Here is a brief summary of the main findings of the Bristol Study.
Starting in 1979 I directed a large longitudinal study designed
the language development of a representative sample of children
pre-school years. Subsequently, we followed the progress of 32 of the
original 128 children until the age of 10 years, comparing their
language experience with their progress during the first phase of
Several important findings emerged from the overall longitudinal
challenged some beliefs that were then (and are still) widely
1. Despite considerable variation in their rate of development,
children followed essentially the same sequence of development in:
functions for which they used language; the meanings which they
communicate; and their mastery of the morphology and syntax of
2. There was not a statistically significant relationship between the
children’s overall rate of development and their rating on a scale
3. The most significant predictor of rate of language development
quality of conversation that the children experienced.
4. On entry to school, the quality of linguistic interaction that
children experienced in the classroom was inferior on all measures
experienced at home; this was true for all children in the study,
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
reading; both these measures were significantly correlated with
I think it is findings 3 and 5 above that are most significant in
With respect to language development (3), children who developed most
rapidly experienced more interaction with parents and older
which a greater proportion was of high quality in being more
and more responsive to the children's interests. The Meaning
many examples that exemplify high quality interaction. What
these examples is the way in which the child's mother or other
willingly responded to the child’s interest and provided
explain the significance of what he or she was seeing or hearing,
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
ensures that there is intersubjectivity of attention, which
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
comes to take over the adult way of interpreting the world – not
deliberate and systematic instruction, but through shared interest
involvement in the events that make up everyday life.
Opportunities for such contingently responsive adult interaction
child are obviously more difficult to provide when the adult-child
greater than at home, but it is the goal to be aimed for. By
talking with several children according to a predetermined script,
what is expected to be assessed, is unlikely to secure the
engagement and may even lead to their becoming unwilling
With respect to (5), these same principles applied equally to
events." Frequency of being read to predicted facility in literacy
in the early school years and overall attainment at age 10. But
clear was that, for those who were most successful, being read to
interaction about the story and accompanying illustrations, not
about the "mechanics" of the written code. If letter-sound
were made explicit, this usually arose out of the child's interest
than from the adult's didactic intentions. When children were
with the story and the flow of the read-aloud text, they
to pay attention to the vocabulary, asking questions about the
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
confined to such homes and children who had experiences of the
described took more easily to reading and writing in school,
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
in discovering how to represent his or her own meanings in
writing. This is
particularly important for children who do not have such
home. As I spell out in detail in The Meaning Makers, focusing on
before the child has discovered the purposes of reading and
writing and the
pleasure and satisfaction that they yield is counterproductive.
arguments are made by Marie Clay, whose successful Reading
is built around gaining the child's interest and active
reading and writing texts of personal significance.
The implications of these findings for pre-school programs seem
so I will not belabor them. The question is how to get the policy
pay attention to them.
Gordon Wells <email@example.com>
Department of Education
University of California, Santa Cruz.
xmca mailing list