This blog message was written by teacher trainers Helena Taelman & Marlies Algoet (Belgium, ODISEE)
Meals can offer excellent opportunities for language stimulation, according to current research. How can we savor every bit of it in the family context and in the ECE setting?
Enjoy your meal in the family circle!
In a family, language stimulation happens mainly in an organic way during the daily activities of the family. Eating together is such an important family moment. During family meals, parents use a richer language than at other times, according to scientific research (summarized by Leyva & Skorb, 2020). This observation applies to different cultures and layers of the population.
It turns out that many families talk about the past day or the coming days at the table. For example, the children explain to the parents what they went through the past day, how they handled it, and why it was nice or not. Often the adults at the table give a little more explanation to the children about the topic of discussion. For example, if Auntie had a cesarean section, they’ll explain what that means. Talking together about things that lie outside the here-and-now is particularly beneficial for language development. Therefore, as a parent, ask your child many questions and do not rule out difficult questions (Why? How? What else?). Allow the child to speak for several turns before completing a topic.
The American researchers Leyva & Skorb (2020) developed a family support program for poor families with young children. The families had a Latino background, a culture in which meals play a central role. First, the researchers observed in the families themselves, to understand their meal culture. The families were then given workshops with language tips about the meals themselves, but also about shopping, cooking at home, eating out, and preparing a festive meal. Not only the oral language but also the emerging literacy was discussed: making a shopping list together and explaining why you need this when shopping, supporting a child to write down his favorite menu, and translating words into sounds and letters, … The parents regularly received tips on their mobile phone to put the insights into practice. By the way, they did that in their home language.
From within your setting, you can support parents to take advantage of family meals. For example, you can inspire parents with interesting topics of conversation, by sending a photo to remind the child of a special event at school. Or you give them ideas to prepare the meal together with the child. Or you show the parents how they can make a shopping list together with their child.
Pleasant meals in the setting with time for a chat!
Snacks and lunches are daily routines in the setting. Unlike the family, these meals do not always provide a rich, language-stimulating environment. Sometimes, there are hardly any opportunities for language stimulation (eg Algoet, 2015; Guedes et al., 2020). In other cases, meals turned out to be favorable for language stimulation, especially because of the many opportunities the children get to speak (eg Cabell et al., 2013; Slot et al., 2016; Barnes et al., 2019). Where do these large differences come from? The use of the space probably plays a role, but also the children’s age and self-reliance with food, and the habit of walking around or sitting with the children.
As a teacher, you can easily make a difference by turning the dining room into a cozy place, with not too much noise and hassle. Nobody likes to eat lunch in a crowded, noisy dining room, or to feast on an apple in a drafty corridor with a lot of passage.
Besides, it makes a big difference whether you as a teacher sit down with the children and have a nice meal and chat or not. It is important to give all preschoolers many opportunities to speak: the more opportunities to speak, the better for language development (Barnes et al., 2019). But the topic of conversation also matters. David Dickinson’s US research team recommends striving for a good balance between the following three themes:
- Talk about the personal and the social. For example, talk about the relationships between the children of the group, talk about the family at home, weekend plans, …
- Expand world knowledge in connection with the food. For example, describe the food, discuss how the food was prepared, where it came from.
- Manage the classroom. For example, pay attention to washing hands and other actions that need to be done, look ahead to what the children will do later on.
It is best to cover the three themes about the same amount in the conversations.
This recommendation is based on a study of 44 teachers and their pre-schoolers (Barnes et al., 2019). They found that preschool children’s active vocabulary grew the most in classrooms where teachers covered all three themes in the mealtime conversations about the same amount. That did not happen to everyone. Some teachers limited themselves very much to the personal and social, and in those circumstances, language development improved the least. Other teachers particularly emphasized the world knowledge in their conversations, which was more beneficial for vocabulary growth than the focus on the personal and the social, but less than the balanced approach. Finally, attention to the management of the classroom was not detrimental to language development, presumably because it created a positive and pleasant classroom climate.
Do you want to initiate a change in the way your team deals with meals? We recommend the European good practices in the video library of the CARE project as a conversation starter.
- Algoet, M. (2015). Optimaal MaxiTAAL! Onderzoek naar de maximaal mogelijke inzet van taal-en denk–stimulerende interactievaardigheden in de tweede en derde kleuterklas. Brussel: hogeschool ODISEE. Research report.
- Barnes, E. M., Grifenhagen, J. F., & Dickinson, D. K. (2019). Mealtimes in Head Start pre-k classrooms: Examining language-promoting opportunities in a hybrid space. Journal of Child Language, 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0305000919000199
- Cabell, S. Q., DeCoster, J., LoCasale-Crouch, J., Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2013). Variation in the effectiveness of instructional interactions across preschool classroom settings and learning activities. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28(4), 820–830. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.007
- Guedes, C., Cadima, J., Aguiar, T., Aguiar, C., & Barata, C. (2020). Activity settings in toddler classrooms and quality of group and individual interactions. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 67, 101100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2019.101100
- Leyva, D., & Skorb, L. (2019). Turning Everyday Family Practices into Opportunities to Develop Rich Language and Literacy Abilities in Latino Children. Learning through Language: Towards an Educationally Informed Theory of Language Learning, 52.
- Slot, P. L., Cadima, J., Salminen, J., Pastori, G., & Lerkkanen, M. K. (2016). Multiple case study in seven European countries regarding culture-sensitive classroom quality assessment. Report D2.3. CARE project.