Parental Scaffolding of Children's Phonological Awareness Skills: Interactions between Mothers and Their Preschoolers with Language Difficulties

Article excerpt

This study examined mother-child verbal exchanges during phonological awareness (PA) tasks embedded into storybook reading sessions. The aims of the research were (a) to determine how mothers scaffolded their children's task performance, (b) to characterize the stability of maternal scaffolding over four sessions, and (c) to study the relation between maternal scaffolds and children's developing PA competencies. Five mothers and their 4-year-old children with language difficulties read a storybook four times during a 1-week period. The storybook included nine questions (e.g., What sound does bear start with?) for mothers to ask their children to help them develop PA. Coding of maternal scaffold quantity and type, as well as children's task performance, was conducted to characterize scaffolding over time and to measure children's developing PA competence. Results showed that mothers used a variety of directive and responsive scaffolds to help their children perform the PA tasks but preferred phonological cues, which provided models of phonological concepts, and praise, which provided affirmation of performance. The three children of mothers who used more scaffolds overall and who decreased their scaffolds over sessions (including directives) were able to perform independently and accurately on more PA tasks at the end of four sessions than the other two children. We hypothesize that both directive and responsive scaffolds serve complementary purposes when used by mothers to scaffold children's PA learning. Clinical implications and future research directions are discussed.


Naturalistic language and literacy interventions for preschoolers with language difficulties have increasingly emphasized the application of Vygotsky's (1978) social-interactionist principles (e.g., Justice & Ezell, 1999; Schneider & Watkins, 1996; Ukrainetz, 1998). In parent-implemented naturalistic interventions featuring a Vygotskian interpretation of development, parents are supported in helping their children surpass what they can do individually with developmentally appropriate and socially embedded instruction, or scaffolding (e.g., Bellon, Ogletree, & Harn, 2000; Ezell, Justice, & Parsons, 2000; Kaderavek & Sulzby, 1998; Rabidoux & MacDonald, 2000). Parental scaffolding is particularly influential to children's performance on a given task when the required task is grounded within children's zone of proximal development, reflecting their maturing competencies or learning potential. The lower limit of this zone is what a child can do independently, whereas the upper limit is what a child can do with maximal adult support (Vygotsky, 1978). The zone of proximal development is dynamic across tasks and over time, shifting to reflect the developing skills of a child at a particular point in time and within a specific context (Diaz, Neal, & Vachio, 1991; Paris, Newman, & Jacobs, 1985). Theoretically, the amount of assistance children need to complete a task should be reflected in the quality and quantity of parental scaffolds, with scaffolding decreasing in quantity and number of directives as children become increasingly able to complete a task independently.

Investigations of parental scaffolding have become increasingly relevant for children who show delayed progress in learning and applying some skills independently (Smith, Landry, & Swank, 2000). This is particularly true for children with language difficulties, who often exhibit developmental weaknesses in the language system that are independent of other adverse neuro-developmental disabilities (e.g., autism, mental retardation). Children with language difficulties show a range of learning problems that are influenced by their underdeveloped language system, including developmental problems with literacy achievement (Boudreau & Hedberg, 1999). Literacy problems are especially evident in the area of phonological awareness (PA), which describes an individual's sensitivity to the segmental structure of spoken language. …