ERIC Identifier: ED447722
Publication Date: 2000-11-00
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Languages and
Linguistics Washington DC.
What Early Childhood Teachers Need To Know about Language. ERIC Digest.
Considerable evidence exists that high-quality early childhood education
programs for children from birth to age five can have long-lasting, positive
consequences for children's success in school and later in life, especially for
children from low-income families (Barnett, 1995; Frede, 1995). However, such
programs are not available for all children who need them, nor are all programs
of the quality that is necessary to achieve positive outcomes for children. In
fact, only about 15% of child care centers are judged to be good or excellent. A
recent study of a random sample of Head Start programs found that, while none of
the programs was poor, the level of quality varied, and support for language and
literacy learning was weak in many programs. Not surprisingly, children in the
better quality programs out-performed children in lower quality programs on
measures of learning and development (U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services, 1998). Overall, Head Start children's expressive language skills were
below national norms, but in the better quality programs, children's scores
approached or matched those of their middle-class counterparts.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education released a study of the skills and
knowledge of a nationally representative cohort of children at entrance to
kindergarten showing that social class and other group differences are already
evident this early (West, Denton, & Germino-Hauskin, 2000). This finding
suggests that kindergarten is too late to intervene in order to narrow the
achievement gap. High-quality early childhood education programs have great
potential for preventing later school failure, particularly if they place a
strong emphasis on language development. For this reason, early childhood
teachers need thorough knowledge about language and how to help children develop
language and literacy skills. Often teachers haven't had opportunities to build
the knowledge they need.
EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION IN CONTEXT
programs operate in a variety of public and private settings under a range of
state standards, all of which are minimal. Unlike the K-12 educational system,
in which certified teachers with baccalaureate degrees are the norm, early
childhood programs are often staffed by teachers with minimal qualifications.
The context of early childhood teacher preparation varies greatly depending
on state licensing standards for teachers. It is only within the last decade
that the majority of states have had specialized licensure for early childhood
teachers (Ratcliff, Cruz, & McCarthy, 1999). A number of states have an
early childhood license that begins at kindergarten, which means that there is
no baccalaureate-level preparation specific to serving children ages birth
through four. Many child care teachers attend associate-degree-granting
institutions that offer majors in early childhood, but these programs do not
provide the depth and breadth of language preparation that Fillmore and Snow
(2000) call for in their article, "What Teachers Need to Know About Language."
The most significant barrier to ensuring that early childhood teachers have a
broad and deep knowledge of language is the inferior compensation offered in
most programs. Currently, teachers in programs for young children receive
average salaries that are less than half of those of public school teachers
(Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Team, 1995). This lack of adequate
compensation leads to high staff turnover, making it impossible to recruit and
retain well-qualified, well-educated teachers.
A further complicating factor for early childhood programs is that they are
now being brought into the standards and accountability movement that has had a
major impact on K-12 education. States are adding pre-kindergarten standards and
assessments, and Head Start is incorporating child outcome data as part of its
evaluation and accountability systems. Very young children, including children
whose home language is not English, are expected to demonstrate specific
progress on identified learning outcomes, which always include language and
early literacy objectives.
WHY DO EARLY CHILDHOOD TEACHERS NEED TO KNOW MORE ABOUT
Fillmore and Snow identify five teacher roles that are relevant to
working with young children: communicator, evaluator, educator, educated human
being, and agent of socialization. Some of these roles are particularly critical
for language learning because the early years are the foundation for what occurs
The role of conversational partner is especially important in the preschool
years when children are just beginning to acquire language. Young children
develop their language skills through interactions with more accomplished
speakers of the language, such as parents, family members, and teachers, as well
as other children. When children are served in groups, the teacher's role as
interlocutor is very complex. Often children whose language is more advanced are
spoken to more often by adults. Thus children whose language development is
lagging receive less language interaction than they need, and those who need
less actually get more.
Although most early childhood teacher preparation programs address language
development, little emphasis is given to the role of experience and learning,
especially within the social and cultural context. Because this dimension of
language acquisition is overlooked, many teachers do not know how to support
children's language learning at various levels of development nor recognize when
language development does not proceed as expected. Early childhood teachers need
to talk with children in ways that ensure that their language continues to
develop, their vocabulary increases, and their grammar becomes more complex.
More and more, early childhood teachers are thrust into the role of
evaluators of children's language. This has always been a difficult role,
because it involves attempting to identify children who may have developmental
delays or disabilities. When young children are in the early stages of acquiring
language, it is especially difficult to obtain valid and reliable data on their
capabilities. Is performance variance attributable to normal, individual
variation in rates of development, to experiential variation that is relatively
easy to remediate, or to an actual delay? For teachers of students who speak a
language other than English at home or who speak a vernacular dialect of
English, this role is even more complex.
and educated human being.
Teachers of young children need to be generalists in their knowledge of the
world, because children are interested in just about everything that goes on
around them. This does not mean that early childhood teachers must have every
fact at their disposal, but it does mean that they need to have the extended
vocabulary, curiosity, and skills to find out what they want to know.
By school entrance, the processes of socialization and language development
are well under way. When children are served in programs outside of the home
beginning as babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, socialization occurs
simultaneously in two environments. It is especially important to respect
students' home languages and cultures.
WHAT SHOULD THE EARLY CHILDHOOD CLASSROOM TEACHER
Although oral language development is a primary goal in early
childhood programs, learning experiences and teaching strategies do not always
support this goal. Layzer, Goodson, and Moss (1993) report on a study of the
experiences of four-year-old children from low-income families in three types of
preschool programs--Head Start, Chapter 1-funded pre-kindergartens, and child
care centers. Acceptable levels of quality were maintained in all program types,
and a wide variety of activities was generally available. However, some findings
caused concern. For example, more than 25% of the classrooms did not have a
story time, either for the whole group or for smaller groups. In addition, while
teachers spent about two thirds of their time involved with children, only 10%
of their time was spent in individual interaction. In fact, more than 30% of
children across all classrooms had no individual interaction with a teacher. And
in a study of language development at home, Hart and Risley (1995) found
significant differences among social class groups in both quantity and quality
of children's early language experience.
Early childhood teachers need to know the value of one-to-one, extended,
cognitively challenging conversations and how to engage in such communication,
even with reluctant talkers. They need to know how the lexicon is acquired and
what instructional practices support vocabulary acquisition. They also need to
know how to conduct story reading and other early literacy experiences that
promote phonological awareness and prepare children for later success in reading
(Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).
Children also need time for social interaction and play with peers, which
provide excellent opportunities for language acquisition. But here again, the
potential of the early childhood context is unrealized. Opportunity for peer
interaction may be insufficient because young children are perceived to need
more instruction. Early childhood programs are often economically segregated so
that children who need them most often lack peer models of school-sanctioned
language. In addition, children who are acquiring English as a second language
need to interact with native-speaker peers, but often they do not because they
are served within their own language community and the teacher is the only one
who speaks English.
Fillmore and Snow (2000) also address important issues pertaining to written
language. One topic that they do not address in detail is phonics instruction
and its relationship to precursors in phonological and phonemic awareness.
Because phonics instruction has been so politically controversial, these are
topics that childhood teachers need to know more about, including appropriate
ways for teaching young children. Most early childhood teachers do not have
sufficient training in how to support early literacy learning. They need to know
how much phonics children need to know, how to know which children need more or
less explicit phonics instruction, and when to stop teaching phonics to which
Early childhood teachers should also have an understanding of cultural and
linguistic diversity, and of learning and teaching that addresses the youngest
age, including children who have not yet acquired a foundation in their home
Early childhood educators face tremendous
challenges in supporting children's language development. Given that children
acquire language best in meaningful contexts, through conversational
interactions, and through encounters with written language, these must be the
focus of instruction for teacher candidates.
Knowing what teachers need to know about language demands that the issue of
teacher qualifications in early childhood education be addressed. Teachers of
young children must obtain more education, better compensation, and greater
respect. Their role in supporting children's language acquisition is the bare
minimum of what they have to contribute to children's well-being and future
Barnett, W.S. (1995). Long-term effects of early
childhood programs on cognitive and school outcomes. "The Future of Children,
Cost, Quality, and Child Outcomes Study Team. (1995)."Cost, quality, and
child outcomes in child care centers" (Public Report, 2nd ed.). Denver:
University of Colorado at Denver, Economics Department.
Fillmore, L. W., & Snow, C.E. (2000). "What teachers need to know about
language." [On-line]. Available:
Frede, E. (1995). The role of program quality in producing early childhood
program benefits. "The Future of Children, 5," 115-32.
Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). "Meaningful differences in the everyday
experience of young American children." Baltimore: Brookes.
Layzer, J., Goodson, B., & Moss, M. (1993). "Life in preschool: Volume
one of an observational study of early childhood programs for disadvantaged
four-year-olds." Cambridge, MA: Abt Associates.
Ratcliff, N., Cruz, J., & McCarthy, J. (1999). "Early childhood teacher
education licensure patterns and curriculum guidelines: A state-by-state
analysis." Washington, DC: Council for Professional Recognition.
Snow, C., Burns, S., & Griffin, P. (1998). "Preventing reading
difficulties in young children." Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1998). "Head Start program
performance measures: Second progress report." Washington, DC: Author.
West, J., Denton, K., & Germino-Hauskin, E. (2000). "America's
kindergartners: Findings from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study,
kindergarten class of 1998-1999, fall 1998." Washington, DC: U.S. Department of
Education, National Center for Education Statistics.
This Digest is drawn from a commentary by Sue Bredekamp on "What Teachers
Need to Know About Language," by Lily Wong Fillmore and Catherine Snow.