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David C. Anchin Center presentation explores strategies for supporting oral language development in pre-K classrooms

by Jessenia Rivera

Literacy struggles in K-12 schools is an issue continuously discussed among teachers, administrators and experts in the field of education. 

As educators implement new strategies in their classrooms to alleviate the problem, Dr. Elizabeth Hadley, assistant professor of literacy studies at the USF College of Education, has looked towards providing solutions by proposing a change in how "talk" is implemented in early childhood classrooms. 

During a presentation hosted by the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Dr. Hadley presented her research on why supporting oral language development in pre-K classrooms is critical to developing young readers. 

According to a report published by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 35 percent of fourth graders were proficient or above proficient readers in 2017. The NAEP also revealed that reading trends of fourth graders who are eligible for free and reduced lunch programs have remained at the “basic” level. 

In her presentation, Dr. Hadley explained a theory of reading comprehension, titled the Simple Model of Reading, that demonstrates the two components that lead to reading literacy. 

“Reading comprehension cannot take place without both (decoding and language comprehension),” Dr. Hadley said. “So, if you can’t decode and you can’t understand what’s on the page, you won’t be able to understand what you’re reading.” 

Decoding, Hadley said, is a skill that’s highly developed during a child’s pre-K years, but it’s in these years where oral language tends to be left out. As a result of this, children tend to struggle as young readers in the grades that follow. 

“Kids really draw on these resources of oral language that they’ve built over time to understand what they’ve read, but if we drop out these oral language skills in the early grades, they’re not able to draw on them later on,” Dr. Hadley said.  

In order to set the foundation for reading success from the moment a child enters a classroom, Dr. Hadley’s research has identified two kinds of talk pre-K classrooms should focus on—responsive talk and conceptual talk.

Conceptual talk, Dr. Hadley said, is talk that centers on topics or concepts that give explanations, details the past or the future, allows for new words to be learned and builds understanding in certain content areas. 

When studying knowledge building in early childhood classrooms in Nashville, Dr. Hadley was able to note how words being taught to students didn’t necessarily relate to each other nor to a larger topic. However, she was able to see significant results when she introduced words that clustered together.  

“We have some emerging evidence from research that suggests that’s it’s effective to instead focus on building knowledge on an overall topic and then teaching words that are embedded in that knowledge network,” Dr. Hadley said. “We learn words more easily when they’re related to topics we already know something about.” 

As part of her research, Dr. Hadley had teachers introduce a content-rich book on plants to children and had them read the book aloud four times. While educators taught new vocabulary words to their students, Dr. Hadley sought to discover which method of word learning proved to be the most effective. 

Her research showed there was no relationship between word-learning and the use of visual aids or definitions to teach words. However, when educators taught new words using the book text, a positive improvement in learning outcomes for children was seen. 

“The teachers didn’t need to say so much because we were reading the book four times and the book was full of rich content,” Dr. Hadley said. “So, this really indicates that the content you choose is really important in building conceptual knowledge.” 

When speaking on the importance of responsive talk in early childhood classrooms, Dr. Hadley presented three strategies—expanding child talk, extending topics and open-ended prompts, which serve to either elaborate on a topic, extend to a similar topic or ask questions that further a child’s thinking. 

Throughout her research, Dr. Hadley has been able to study the Initiate-Respond-Evaluate (IRE) questioning model in pre-K classrooms and determine what could be done better. Her work has led her to the idea of reconstructing the third step of the model. 

“You all know that classroom conversations usually take the form of initiating, responding and evaluating,” Dr. Hadley said. “But, instead of evaluating in that third turn, I’d like us to investigate.” 

Contrary to the evaluative approach, Dr. Hadley said the investigative approach uses open-ended prompts to carry on the teacher-to-student conversation on a topic. In this way, children, rather than teachers, are drivers of the conversation. 

“It gives the child an opportunity to use their language, to further develop their thinking and it also gives the teacher a chance to share some conceptual information about something the child is interested in,” Dr. Hadley said. 

In addition to looking at what’s being said in teacher-to-student conversations, Dr. Hadley furthered her research by looking at which interactions help children learn the most. In her latest study, she examined children’s learning when teachers used three different interactive approaches—instructional, responsive/conceptual and action processing. 

Unlike instructional and active processing interactions, which consists of one-sided conversations and have children answer specific questions, Dr. Hadley said the responsive/conceptual interaction achieved a higher effect because children were more engaged. 

“In education, we know that people don’t learn well if you’re trying to dump information into their heads,” Dr. Hadley said. “I think the responsive/conceptual style is most effective because a teacher is taking something that kids are already interested in and building from there.” 

Dr. Hadley concluded her presentation with a few conclusive statements that reinforced her research. 

“To build stronger readers we need to lay a foundation that’s broader than letter knowledge in early childhood classrooms,” Dr. Hadley said. “Word-learning is most effective when it is interactive and bidirectional, so that means having a classroom climate that encourages talk about words.” 

Following her presentation, a group of panelists consisting of USF researchers spoke about the topic by providing their own insights. 

Panelists included Maria Carlo, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies; Howard Goldstein, PhD, professor and associate dean at the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences; Lisa Lopez, PhD., associate professor in the Department of Educational and Psychological Studies and Trina Spencer, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies. 

During the discussion, Dr. Spencer mentioned how oral language is minimized in the primary grades because it can't be measured easily. The goal of researchers, she said, is to work on creating effective measurement innovations for teachers. 

“The challenge as oral language researchers is to push the boundary in the development and validation of appropriate and meaningful oral language measures that teachers can use easily in their classrooms,” Dr. Spencer said. “So, measurement innovation is essential.” 

In relation to her work with dual language learners (DLLs), Dr. Lopez shared how her own research in pre-K classrooms rendered results that were similar to the data presented by Dr. Hadley. She said conversations should be intentional and personal so that word learning can be better achieved, especially with DLLs students. 

“We’re seeing a lot of whole group conversation going on in classrooms for long periods of time and a lot of it is teacher-directed,” Dr. Lopez said. “So, what happens with the dual-language learners is that they’re usually sitting in the back and not paying attention. Teachers need to sustain conceptual conversations with these children by helping them connect these new words in English to the words they may already have in their own language.” 

When discussing English language learners (ELLs), Dr. Carlo shared her findings on the difficulties these students tend to have. Vocabulary, she said, seems to be the major roadblock, and she shared some strategies teachers can incorporate to overcome the issue.

“You could do a lot of conceptual building by supplementing materials in the classroom with materials in the child’s first language,” Dr. Carlo said. “(This means) making sure you have informational books that relate to the topic you’ll be teaching about.” 

As conversations continued, Dr. Goldstein expressed how teachers have to continuously tackle the issues of literacy in their classrooms. He ended his speech with a few words that served as motivation for attendees. 

“It isn’t as easy as it seems to try to put all these tips and strategies together,” Dr. Goldstein said. “But it’s what we should be working on. We can do better.” 

This event was hosted as part of a speaker series sponsored by the David C. Anchin Center for the Advancement of Teaching. To learn more about future events, please visit the Anchin Center's website.

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