiation, the adult maintains the child’s topic while adding other information.
  3. Open-ended questioning.  Open-ended questions are those which may elicit a variety of answers rather than “yes”, “no”, or another specific response.
  4. Expansion.  An adult using expansion restates the child’s incomplete statement in order to make a logical, complete statement without responding negatively or insisting that the child repeat the statement the correct way.
  5. Recasting.  Recasting is a form of expansion but the grammatical structure is altered.
One of the most enriching experiences for children’s language is the open-ended exploratory talk that comes from listening to stories.  In The Meaning Makers, Wells (1986) presents case studies of six children to identify the major linguistic influences on their later educational achievement.  Wells found that stories are the way that children make sense of their lives.  They give meaning to observable events by making connections between them and the real world, and the number of stories children heard in the preschool years had a lasting effect.  Experiences with books at age five were directly related to reading comprehension at age seven and again at age eleven.  Early exposure to books helps children come to know two essential things.  They learn how print works and that reading is worth the effort it takes.  Reading stories to children gives them the opportunity to prepare for the decontextualized learning situations at school.  In order to meet the demands of formal education, a child needs to be able to disembed his or her thinking from an immediate activity and learn from the medium of words alone.  Stories, and the discussion that arises from them, provide an important introduction to this intellectually powerful function of language (Wells & Nicholls, 1985).

Morrow (1997) suggests that teachers select and offer children’s literature that represents varieties of language and experience.  Some children’s books feature the sounds of language and aid auditory discrimination or incorporate additional phonemes into a child’s language repertoire.  Others help develop the syntactic complexity of a child’s language through embedding, transformations, and the use of numerous adjectives and adverbs.  Craft books require children to follow directions.  Wordless books encourage them to create their own stories from pictures.  Concept books feature words such as ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘out’, ‘near’, and ‘far’, or involve children in mathematical reasoning.  Realistic literature deals with death, divorce, loneliness, fear, and daily problems.  Books of riddles, puns, jokes, and tongue twisters show children how language plays on meaning in certain situations.  Poetry introduces children to rhyme, metaphor and simile, and encourages them to recite and create poems.  When children hear and discuss the language in books they internalize what they have heard and it becomes part of their own language.  Research studies have found that children who have had stories read to them frequently develop more sophisticated language structures and increased vocabulary (Morrow, 1995).

Children learn the value of differences in other cultures when the teacher encourages intercultural equality within the preschool classroom.  Holidays and customs from the different cultures of the students in the classroom can be recognized and celebrated.  Stories, poems, books, and materials should not stereotype a particular race.  Displaying cultural materials in favorable and interesting ways helps others to regard the differences with respect and admiration.  To advocate a multicultural society, all dialects and languages need to be respected, encouraged, and developed.  Bredekamp (1997) states that, “teachers need to understand children’s cultural contexts and better use the full range of children’s abilities and interests to help them achieve the learning goals of the school”. (p. 38)

Teachers in preschools need to encourage the use of gender-inclusive language and be aware of the balance in conversations or discussions among  boys and girls.  Ward (1997) discusses the research in the differences between male and female talk.  She states that although “girls are often identified as having language skills superior to boys and achieve well in language and reading tasks, they tend to be denied a place in instructional conversations” (p.67).  If boys tend to dominate oral language, the teacher should pause the discussion and explain that everyone’s questions and opinions are warranted and important.  Teachers need to structure talk activities to make them equitable.

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The literature presents the benefits of preschool education, especially when combined with parent involvement.  Children’s achievement in school is affected by their language experiences, and school success correlates with favorable lifestyles.  The earlier a variety of language experiences are included into children’s environments the better chance children have. As Schweinhart et al. (1985) confirm, “the quality of life of today’s young children has profound consequences for tomorrow’s adults” (p.553). Some families require additional support in order to provide the necessary experiences to stimulate language acquisition, and programs serving these families require the development of warm and trusting relationships.

Although awareness of the need for child/parent education programs is evident in the increased chances of high school completion, effects on family support and reduced incidence of delinquency, there still remains a problem in substantiating their value.  Evaluation and measurement of success is difficult because of the expense and the distance in time and place of intervention and outcomes.  As with most investments in growth, the effects of intervention in childhood years comes later on, and often does not show on the budget of the agency making the investment at the time (Schorr, 1989).

The child/parent education program that is the focus of this study blends the education of young children with the education of their families.  The parent sessions regarding childcare, nutrition, cultural sensitivity, stress and behavior management is relevant to the lives of the families both at home and at the preschool.  Considering the combination of quality language experiences for young children and the powerful effect of parental encouragement, an understanding of the factors that influence the children’s use of language will indeed be a reflection of the program’s success.

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Part II: Research and Finding

The Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project was situated in Ecole Alex Wright School in Nipawin, Saskatchewan.  At the time of the study, the town of Nipawin had a population of approximately 5000 people.  Ecole Alex Wright School was a dual track school, offering programs in English and French Immersion.  It had an enrolment of approximately 220 children in kindergarten to grade two, with approximately 25% of the children having Aboriginal heritage.  The preschool and parent programs were housed in two kindergarten classrooms on Wednesdays and Fridays from 9:15 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., when these classrooms were not used for regular kindergarten programming.

The Nipawin Early Childhood Team decided to house the Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project in this particular elementary school for the following reasons:

Qualitative research is research intended to explore social phenomena by immersing the investigator in the situation for an extended period of time (Slavin, 1992).  This type of research depends on doing fieldwork and going to the site in order to observe behavior in the natural setting. A qualitative study describes the real-life context in which an intervention has occurred.  Considering the involvement of the children, parents, teachers and members of the Nipawin Early Childhood team, a qualitative study with the above characteristics seemed to be the appropriate choice.

In order to gather information about the language experiences of the children, the researcher made several visits to the preschool classroom.  Video recordings and audiotapes of the participants engaged in preschool activities, checklists, fieldnotes, and classroom observations as well as interviews with the parent/caregiver participants and the preschool teacher, served to make up the collection of data.

The participants were chosen to represent both genders and different cultural backgrounds.  One child was three years old; the other three children were four years old.  One child was of aboriginal background.  Three parents and one caregiver of these children attended the preschool education program.  The families accessed the education program for various reasons; however, the parents expressed particular interest in the socialization aspect of the program for both their children and themselves.

The children who were invited to participate in the preschool child/parent education program were provided with opportunities to hear and use language in a variety of contexts.  The preschool was an environment that stimulated their senses and connected their language at school to their language at home.  The children were with teachers who cared about their feelings and encouraged them to express themselves.  The preschool program involved the children in experiences that allowed them to be active participants and to use their language to learn and socialize in interesting ways.

Most importantly, the children were learning together with their families.  The parents were learning from the parent workshops how pivotal their presence was in their children’s lives.  The preschool gave the families an opportunity to use their language together during their children’s most critical learning stage.  As Morrow (1989) states, the process of acquiring language is continuous and interactive and takes place in the social setting of the child interacting with others.  Children learn the language they are surrounded with.  The preschool provided a safe and supportive environment for language learning to take place.

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What Characteristics of a Preschool Environment Encourage Children’s Use of Language?

Three characteristics emerged from the preschool environment as having an influence on the children’s language use.  These characteristics are play centre activities, authentic experiences, and direct instruction.  Booth (1994) states that a rich and varied program with ample opportunity for exploratory talk allows children to encounter new ideas, have greater experimentation with language and become confident and effective language users. The children were able to use their language to establish relationships, tell stories, ask questions, and give information.  The preschool provided opportunities for the children to become familiar with classroom discourse, such as turn-taking and teacher-child exchanges.

Play Centre Activities

The preschool environment involved the children in active learning experiences that encouraged the children to talk.  The classroom had areas for the children to converse one-to-one with their teacher, their parents, or teacher assistant.  There were places for pairs of children to collaborate on puzzles or games, centres for small groups to play and work on activities, and a carpeted area for large groups to come together for discussion, stories and sharing time.  The physical arrangement of the room along with a variety of play activities created a “talk friendly” environment.

The preschool children were provided with learning experiences in the play centres that were developmentally appropriate (Bredekamp, 1987).  By providing a choice of play activities, the preschool teacher was able to capitalize on the children’s interests and encourage talk among the children as they exchanged information and shared feelings.  While participating in the activities in the various play centres in the classroom, the children used their language with other children and adults in the program.  The opportunity for dramatic play was a way for the children to explore the meaning of the activities they saw in the grown-up world (Cohen et al., 1983).  Here they could learn to interact with others, to resolve conflicts, and to gain a sense of competence while still enjoying the magic of “make believe”.  The children were immersed in social talk that included greetings, good-byes, chatter, gossip, and jokes.  Daily activities such as tidying up play centres, welcoming visitors, sharing story time and telling teachers, parents and caregivers about their personal experiences were opportunities for the children to use their language in meaningful ways.

The preschool classroom displayed books of all types – picture books, easy-to-read stories, folk tales, pop-up books, and poetry collections.  Books with multicultural settings were shared to demonstrate that children come from different backgrounds.  The teacher used stories to enrich the themes she was teaching while at the same time exposing the children to the sounds of language and the patterns of stories.  Big books and small books were shared by the children and the adults and served as a natural springboard from listening to talking.  As Clements and Warncke (1994) affirm, a print-rich environment is key to assisting children as they learn about literacy.

Direct Instruction

Children construct their own knowledge through repeated experiences involving interaction with people (Piaget, 1926). The preschool teacher provided language situations through whole class, small group, and individual activities.  In each of these different groupings the teacher was able to encourage and guide the children’s use of language through direct instruction.  Direct instruction was the method used by the teacher to focus the children’s learnings on concepts and vocabulary within a particular theme.  Direct instruction and teacher-led activities enabled the teacher to build on the children’s background knowledge while introducing them to new ideas and the language that accompanied these topics.   The teacher was able to use these instructional opportunities to pass on accurate knowledge in a meaningful context.

The whole class activities involved gathering all the children together to share and discuss various experiences.  This was a time for organizing, establishing the focus for the day, and for direct teaching.  The large group setting was also used for reading aloud or choral reading.  The teacher’s use of a puppet attracted the children’s interest and seemed to ease the children’s inhibitions of talking out loud.  Small group activities such as crafts and experiments allowed the teacher to conduct teacher-led lessons.  This time contributed to building the children’s listening skills and their ability to follow directions.  Individual tasks allowed the children to work at learning centers or work stations independently and enabled the teacher to address the needs, interests, and learning styles of individual children.

Authentic Experiences

The preschool environment extended beyond the walls of the classroom to other areas of the school, the neighborhood and the community. Litman (1999) states that children learn about life through experiences that are sensory and concrete and gradually their world expands beyond themselves.  Field trips and learning experiences outside the preschool setting provided the children, and the parents/caregivers who accompanied the children, with awareness of the resources of the community and a reason to use language to share and discuss the shared adventures.

As the children participated on the playground and in other classrooms, they had the opportunity to interact with older children in the school on an informal basis.  Lessons planned for the preschool children took them to other places in the school such as the library and the gym, introducing them to different experiences and terminology.  The themes taught in the preschool often included going to places in the community such as a farm, the police station and the bakery.  As well, visits from guests such as a veterinarian, a dental nurse and an Aboriginal storyteller were enjoyed.  These authentic experiences broadened the children’s knowledge and promoted their natural curiosity.  The anticipation and preparation before these events and the discussion following them were opportunities for the children to hear and use new vocabulary. The parents commented on how these experiences impressed their children and inspired conversations in their homes.

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How does the Interaction Between Young Children and Their Parents/Caregivers Affect the Children’s Language Use in a Preschool Child/Parent Dducation Program?

Parent/Caregiver Involvement

The child/parent education program in this study was based on the assumption that parents are powerful and that their attitudes convey a critical message about schooling, the work and joy of learning and quality of life (Morrow, 1995).  Because home is a child’s first school and parents or caregivers are the child’s first and most important teachers, it is critical to have a program that encourages the participation of the family.  The involvement of the parents and/ or caregivers in this preschool program was a factor that influenced the children’s use of language.  Children talk not only to express their ideas, but also to reflect and refine their thoughts (Booth, 1994).  The preschool provided a place and a time for the children to experience the responses of their parents/caregivers.

Young children often have feelings of anxiety when faced with unfamiliar surroundings and expectations.  The comfort of having a significant person in their life to share the new learning experiences helped lessen their uneasiness at the beginning of the preschool program.  The children soon settled into participating and expressing themselves in the context of the preschool environment.   As the preschool proceeded, the parents/caregivers became more comfortable in the classroom environment and conversed with their children about the activities in the play centers.  The notion of “talking to learn” (Booth, 1994) became a common understanding as the parents/caregivers prompted their children to tell about personal experiences and helped extend their children’s stories at sharing time.  The parents/caregivers sometimes helped the teacher with explanations about new concepts by using language more familiar to the children during various learning situations.

During the first part of the preschool morning the parents/caregivers participated in the preschool activities with their children.  Working together on activities designed specifically for the children provided opportunities for the adults to support their children in an environment uninterrupted with the daily pressures of adult life.  The attentive presence of the parents/caregivers communicated to the children their love and care.  As the parents/caregivers became more familiar with the preschool environment and routine they were able to understand the importance of their interaction with their children through direct experience. The parents/caregivers practiced the skills and understandings they were learning from the workshops during the other part of the child/parent education program.

The participation of the parents/caregivers created a bridge between the home environment and the school environment through language.  This was evident at the play centres as well as during group discussions. Through the involvement of the parents/caregivers, an interchange of experiences between home and school provided the children with the understanding that these were two very important places in their lives.

The beliefs, attitudes, and expectations parents and caregivers hold with respect to literacy has a strong effect on children’s motivation to read (Morrow, 1995).  Snow & Goldfield (1983) suggest that parents who have been read to as children know how to read to their children, while parents who have not been read to may experience difficulty in constructing or re-creating the literacy and social routine.  Opportunities were provided for the parents/caregivers to use a variety of reading material at the preschool.  The parents used the time to snuggle closely and enjoy the time together as they experienced the process of joint storybook reading and book sharing. This method of scaffolding (Bruner, 1983; Smith 1985) allowed the children to learn how print works from the most important people in their lives, the parents and caregivers.

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How is a teacher most effective in motivating children to use their language in a preschool program?

Teacher Efficacy

A unique element of a preschool child/parent education program is the need for the preschool teacher to be adept in both early childhood education and adult education.  A preschool program with parental involvement requires a teacher with experience and training in dealing with situations that are particular to adults as well as young children.  It became apparent that the teacher’s efficacy was a factor influencing the children’s use of language in the preschool program. The preschool teacher possessed the ability to create a comfortable relationship among the children and their parents/caregivers while at the same time communicate her expectations of both the children and the adults within the context of the program.

The preschool teacher’s efficacy stemmed from her understanding of two basic beliefs of early childhood philosophy.  The first of these is to regard each child as unique and the second is to acknowledge the importance of providing children with opportunities to interact, and to cooperate in groups (Day and Drake, 1986).  These principles of early childhood education, combined with the involvement of the parents/caregivers, provided an effective situation for the families to realize the value of communication in the future of their children.  The preschool teacher implemented a program that was developmentally appropriate (Bredecamp, 1987) and balanced with specific learning skills and creativity (Lodish, 1996).  This was evident in her ability to plan time for the children to experience spontaneous interactive play, receive direct instruction and participate in authentic experiences within a thematic approach.

Wells (1986) suggests that children will learn most effectively when they have frequent opportunities to talk, both with teachers and with fellow students.  Children develop language skills by listening and using language.  They must be talked with, listened to, and surrounded by words and books.  The preschool teacher created a language environment that invited the children to use their language to explore and to express themselves to other children, to their parents/caregivers and to the teachers.

The preschool teacher also had the task of creating an environment that was inviting to the adult participants.  Her friendly manner settled any uneasiness of the parents/caregivers and they soon realized she was there to support their relationship with their children.  With patience and respect she encouraged the parents/caregivers to become involved in the preschool activities and work closely with their children.

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Children’s competency in communication requires a supportive environment that encourages a variety of language experiences.  Language experiences lead to opportunities for children to understand the purposes of literacy and that literacy is directly related to school success.  A preschool program designed for families at risk can have immediate and long-term success in helping children experience positive school experiences, build stronger self-esteem, and reduce school drop-out (Manning & Baruth, 1993). Researchers confirm that the quality of preschool education depends on early childhood instruction that is developmentally appropriate, and includes parental participation and competent leadership (Berrueta-Clement et al., 1984; McKey et al., 1985).  The children in the Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project experienced a program that provided opportunities for them to hear and use language in an environment that fostered and valued communication.

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Part III: Conclusion

Implications of the Study

An examination of factors that influence the language use of preschool children in a child/parent education program leads to discussion of implications for other programs designed to help families with young children at risk for school success.  An awareness of the value of child/parent education programs also has implications for governments,  educational administrations and the general public. These implications are not intended to be prescriptive in nature, but perhaps stir the conscience of decision-makers who address the challenges facing young children and their families.

Preschool Child/Parent Education Programs

A critical component for child/parent education programs to consider is the children’s use of language in the preschool. Oral language is the most common mode of expression and the first form of language that a child usually learns (Jalongo, 1992).  Children who are designated to participate in a child/parent education program need opportunities to hear and use language in a variety of situations.  How these opportunities are provided is as important as that they are provided (Schorr, 1989).   Following are some practical suggestions that may help to encourage the language use of preschool children in a child/parent education program:

An important component of the Preschool for Child/Parent Education Project was the parent education provided at the same time as the preschool experiences.  The parents were able to participate with their children in the preschool for the first half of the program and then move to another area of the school for workshops particular to their needs.  Topics such as parenting skills, cultural sensitivity, budgeting, stress management, and nutrition were addressed. The information provided in these sessions empowered the parents, as they were able to immediately transfer their new knowledge to their relationship with their families in the context of the preschool as well as in their home environment.  The parents also formed a support group among themselves as they became acquainted with each other and discussed the various issues.

A preschool teacher in a child/parent education program requires a support system.  In this study the preschool program was housed in a primary school, offering collegiality with other teachers in the school.  However, because of the pioneering nature of this project and the uniqueness of having both children and adults in the program, some situations in the preschool were unfamiliar to other teaching staff.  Professional development and training in working with families would benefit the preschool teacher.  As well, visits to other child/parent preschool programs in similar settings and the creation of a support group among preschool teachers would be helpful.

Educational Administrations

Providing a two-generational program can assist educational administrators in addressing two common concerns: students at risk for school success, and a strong school-home linkage. The combined effect of providing an environment that reaches children through a window of opportunity that may never again be available on the learning continuum, along with the cooperation and support of families, can help administrators meet the challenges of schools today (McCain & Mustard, 1999).  Consider the profound effect on schools if students having behavioral and/or learning difficulties had been given the chance to develop social and language competence, along with their families, before potential problems began to manifest and compound.
Directors and principals need to take a serious look at the impact of carefully defined early childhood education programs on teachers as well as students.  More and more teachers are becoming disillusioned with their profession because of the societal pressures affecting their students and displayed in schools, ranging from lack of nutrition to substance abuse. With an understanding of the needs of young children in changing family structures and lifestyles, administrators can ease educational tensions of teachers at all levels of instruction. Providing child/parent preschool education programs for families at risk for school success is a proactive approach to the learning progress of students.  Educational administrators with an unbalanced focus in favor of older students are likened to a farmer who neglects to care for his crop until it is almost fully-grown, then becomes frustrated with the unproductive yield.

School Trustee Associations

The investment in preschool child/parent education programs can mean reduced costs for school boards in the future.  The expenses related to a preschool program are negligible when compared to the cost of intervention in later years by way of special education, resource room support, grade retention, counseling, tutoring, and teacher assistants. The preschool child/parent education program in this study was funded though a grant and supported in-kind by the Nipawin School Division.  As school boards become aware of the benefits of preschool programming on future spending, they will want to find ways of integrating this component of education into their operating budgets.  A funding partnership with other agencies such as public health and social services could be created in a collaborative approach to early childhood intervention.

Universities and Paraprofessional Training Institutions

In this study, the efficacy of the teacher was found to be a factor influencing the language use of the children in the preschool program.  The experience and training of a teacher working with young children during this crucial period of life is a critical element in the success of a preschool program.  Universities and paraprofessional training institutions can contribute to the preparation of early childhood educators by offering programs of study that provide theory and practice unique to the early growth and development needs of very young children.  For teachers in child/parent education programs, dealing with families who may be at risk requires consultation skills.  Inservice training should be provided so teachers can respond effectively to the circumstances of these families.  The preschool teacher’s integral role and responsibility for the success of the preschool program needs to be recognized and reflected in the salary offered.  The quality of personnel required to conduct an effective child/parent education program can be supported by universities and training institutions through the emphasis placed on this level of instruction.

Government Departments

Government departments such as health, education, social services and justice can work together to adapt to the diverse family lifestyles and their effect on young children and their families.  The success of preschool child/parent education programs has the potential to dramatically reduce costs to society in the long term.  Early intervention with families at risk can reduce the costs of later education, social services and remediation.  Society could then benefit from increased economic productivity and decreased social and economic assistance.  Even more important than monetary savings is the possible elimination of the detrimental, psychological impact of reading failure (France, 1991).  A preschool program that promotes an understanding of the language needs of young children is the beginning of life-long literacy skills.

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As society continues to transform with the impact of knowledge, technology and communication, family structures are evolving.  Dual career families, blended families (stepfamilies), families distanced from grandparents, single parent families and families with economic pressures require early childhood education programs with new understandings of the needs of children experiencing these lifestyles.  The focus of this research was to determine factors that influence the language use of children in a preschool child/parent education program.  A study of the language use of children in a program designed to support families with children at risk for school success serves to provide more information for those who would advocate the need to help young children have a good start in life.

In discussing emotional intelligence, Goleman (1995) believes in “prevention for the range of pitfalls threatening children” (p.268).  He maintains that children need to be taught to recognize feelings and build a vocabulary for them, see the links between thoughts, feelings, and reactions, and learn to be good listeners and question askers.  Although family lifestyles are becoming increasingly diverse, children will thrive with the love, support and involvement of their parents or caregivers.  The ability to speak and listen effectively often makes the critical difference between success and failure in life (Pinnell & Jaggar, 1991). A preschool for child/parent education program can provide assistance to families experiencing difficult life circumstances. With an understanding of the language needs of young children and the positive effect of a caring social environment during the preschool years, we can better prepare children for school success.  Families are changing -- our children need to hear and use language, and they need someone to listen.

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