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David Dickinson

Professor, Department of Teaching and Learning
Professor, Specialty in Poverty and Intervention

David Dickinson Biosketch

Professor Dickinson is the Margaret Cowan Chair in the Department of Teaching and Learning and Associate Dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives of Peabody College. He has lead a project in Abu Dhabi in which instructional methods for teaching in Arabic and English are being developed and refined in a preschool and primary grade school and systematically disseminated to other schools.

He is interested in: 1) understanding the relationships between language and early literacy development; 2) identifying strategies for use by teachers in early childhood classrooms that support language and literacy development; and 3) developing methods that can be used at a large scale to enable teachers to foster learning among children from low-income backgrounds. Currently he is developing an intervention designed to help preschool teachers teach vocabulary through effective book reading combined with creative and playful activities.

Professor Dickinson received his undergraduate degree from Oberlin College and a certificate to teach elementary school and a Master’s degree in Education from Temple University.  He taught elementary school five years, working in schools that served African-American children from working class homes. As a teacher he became interested in the role of language in literacy. He pursued his interest in language and cognition as he worked on his doctorate at Harvard's Graduate School of Education where he studied with Courtney Cazden and Susan Carey, then at M.I.T.

Dickinson has pursued three related lines of work during his career: 1) understanding language learning processes with special attention to the role of preschool classrooms, 2) development and evaluation of methods of supporting effective methods for bolstering language abilities of children who enter school with limitations the language abilities, and 3) describing the development of literacy with special attention to interrelationships between language and code-based knowledge.

Language Learning

Throughout his career he has drawn on and contributed to basic research about language learning processes.  Early in his career he was among the first to examine fast mapping, the initial word learning that occurs after a single exposure. He also studied children’s learning of words about materials as he explored the association between conceptual development and word learning. 

He then shifted his focus to studies of language and early literacy development among children from low-income homes.  In a study of book reading in preschool classrooms he identified distinct styles of book reading and, in a subsequent study, found evidence of an association between the overall style a teacher’s book reading and children’s language learning.

In the late 1980’s he and Catherine Snow began work on a longitudinal study of language literacy development among low-income families that eventually ended up following children from age three through high school. During the early phase of the effort they assessed phonemic awareness, print knowledge and vocabulary among children from varied SES backgrounds and were among the first to report a strong relationship between social economic class and these key abilities.  To understand factors accounting for these differences they gathered detailed information about children’s language experiences at home and in classrooms. Dickinson led the classroom portion of the study, which was the first to hypothesize that classroom language practices might have significant effects on children’s language learning and to pursue that hypothesis by collecting utterance level data describing teachers’ and children’s language use across the day.  That study yielded correlational data showing the effects of specific language strategies during book reading and at other times of the preschool day on children’s language and early literacy at the end of kindergarten.  These end-of-kindergarten effects indirectly accounted for significant variance in grade four language and reading comprehension.

Subsequently he led an intervention project in a large Head Start that included collection of videotaped data across the day from 52 classrooms.  These videotapes have been transcribed and coded and he and his graduate students have conducted multiple studies using these data.  In one effort they combined data from three settings and investigated how language use is shaped by context.  Other studies have found associations between specific teaching practices during book reading and children’s language growth.

Recently Dickinson returned to studying basic language learning processes in classrooms using data from intervention studies in which book reading and play are used to teach language.  In this work data from intervention studies designed to foster word learning are being used. He and colleagues are examining the effects of providing different amounts and types of information about words to acquisition of word knowledge, with special attention to the depth of knowledge acquired.

Intervention Research

Much of Dickinson’s work has been directed toward seeking to find ways to improve the quality of preschool classrooms. In the 1990’s, based on the detailed observations of language practices in preschool classrooms emerging from his longitudinal study, he realized there was a pressing need to enhance classroom support for language and early literacy. He led a group from Education Development Center (EDC) in creation of the Language Enhancement and Enrichment Program (LEEP) that was delivered throughout New England. It was the first widely implemented professional development intervention for fostering language and literacy development among children in preschool classrooms. While at EDC he was part of the team that created the first successful National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certificate, the Early Childhood Generalist certificate. He also helped create the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation (ELLCO), a widely used tool for describing classroom supports for literacy and language, and the Teacher Rating of Language and Literacy (TROLL), a tool used to describe children’s language use in multiple locations in the United States and Australia.

As evidence mounted that preschool classrooms too often lack sufficient intellectual challenge and intentional support for language, Judith Schickedanz and he co-authored a comprehensive preschool curriculum. He studied its effectiveness by conducting a randomized control trial study with Ann Kaiser, and, with Deborah Rowe, directed an Early Reading First project in Nashville that used the curriculum. These efforts have provided evidence that the curriculum combined with coaching can help teachers enable children to make substantial growth in language and literacy skills. To see this work you may view:

Having discovered the difficulties with changing instruction across the entire classroom day and realizing the potency of book reading as a setting that can foster language learning, he shifted to development of more focused interventions.  In collaboration with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff, he began development of an intervention that links high quality book reading with teacher-guided play.  Those efforts have proven to result in sizable gains and work to develop and test new playful methods that include music are on-going.

Beginning in 2010 Dickinson also began to lead efforts to create schools in Abu Dhabi that would develop and put on display effective strategies that put into practice the country’s educational vision that called for mixed gender bilingual education that fosters intellectual engagement and creativity.  The Vanderbilt collaboration with Atfal Abu Dhabi KG enabled it to be the first KG in the country to receive and “A” level score from an international school inspection team.  Vanderbilt’s support of a grade 1 – 5 primary grade school that led since 2002 has helped it be a showcase for effective instructional approaches in Arabic and English. For a glimpse of Abu Dhabi see:

Early Literacy Development

Throughout his career Dickinson has engaged in research that has examined the hypothesis that early language is critical to long-term literacy success.  The longitudinal study he conducted with Catherine Snow was based on the premise that oral language ability acquired in the preschool years would have lasting effects on later reading comprehension.  Their study found support for this as both classroom and homes were found to support language and those early effects has a lasting impact. Subsequently, drawing on research he and colleagues conducted in Head Start classrooms and a review of the literature, he and colleagues emphasized the role of language to reading and called for an approach to early literacy development in which all aspects of language competence were considered.  Recent analyses of data from a study that followed children from preschool through first grade provide strong support for the hypotheses advanced in the earlier work.

Throughout his career Dickinson has been an outspoken advocate for an increase in the intellectual level of preschool classrooms, for the need to recognize the pervasive impact of language on literacy development, and recognition of the complexity of the challenges associated with changing practice in ways that result in enhanced learning.