Monday, August 2, 2010

peers, preschool, and language

This summer I'm volunteering at a daycare center trying to gain a better understanding of two-four year olds.

I've gained a whole new respect for anyone who is able to spend 8 hours a day with a room full of 2 year olds.

I can't help but be saddened though when I listen to the two year olds chatter amongst each other, or when I watch them sort colors, count, listen to stories, or ask questions using full sentences. At two, they are so much further along than many of the children who enter kindergarten at my school.

Their language is fuller- their sentences are more complete- they make better eye contact with adults- they seem aware of their world instead of fearful of it.

Many of them come from the same background as the children I teach- the same socio-economic background, as well as the same international background. So how, at two, is their language stronger than the 4-5 year olds entering my school?

Most of the 4-5 year olds who enter my school do not have any sort of preschool experience. For many, kindergarten is their first school experience- and- due to their parents' misconceived notions that they should not teach their child their native language- it is their first immersion into language in general. What happens when a brain develops for 5 years without truly interacting with language?

Another observation I've made is that the two year olds speak in longer sentences to one another than they do to us- and they mimic each other more than they mimic adults. If one of their peers asks, in a full sentence, to use a toy, they will immediately repeat that sentence, and sometimes apply it to another toy. A friend notices three flags flying- they will notice three flags, and then three flowers- and perfectly mimic the friend's intonation as they announce their own findings.

One of their teachers can say something and they will repeat it, but usually will repeat only the last few words in the sentence. With their friends they repeat the whole sentence.

The preschool where I'm working includes children from different socio-economic backgrounds. At first I was surprised by this, and then didn't think anything of it- children are children, right? I started noticing the way the children interact with one another- how that one child whose surrounded by language at home is happily playing with her friends using the language she's learned at home. And quickly her friends copy her language during play. The drama center goes from banging on the table with forks to having a party and pouring out juice simply by that one child adding a full sentence to play. It is something one of the teachers or I couldn't inspire.

This is certainly only anecdotal and true research may prove me wrong, but it seems to indicate some importance between who children's peers are and their language development.

So, for me, who will spend the first few months of kindergarten desperately trying to make up for the lost years of some of our children- how do we use this to our advantage? And when we're discussing the positive impact of preschool programs should we be looking at preschool programs that create an inclusive community to promote language development?


jwg said...

I was director of a day care center for 18 years where 99.9% of the kids were paid for, at least in part, by Social Services and at any given time between 60-75% were placed in day care by CPS or Preventive Services. We spent a lot of time introducing kids to concepts like colors and shapes, but even more building their vocabularies with what might be described as Science, Social Studies and Language Arts. We had animals, raised plants, went on field trips and read millions of books. We cooked and had visiting artists.The environment was full of lots of interesting materials. Many of the kids had never been farther than the next town or 2 away. With all that, I used to think my kids were OK, until I visited programs serving middle class kids and listened to them speak. I became more and more convinced that much of the damage was done before the kids got to us at age three, and that a lot was determined by how much kids were talked to from birth on.
Many of our kids did a lot better in school than they might have without us. If nothing else, they understood the rules of "school". Our school district is small with an incredible variety of kids and was pretty good at providing some programs and experiences that increased language development and exposed the kids to a variety of experiences. However, almost all that has vanished since NCLB. The district got a grant from the Feds and bought into one of those scripted reading programs. Field trips have pretty much gone away. The remedial reading program doesn't take the lowest scoring kids, only the ones they feel can make "measurable" progress. Read that as likely to score a 2 or 3 instead of a one. The day care center is gone, mostly because social services stopped placing kids in care just because they could benefit. We do have a Pre K program but it is very academic and they don't take trips either.I'm reminded of the child I worked with at the local primary school as a volunteer. He came from a very chaotic and difficult family but somehow he managed to be able to read third and fourth grade material in first grade. The only problem was, if you asked him a comprehension question that couldn't be answered by quoting directly from the story he couldn't answer. Turns out he was a champion decoder with a great sight word vocabulary but in reality he didn't know what many of the words meant. I suspect there are many more out there like him.
I'm not sure what the answer to all of this is, but this post really struck me as important. There are far too few programs that mix kids from a variety of backgrounds and I am not sure how that can change.

luckeyfrog said...

I think for me, the biggest difference is 'play.'

All-day kindergarten allows time for it, and that's part of the reason I think all-day kindergarten is so important. Kids need role-play and using their imagination and working together and all of those life skills!