Word-rich preschools pay off in 4th grade

VANDERBILT U. (US) — Preschool children who hear sophisticated language in preschool and at home reap rewards years later—performing well on fourth-grade reading comprehension and word recognition exams.

A new study in the journal Child Development finds the benefits of strong early childhood classrooms are long-lasting, complex, and mutually reinforcing.

“We need to take very seriously the importance of teaching language in the preschool years,” says David Dickinson, professor of education at Vanderbilt University and author of the study.


“It’s easy to look at tangible accomplishments such as counting or letter recognition but much harder to measure richness of vocabulary and language ability.

“Parents should take a careful look at what is happening in their kids’ preschool classrooms and see if the teacher is engaging the child in conversations that are rich in language.”

For the study, Dickinson and co-author Michelle Porche of Wellesley College examined in detail language experiences of children from low-income homes when they were in preschool to identify influences of these early experiences on children’s language and literacy at the end of kindergarten and again in fourth grade.

Preschool teachers were audio and videotaped, interviewed and their classrooms were observed to gauge their support of language and literacy. Children were individually assessed, and parents were interviewed to learn about their education level and income and any family practices which foster language and literacy.

Although the sample was small, the researchers found robust relations between early classroom support for language and later language and reading ability.

The frequency of sophisticated vocabulary use during informal conversations predicted children’s kindergarten vocabulary, which correlated with fourth grade word reading. The teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary also correlated with children’s kindergarten print ability, and through that word reading skill, the early vocabulary exposure indirectly affected fourth grade reading comprehension.

Group book reading in preschool also had long-term associations with later reading. Conversations which included analysis of stories and discussion of words and teacher corrections of incorrect responses predicted receptive vocabulary at the end of kindergarten.

Enhanced vocabulary ability was associated with better vocabulary in fourth grade. Also, preschool teachers’ efforts to hold a child’s attention was related to fourth grade comprehension skills.

“While raising the level of interaction in group activities is important, some of my stronger results in this study are seen from informal interactions between teacher and child, showing the importance of elevated language during times such as play and lunch,” he says.

Parents should carefully examine the nature of interactions happening at their child’s preschool to see if teachers are engaged in conversations that will stretch language and knowledge.

In recent years preschool has become more of an academic setting, where previously the focus was primarily on socialization and children’s adjustment to groups.

The children of parents who support early literacy had stronger vocabulary scores in fourth grade.  Finally, the structural complexity of children’s language at age three was associated with fourth grade vocabulary.

Dickinson reviewed research on preschool interventions in Science, examining the role of adult support for language and challenges preschool interventions face when seeking to foster language growth.

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