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Increasing Vocabulary in Preschoolers: Using Cognitive Science to Guide Pedagogy

Funding: I.E.S. for three years for a total of $1,687,259
Collaborators: Temple University and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, U. of Delaware and Roberta Golinkoff, Lehigh University and Ageliki Nicolopoulou

Abstract:
During the three years of funding that we have received we will create and test a novel approach to building preschool teachers’ abilities to foster vocabulary and broader language skills among preschool children from low-income homes. In the first 18 months we will use small-scale experiments to identify instructional methods that teach vocabulary and foster language learning through book reading that is followed by guided play (i.e., play in which an adult subtly offers input to children’s play activities). These trials will compare varied recommended methods of reading to children and will devise and test the impact of providing different kinds of adult to support to children as they play with figures that are related to the book. In the final 18 months we will examine the feasibility of having Language Specialists help teachers learn to use the methods we have devised. Throughout the project we will study children’s vocabulary learning and understanding of the stories being read and in the final phase we also will examine the impact of the intervention on teachers’ practice and the relationship between teachers’ adoption of recommended methods and children’s vocabulary and language growth over a four month period.

Research Methods
In the first year and a half we will create our book reading and play intervention and will test the impact of varied methods on children’s vocabulary learning in 28 classrooms in two different sites (Nashville and Philadelphia). In each of 28 classrooms, 3 children will be randomly assigned to one of 3 conditions. First we test three book reading methods, then we will use the most effect book reading method as we test three play support methods; then we test combinations of the most promising methods. We will look for pre-to posttest gains in knowledge of taught vs. untaught words across conditions and assess depth of knowledge of the words using comprehension and production tasks. Story understanding and recall also will be assessed.

The final year and a half we will study the feasibility of having a Language Specialist helping a teacher learn to adopt our recommended book reading and play support strategies. In the second half of year two we will work in eight classrooms with 9 children from each class as we conduct a small-scale test of our approach in which control will be gradually shifted from the Language Specialist to the teacher. In year 3 we will work with teachers and track children’s learning over a period of four months. We will administer standardized language tests before and after the intervention. Children’s recall of stories will be assessed as well as productive language ability. We seek to enable teachers to become effective language teachers who are able to employ recommended strategies without scripted support as they read books that they select and engage children in play related to the books.

Our research questions will be addressed within the framework of linear mixed modeling, and all analyses will be conducted to account for the clustered nature of the data. Feasibility will be determined by observing delivery during and after the intervention and by holding focus group conversations with pilot test teachers.