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David Dickinson

Margaret Cowan Chair, Language and Literacy Education, Department of Teaching and Learning

Professor Dickinson is the Margaret Cowan Chair in the Department of Teaching and Learning and the Associate Dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives of Peabody College. After graduating from Oberlin College, he taught elementary school for five years. While teaching African-American children from working class homes, he became interested in the role of language in literacy. He pursued that interest as he worked on his doctorate at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Throughout his career Dickinson has advocated for increasing the intellectual challenge of preschool classrooms, identifying the pervasive impact of language on literacy development, and recognizing the complexity of the challenges associated with changing teaching practice in ways that result in enhanced learning. He has authored over 120 articles and chapters, co-authored Beginning Literacy with Language, co-edited six books including three volumes of the Handbook of Early Literacy, and co-authored Opening the World of Learning, a widely used preschool curriculum. While working at Education Development Center (ED, he was part of the team that created the Early Childhood Generalist examination for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS), the first successfully launched certificate. For five years at Vanderbilt he led a team that developed a demonstration preschool in Abu Dhabi and assisted in the development of a Cycle One primary grade school. Click here for a video about this. 

Research Interests

He is interested in: 1) understanding how the preschool classrooms that serve children from low-income backgrounds can foster language development; 2) developing methods that enable teachers to foster learning among children from low-income backgrounds, and 3) examining the relationship between language and early reading,

He and Catherine Snow conducted a longitudinal study of language and literacy development among low-income families that examined the effects of preschool home and classroom experiences on children’s early reading development. That study was among the first to reveal the stability of oral language between preschool and middle school and to document correlations between specific patterns of language use in classrooms and homes and children’s later reading comprehension.

Drawing on the findings of his longitudinal study he realized there was a pressing need to enhance classroom support for language and early literacy. He led a group that created a professional development intervention that was delivered throughout New England. It was the first widely implemented intervention for fostering language and literacy development among children in preschool classrooms. While at EDC he also helped create the Early Language and Literacy Classroom Observation (ELLCO).

In collaboration with Judith Schickedanz he developed Opening the World of Learning, a full-day preschool curriculum that is used throughout the United States. In two subsequent studies he and colleagues combined use of the curriculum with coaching and professional development. In the second such study, he and Deborah Rowe found causal evidence that their approach significantly enhanced language and early literacy skills of both native English speakers and those learning English as a new language. Click here for a video about this.

Throughout his career he has contributed to basic research on language learning and exploration of the relationship between language and literacy development. Early in his career he examined initial word learning and the relationship between vocabulary acquisition word and conceptual knowledge. Currently he is examining basic word learning processes as he explores the word learning that occurs as a result of the classroom intervention he is developing.

Ever since the 1980’s he has pursued 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 language ability acquired in the preschool years would have effects on later reading comprehension. Their study found strong support for that hypothesis. More recently analyses of data from a longitudinal study that followed children from preschool through first grade provided further support for the hypothesis the language plays a major role in supporting multiple aspects of early reading development.


Current Work

Currently he is engaged in three lines of inquiry. For over six years he and colleagues have been developing a preschool intervention that uses book reading, games and music teach to vocabulary. It has proven to be highly effective and is readily adopted by preschool teachers. With colleagues at Vanderbilt he also is helping to create an electronic book that can adapt to young children’s comprehension level and help parents engage their child in conversations about books. In a third project he and colleagues are engaged in a research-practitioner partnership with a local elementary school that serves mostly families who are learning English as a new language. They are striving to understand the sources of chronically low levels of reading comprehension and devise strategies to help teachers more effectively build children’s reading comprehension.