Kindergarten can help children who struggle with their language

Children learn new words very quickly in their early childhood. Now researchers have found a way to help strengthen the language also for those children struggling with the it.

Text: SIW ELLEN JAKOBSEN / TRANSLATION: HANNE HERRMAN

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Children with a good vocabulary and a rich language at the age of four, are more likely to continue this positive development. Children struggling with their language at the same age, will rarely be able to catch up with this lead.

But now researchers have shown how it is possible.

A SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO LANGUAGE STIMULATION

Might the linguistic differences between children be balanced out already in the kindergarten, by giving those struggling with language, better for learning conditions at the time they start school?

A group of researchers wanted to find an answer to this question. Åste Mjelve Hagen and her colleagues started the work by mapping the vocabulary of every child born in one particular year, coming from two kindergartens in two different municipalities. All the children had Norwegian as their primary language.

35% of the children who knew the fewest amount of words – 300 children – were picked out to receive a systematic language stimulation. Most of them did not have severe linguistic problems, rather smaller challenges, the hope was they could profit from a little extra follow-up.

For one year, 150 of the children took part in small sessions of linguistic stimulation three times per week. It was the kindergarten teachers who were in charge of implementing the scheme set up by the researchers.

The other half of the children with linguistic challenges did not receive such an offer. They followed the ordinary practice in the kindergarten. The last group of children constituted a so-called control group.

PATTERN, DIRECTION AND SIZE

The linguistic stimulation consisted of various play-based measures; for instance a grown-up reading for the children in a particular way developed by the researchers, a so-called dialogic reading; the children were asked questions about the text and took part in the happening and evolvement of the story they were listening to.

The researchers had picked out some words called words of the week. These words were put into the story. They were also connected to activities. The words of the week were of a kind that children don’t necessarily learn spontaneously or hear in spoken language, but often will run into while reading. Here are some examples of such words: pattern, direction and size. The researchers believe they will profit from learning them since they often are used in an interdisciplinary way in school.

FOUND A CLEAR DIFFERENCE

All the children participating in the project had their language mapped by the researchers before the experiment started. The children were also mapped right after the experiment ended. Finally, they were mapped a third time seven months later. By that time, they had been going to primary school for half a year.

The researchers found a clear difference between the groups; between those who participated in the experiment and those who were in the control group.

The children in the language groups developed a better language and achieved a better linguistic understanding than those who did not receive a linguistic stimulation during their time in the kindergarten.

“This effect was still there seven months later,” Hagen tells.

The children who took part in the experiment are in the fourth grade of primary school now, and once again the researchers are visiting the school in order to map them.

“Now we are collecting data to see if our experiment has had long-term effects as well,” says the researcher.

“If we don’t do something for the children struggling with the language, there will be no changes either.”

THE KINDERGARTEN IS AN IMPORTANT PLACE FOR CHANGE

A number of previous studies have shown that the years in kindergarten are of great importance for the development of language. Children who know many words and terms, will be better at talking when they start school. These children learn to read and write more easily.

If we don’t do something for the children struggling with the language, there will be no changes either. In situations with free playing, children with a rich and elaborated language will use it a lot, while those struggling with it, often run the risk of being verbally dominated.

“It seems like those struggling with the language, are unable to approach the ones with a rich and advanced language on their own. If the grown-ups don’t do something, there will be no balancing out,” Hagen says.

“That is why the kindergarten is such an important place for changemaking,” she says.

NOT EVERYONE WAS ENTHUSIASTIC

But not all the kindergarten teachers were happy for the project.

“Some were highly motivated and found it very exciting. We have also been told that several have continued to work with other children using elements from the experiments afterwards. But there were teachers who thought it was very difficult to find time for this work. And it does demand extra resources to take out a small group of children several times a week. Many of them did not do all of it.”

Still, several of the staff members were able to improve the situation for some of the children struggling with their language. Compared with the children in the control group it was proven that it worked.

“It is my belief that some children need a more systematic and intensive linguistic stimulation than the kindergartens normally can offer. This project shows that investing so many resources over a long time period actually might help children with linguistic challenges,” says Hagen.