Kids can digest knowledge at mealtime, too

The Education Beat

March 11, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

STEPHON MOORE, Fadeelah Silver, nine other children and two teachers lunched Wednesday on Salisbury steak, potatoes, spinach and bread. Sliced peaches for dessert, milk the beverage of choice.

Lunch for 3- and 4-year-olds is always chaotic, and this one, in the Jonestown Day Care Center in East Baltimore, was no exception. Still, the two teachers - "Miss Gerry," Geraldine Stokes, and "Miss Phyllis," Phyllis Shuman - managed to put mealtime conversation to good use.

The children counted the peaches, poured milk from measuring cups and discussed the colors of the food. Fadeelah, prompted by her teachers, related what she'd eaten for breakfast. Stephon noted that his glass of milk was to the left of his plate, at a place-setting with his name taped in front of him. All this instruction was done naturally, in the bedlam of lunch in a preschool classroom.

Fadeelah, 3, and Stephon, 4, are enrolled in the Head Start program at Jonestown, and there's a reason teachers in the federal antipoverty program are required to eat with their children. Mealtime conversation is vital to literacy growth in very young children, especially kids whose lives aren't imbued with oral and written language.

Moreover, if children aren't proficient in oral language by the time they reach formal schooling, they're less likely to become proficient readers.

These are among the conclusions of a book to be published next month by Brookes Publishing Co. of Baltimore, "Beginning Literacy with Language: Young Children Learning at Home and School." The book is based on long-term research on the preschool experiences of Boston-area children from low-income homes.(Among the authors is Catherine E. Snow, a Harvard professor who was the principal author in 1998 of "Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children," considered the definitive national report on reading instruction.)

As part of a long-term project begun in 1987, researchers from four organizations, including Harvard and Tufts universities, closely observed children at the ages of 3, 4 and 5 as they related to the adults in their lives.

One of the important findings: Informal conversation is vital to kids' development as readers. Mealtime is an important, and often overlooked, opportunity for parents and teachers to "make connections between ideas, events and actions." Narrative talk during dinner - that is, telling and retelling stories - is a strong predictor of reading success in school. So is explanatory talk about how things work or how they're organized.

The authors offer tips to parents and teachers on how to converse with the greatest impact. Example: "When they initiate a story, allow children to tell it on their own. Wait until they stop talking before asking any questions or making comments."

The authors aren't talking here about drill, about teaching a lesson each night over the roast. Rather, they're talking about relaxed, informal discourse that helps kids gain knowledge of words and what they do.

The same is true, the researchers say, of adult conversation while reading to kids and of adult talk while kids are at play. Adults can deliberately introduce new and more complex words (called "rare words") as children grow older, for example, and literacy skills can be enhanced during "pretend play" at surprisingly young ages.

But it was the researchers' conclusion about mealtime conversation - they taped hundreds of hours of dining room and kitchen talk - that caught the media's attention when results were made public last year.

"I think a lot of it had to do with middle-class guilt," says David K. Dickinson, one of the report's editors, referring to the growing number of families that no longer share daily meals.

Dickinson, of the Education Development Center in Massachusetts, who shared editing duties with Patton O. Tabors of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says the book is "really about trying to get people to attend to the oral-language needs of children."

Schools have gotten "reasonably good" at teaching beginning reading, Dickinson says, "but they have not gotten good at developing oral language." In short, what educators call "language arts" is missing the spoken element of language, mainly because many educators believe that children learn to speak naturally, in the absence of adult guidance.

Big mistake, says Dickinson. What happens when children get into public school classrooms is that one-on-one conversation is neglected. Teachers have large classes, and even when they're divided into small groups, there isn't a lot of time to spend on individual children. There are accountability demands from the central office, and, says Dickinson, "the standard practices for organizing groups and relating to children don't highlight oral language."

Dickinson emphasizes that he and his fellow researchers aren't talking about drill. Indeed, the book advises that kindergarten should be "protected" as a place for learning the prerequisites of reading, not reading itself.

The message of the book is that there's gold in them thar conversations with your kids.

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