Harvard Educational Review
  1. Young Children Learning at Home and School

    Beginning Literacy with Language

    Edited by David K. Dickinson and Patton O. Tabors

    Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 2001. 432 pp. $29.95.

    Young Children Learning at Home and School: Beginning Literacy with Language, edited by David K. Dickinson and Patton O. Tabors, reports the findings from the Home-School Study of Language and Literacy Development. This project explores the association between oral language skills and literacy development in young children, at home and in school programs. The authors document the reciprocal relationship between language development and early literacy and the role of adults in supporting, balancing, and interconnecting the two. The authors also identify how parents and teachers can support a child’s optimal development and learning with research-based practices at home and in school.

    The book reports on the findings of the first three years of data collection on seventy-four children and their families who maintained their connection with the study through participation in preschool programs such as Head Start. Although the book focuses on the preschool-to-kindergarten period of the Home-School Study, the research team continued to visit the homes and classrooms of the children in the study until their sophomore year in high school. This “kindergarten sample” of seventy-four children was split evenly in terms of gender. Forty-seven of the children were Caucasian, sixteen were African American, six were Latino, and five were biracial. All of the families were eligible for Head Start or subsidized child care or health care, and all spoke English at home. Furthermore, twenty-eight of the mothers were single parents, eighteen of whom were receiving public assistance.

    During the first three years of the study, when the children were three, four, and five years old, each family was visited once a year at home and at the preschool program. The researchers describe the crucial features of both of these environments as they relate to the children’s accomplishments at the end of kindergarten. This study revealed that a focus on the beginning of reading development at the end of kindergarten partially predicts future reading success.

    The research team collected two types of information during home visits: language data and interviews with the mother. Language data included audiotaping interactions between parents and children during book reading, telling stories about recent events, playing with toys, and conversations during meal times. Mothers were interviewed about their own backgrounds and the types of activities their family participated in. During preschool visits, three types of data were collected: language data, classroom curriculum data, and teacher interviews.

    When the children in the project were five years old, several measures and tasks were administered to capture the process of their individual literacy acquisition. The SHELL–K (the School-Home Early Language and Literacy Battery–Kindergarten), which is a series of language and literacy tasks, was administered at home to the child without the assistance of the mother. Other measures that evaluated literacy acquisition included the picture description task, definitions, story comprehension, and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, which assesses receptive vocabulary. Information from mother and teacher interviews and the observations from school visits were entered into databases, and the audiotapes of home and classroom conversations were transcribed using software that allowed for computer coding and analysis.

    The main types of analyses used on the larger data set included descriptive analyses, correlational analyses, and regression analyses. Aside from this technical information, the researchers highlighted the stories of children who represented the results for the whole kindergarten sample. A subset of four children was chosen to better understand the quality of their environments and the influences that shaped their language and literacy skills.

    In the introduction of this detailed report, Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Catherine Snow and Patton Tabors, and David Dickinson of the Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts, do an excellent job describing the goals, rationale, and design of the study. Using language accessible to a general audience, these scholars present explicit and clear explanations of the analytic tools and the theoretical background employed. They also present the rationale behind the selection process of the four focus children and give the reader a succinct yet holistic illustration of these cases.

    The book is divided into three parts. Part One reports on the analyses of data collected in the home environment; Part Two focuses on data collected from preschool classrooms; and Part Three investigates the relationships between homes and schools.

    Chapter two, by Jeanne DeTemple, discusses language skills related to book reading. Jane Katz highlights the relevance of the talk of pretend play to the development of early definitional skills of the focus children in chapter three. In chapter four, Diane Beals focuses on explanatory talk and narrative skills at the microlevel during mealtime conversations as predictors of academic language skills. Patton Tabors, Diane Beals, and Zehava Weizman conclude Part One with an analysis of vocabulary used by the focus children in conversational settings.

    Part Two presents the analyses of data collected in the school the focal children attended when they were four years old. In chapter six, Patton Tabors, Kevin Roach, and Catherine Snow summarize the group’s findings of three specific types of extended discourse: non-immediate talk during book reading, pretend talk during toy-play, and narrative and explanatory talk during meal times. They show how these conversational skills are related to a common standard measure of language and literacy skills during kindergarten. By providing descriptive examples from the data of the focus children, the authors support their group findings and display a more comprehensive picture of the relationship between these home conversational skills and academic performance in the public schools.

    In chapter seven, Miriam W. Smith further describes the sites in which this project took place. She draws on previous research to connect actual school environments with the design of the study and the particular factors that seem to influence literacy and language development at school. In chapters eight through eleven, David Dickinson and Linda R. Cote present their findings through an analysis of how children’s experiences at school relate to their literacy and language levels. They focus on many aspects of literacy development, such as content of talk, social aspects of literacy, and teachers’ pedagogical beliefs, by observing focus teachers and children during specific school activities, such as free play and small groups.

    Part Three of Young Children Learning at Home and School examines the relationship between the project’s home and school data. In chapters twelve and thirteen, the various authors summarize their findings in a coherent narrative and go over the implications for child development and the development of early literacy skills. The researchers also examine the role of parent involvement in the link between home and school. The editors conclude the book with a descriptive story of how homes and schools together can support language and literacy development.

    Young Children Learning at Home and School is helpful at many levels. Besides being a comprehensive summary of research in this area, it is a report on new and groundbreaking research on language and literacy development that will inform policymakers and researchers. This text is an excellent resource for an academic course on child development, as it presents a broad picture of the applications of language development theory in education. It also has an instructive quality for the practitioner who may want a summary of theories regarding language and literacy development and empirical findings organized and presented by influential figures in this area of child development. Parents will also find this book useful. After each chapter, the editors present a series of recommendations of best practices for home and school environments.

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