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Re: [xmca] Obama's Learn Act


Here is a brief summary of the main findings of the Bristol Study.

Starting in 1979 I directed a large longitudinal study designed to chart the language development of a representative sample of children during the pre-school years. Subsequently, we followed the progress of 32 of the original 128 children until the age of 10 years, comparing their early language experience with their progress during the first phase of schooling. Several important findings emerged from the overall longitudinal study which challenged some beliefs that were then (and are still) widely accepted :

1. Despite considerable variation in their rate of development, all the children followed essentially the same sequence of development in: the functions for which they used language; the meanings which they attempted to communicate; and their mastery of the morphology and syntax of British English.

2. There was not a statistically significant relationship between the children’s overall rate of development and their rating on a scale of family background.

3. The most significant predictor of rate of language development was the quality of conversation that the children experienced.

4. On entry to school, the quality of linguistic interaction that the children experienced in the classroom was inferior on all measures to that experienced at home; this was true for all children in the study, whatever their class of family background.

5. Progress in school was significantly related to the children’s knowledge of literacy on entry to school and this was most strongly predicted by the frequency with which they had engaged in shared story reading; both these measures were significantly correlated with class of family background.

I think it is findings 3 and 5 above that are most significant in the current context.

With respect to language development (3), children who developed most rapidly experienced more interaction with parents and older siblings, of which a greater proportion was of high quality in being more collaborative and more responsive to the children's interests. The Meaning Makers includes many examples that exemplify high quality interaction. What characterizes these examples is the way in which the child's mother or other interlocutor willingly responded to the child’s interest and provided information to explain the significance of what he or she was seeing or hearing, even when this interrupted the mother’s plan.

What these examples show, in particular, is that when the child and interlocutor are engaged in some joint activity of mutual interest, this ensures that there is intersubjectivity of attention, which enables the interlocutor to provide relevant information at the moment when the child is most able to appropriate it. It is in this way that the child gradually comes to take over the adult way of interpreting the world – not through deliberate and systematic instruction, but through shared interest and involvement in the events that make up everyday life.

Opportunities for such contingently responsive adult interaction with a child are obviously more difficult to provide when the adult-child ratio is greater than at home, but it is the goal to be aimed for. By contrast, talking with several children according to a predetermined script, based on what is expected to be assessed, is unlikely to secure the children's active engagement and may even lead to their becoming unwilling participants.

With respect to (5), these same principles applied equally to "literacy events." Frequency of being read to predicted facility in literacy learning in the early school years and overall attainment at age 10. But what was clear was that, for those who were most successful, being read to involved interaction about the story and accompanying illustrations, not instruction about the "mechanics" of the written code. If letter-sound correspondences were made explicit, this usually arose out of the child's interest rather than from the adult's didactic intentions. When children were really engaged with the story and the flow of the read-aloud text, they spontaneously began to pay attention to the vocabulary, asking questions about the meanings of unfamiliar words, and noticing rhymes and alliterations that provided opportunities to talk about letter-sound correspondences.

While being read to was more common in "middle-class" homes, it was not confined to such homes and children who had experiences of the kind just described took more easily to reading and writing in school, whatever their social class designation.

My interpretation of these findings is that collaborative talk about a text in which the child is interested is the best way to get him or her interested in taking over responsibility for decoding print to meaning and in discovering how to represent his or her own meanings in writing. This is particularly important for children who do not have such experiences at home. As I spell out in detail in The Meaning Makers, focusing on "phonics" before the child has discovered the purposes of reading and writing and the pleasure and satisfaction that they yield is counterproductive. Similar arguments are made by Marie Clay, whose successful Reading Recovery program is built around gaining the child's interest and active involvement in reading and writing texts of personal significance.

The implications of these findings for pre-school programs seem very clear so I will not belabor them. The question is how to get the policy makers to pay attention to them.


Gordon Wells		<gwells@ucsc.edu>			http://people.ucsc.edu/~gwells/
Department of Education
University of California, Santa Cruz.

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