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Nov. 14, 2002 Press Contact: William Harms
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Research shows teacher and parent conversation important in child language development

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“Complex speech benefits preschoolers, study says”
Chicago Tribune
Nov. 14, 2002

Individual differences in syntax acquisition are heavily influenced by the language environment a child experiences, researchers at the University of Chicago show in a study released Thursday, Nov. 14. The finding challenges a long-standing contention that syntax, the organization of words into a sentence, develops uniformly and naturally because of inborn characteristics.

The researchers found that preschool children benefit greatly when their parents and teachers use complex sentences in speaking with them because the exposure increases their own ability to understand and use complicated sentences, thus contradicting scholars who contend the ability to put together sentences in a logical way is “programmed” into the brain and not subject to other influences.

The finding has important implications in preparing students for school, when students are often confronted with complex sentences in the early grades as they work on mathematics and other subjects. Students in language-rich pre-school classrooms experience twice the growth in ability to use complex sentences when compared with students whose teachers don’t use complex sentences often, the study showed.

In a paper published in the November issue of Cognitive Psychology, Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor of Psychology at the University and her colleagues detail dramatic differences among three- and four-year-olds’ speech and comprehension depending upon how parents and teachers spoke to them.

“We found sizable individual differences among children in the proportion of multiclause sentences produced as well as comprehending,” Huttenlocher writes in the paper “Language Input and Child Syntax,” co-authored with University researchers Marina Vasilyeva and Elina Cymerman and Susan Levine, Professor in Psychology at the University.

Although the team found that the degree of complexity in children’s language was directly related to that of their parents, that observation does not resolve the question of which is more important, nurture or nature, because the children could be reflecting a genetic advantage given them by their parents. To resolve the question, the researchers studied children in preschools to see what impact a teacher’s speech had on their own language development.

The study of parents had been based on tape recordings of parent-child interactions. For the study of preschoolers, the team tested 305 children in 40 classrooms in 17 different preschools in the Chicago area. About a third served high-income families, a third, low-income families, and another third, a mix of families.

They gave the students tests on language comprehension at the beginning and end of the school year and observed teachers and recorded their speech during the middle of the year.

For the tests, children were shown pictures and asked to match the correct picture with a complex sentence such as “The boy is looking for the girl behind a chair, but she is sitting under the table.”

In classrooms where students had teachers who routinely used complex sentences, the student’s ability to use and understand more complicated language greatly improved, Huttenlocher’s team found.

The study showed that the percentage of multiclause sentences used by teachers varied from 11 to 32 percent of total speech. The students performance in classrooms where teachers spoke the most in complicated language grew at twice the rate of students in the less language-rich classrooms. That finding prevailed even when other potential advantages, such as high social economic status, were factored into the study.

"This means that children from low-income families, whose syntactic level is quite low at the beginning of the year, may grow as much or more than children from high income families,” if the teachers speak in complex sentences, Huttenlocher points out.

Huttenlocher has published extensively on language development and other topics related to learning among young children. Her work has shown, for example, that the amount and variety of words children learn at home directly influence children’s acquisition of vocabulary.

Other scholars on language development contend that because there are great similarities in the ways in which children use grammar as they begin to speak, the structure of language is programmed into a child’s mind from the beginning.

"Our findings indicate that the greater the proportion of complex syntactic forms a child hears, the greater will be his or her ability to use these forms,” Huttenlocker said. She points out, however, that biological factors in addition to environmental ones influence how a child learns.

Huttenlocher is Co-Director of the University’s Center for Early Childhood Research. The research reported in the Cognitive Psychology paper was supported, in part, by a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
Last modified at 09:39 AM CST on Tuesday, November 19, 2002.

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