Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

Literacy Conversations between Adults and Children at Child Care: Descriptive Observations and Hypotheses

Academic journal article Journal of Research in Childhood Education

Literacy Conversations between Adults and Children at Child Care: Descriptive Observations and Hypotheses

Article excerpt

This study examines the nature of literacy-related, teacher-child talk in the daily routines of child care. The researchers focused on the incidence, features, and patterns of talk on a typical morning at three child care centers. With regard to the incidence of talk, observations indicated that the adults talked about reading and writing to a modest degree, compared to the total amount of talk with children. When adults did talk about reading and writing, it typically involved few children in brief exchanges that primarily gave information about print, or that met practical needs of daily routines. The incidence of the adults' literacy talk, aside from book talk, was primarily intermittent and spontaneous. Analysis of the discourse features of the teachers' literacy talk showed a similar pattern for all three teachers, namely one of getting/giving information and checking for understanding. Overall, the patterns reflected the natural teaching tendencies of telling, asking, and checking, features th at are characteristic of transmissive teaching practices. The patterns found do not ignore literacy, but do not promote it either. These findings support the argument for improving and enriching the professional education literacy curriculum as the surest route for enriching and bettering the literacy environment for children at child care.

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The significance of parent-child talk for children's language and learning is well-established on several fronts. Sheer quantity is important, for example. The more parents talk with their children, the more opportunity children have to use language, thus quickening the mental process of learning language (Wells, 1986). Vocabulary is important. The words parents use as they care for their children expose them to meanings, synonyms, antonyms, and expressions that not only build up children's semantic abilities, but also promote an inquiring stance toward words as symbols for experience (Hart & Risley, 1995). Sentences also matter in that these convey temporal, causal, and qualitative relations that help children organize experience in literate ways (Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998). Joint book reading is important, because it creates a situation wherein parent and child can engage in book-focused and meaning based conversations that expand linguistic awareness and disembed thinking from firsthand experience (Bus, van Ijzendoorn, & Pellegrini, 1995; Heath, 1983). Parent-child talk, in sum, teaches children not only to talk, but also to learn through talk in ways that contribute to emergent literacy and literacy acquisition.

The significance of teacher-child talk for emergent literacy development, however, is far less sure. Teacher talk, in general, is an under-researched topic in early childhood education (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog, 1997). Compared to the large amount of empirical work on parent-child communication, relatively little is known about the precise nature of teacher-child talk and its range of styles in the preschool setting (Cross, 1989). At a global level, existing studies indicate that teachers talk relatively infrequently to individual children on a daily basis (about one-third of the children) and that their talk centers around routine matters (e.g., management and safety issues) rather than elaboration of children's play and thinking (Dunn, 1993). This is understandable, given the heavy demands for interaction and management on the teacher's part in the early childhood setting. It is not easy for a lone teacher to carry on a sustained conversation with a single child in the often interrupted and friendly din of ch ild care or preschool. Nevertheless, the rich, connected discourse between teacher and child offers the best opportunity for instructional conversation, out of which new words, new ideas, and new thinking are fashioned (Barnes, 1995). That such conversations are rare is far from ideal, since increasing numbers of children now spend considerable time in early childhood programs and away from their parents during the early period of language acquisition (Hofferth, 1996). …

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