This blog post was contributed by Helena Taelman (Odisee).
Emotions run high, when early childhood education experts and professionals debate about the degrees of freedom in a curriculum. I want to blog about my favorite research article that bears on this issue, as well as on language learning.
5 000 Danish preschoolers in a language intervention (Bleses et al., 2018)
A large Danish language intervention aimed to increase oral language and early literacy skills in over 5 000 children. Experienced Danish and American researchers worked together in this effectiveness study, to find out if they could repeat their previous successes on a large scale.
One may assume that such experts can pinpoint the active ingredients of their previous successes very well. But even for them it is sometimes just guessing. Every language project contains a mixture of various components that may have a positive influence on the language development of preschool children. In retrospect, it is very difficult to find out which components were effective. That is why these researchers decided to compare different variants of their earlier intervention. Participating preschool settings had no choice about the variant in which they would end up.
The test: large group versus small group, scripted lessons versus an open variant
The focus of the study was an intervention named LEAP (Language Education Activities for Preschoolers), which contains 40 playful scripted lessons to perform twice a week, to systematically and explicitly target 23 language and literacy learning objectives.
Three variants were compared:
• Scripted small group, where all activities were carried out with approximately 5 preschool children
• Scripted large group, where all activities were carried out with the entire group
• Open, in which the educators did not receive the detailed lesson plans, but were asked to organize small-group activities of their own choice twice a week to target the prescribed goals.
There was also a control group.
And the winner is…?
For both early literacy and oral language, the children from the open variant progressed the most. The variants based on small groups and large groups did not differ significantly from each other. The preschoolers in these groups did better for early literacy compared to the control group, but not for oral language. The effects were no different for children with a low SES (as measured by maternal education) or for dual language learners. But higher exposure to the program was associated with better outcomes. Specifically, dual language learners benefitted more than native Danish children from higher exposure for language outcomes.
In other words, scripted lessons do not seem to be necessary to promote early literacy or oral language, and leaving them out may enhance outcomes. But be not mistaken! For the educators in the open variant, there were guidelines.
The secret: very specific learning objectives, following a predetermined scope and sequence of objectives
The educators in the open variant were asked to choose from very specific learning goals in a predetermined scope and sequence of instruction, and address those learning goals in self developed activities that fitted the children’s interests and current skills.
Examples of learning objectives:
- To identify and describe the setting and characters of a story (Narrative Objective 1)
- To produce a fictional story that has a setting and characters (Narrative Objective 4)
- To understand and use new words representing feelings, e.g., embarrassed, sad, joyful (Vocabulary Objective 5)
Furthermore, they were expected to perform a small group activity of half an hour that met two or more learning objectives at least twice a week, to document those activities and to regularly observe the children with regard to the learning objectives. Prior to the intervention they received a workshop on scaffolding techniques to support or challenge children, and learned to identify the learning domains, learning objectives and how to incorporate these explicitly during activities. I wonder if those formal professionalization activities were followed by informal professionalization, as all educators of a same setting were assigned to the same experimental condition. During coffee breaks the educator teams may have exchanged ideas very intensively, I imagine.
To sum up, the open variant included specific learning objectives ordered in a predefined scope and sequence of instruction, high intensity, implementation of scaffolding techniques, intensive documentation of activities, detailed observation of children, collective professionalization, and a high degree of agency.
In my opinion, this article shows a midway between a prescriptive curriculum with elaborate activity plans and an ‘emergent curriculum’. As a teacher educator I wonder whether all educators at all stages of their professional development need the same resources to maintain high quality. Sometimes, well-crafted, playful curricula with soft-scripted activity plans may serve as a stepping stone for further development as they support educators to broaden their repertoire and gain a better insight of children’s learning trajectories. In other cases, features of an emergent curriculum may feed educators’ pedagogical sensitivity, and prevent thoughtless implementation of the same activities year after year.
But whether educators do it on their own or based on other people’s inspiration, a well-crafted scope and sequence of instruction may support children’s oral language acquisition and early literacy. Hence, I invite you to compare your own approach with the approach of the LEAP project.
- How well specified are your learning domains and goals?
- Are they well sequenced from simple to complex?
- How are these goals translated into specific activities that follow the children’s needs and interests? With which intensity?
- How do you provide scaffolding to children by providing extra support and challenge?
- How do you follow up the children?
- How do you tackle this as a team?
- Bleses, D., Højen, A., Dale, P. S., Justice, L. M., Dybdal, L., Piasta, S., Markussen-Brown, J., Kjaerbaek, L. & Haghish, E. F. (2018). Effective language and literacy instruction: Evaluating the importance of scripting and group size components. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 42, 256-269.
- More information on scaffolding can be found on the website of the American program Read-it-Again that inspired the Danish intervention.
- The Danish scope and sequence of instruction can be found in Appendix A of the article. It is a nice source of inspiration to develop own versions.