Storyline Online: As Fast As Words Could Fly

Check out the video of Dulé Hill reading As Fast As Words Could Fly at Storyline Online. The book is written by Pamela M. Tuck, illustrated by Eric Velasquez, and published by Lee & Low Books Inc.. The story features Mason Steele, a high school boy who teaches himself to type on a typewriter given to him by his father’s civil rights group. His growing typing skills play out in an important story about prejudice and racial barriers. A thoughtful piece that would be great to talk about with your children. Important for adults too.

What you might not know about readability testing

There’s a lot to know about tests that measure the difficulty of reading passages.

First, these tests have something in common: they count syllables, words, and sentences in reading passages to come up with an average word and sentence length. These core factors then are used to develop a score that indicates how difficult (or easy) it may be for a reader to comprehend a piece of reading. I say, “may,” because this is not an exact science. But “the application of a useful readability test protocol will give a rough indication of a work’s readability.”

Second, these tests are widely used ─ by publishers, schools, businesses, word processing applications, and parents. Publishers use the readability scores to aim publications at their target readers; schools use them to identify appropriate texts for students; and businesses use them to calibrate the reading level for forms, guidelines, and training manuals that must be comprehended by their workers. Most word processing applications have readability tests built-in as an option for document editing. And parents use them to select appropriate reading materials for their children.

Third, there are several tests out there though two seem to dominate the readability marketplace.

Flesch–Kincaid. Two types of readability tests have been created to indicate how difficult a passage in English is to understand: Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level. Both use word length and sentence length to develop their scores but they use different weighting factors. The Army first used the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease nearly 40 years ago to assess the difficulty of its technical manuals. The U.S. Department of Defense uses this now as the standard test of readability for its documents and forms. Some states have adopted the test in specific industries such as automobile insurance policies to ensure that the reading “ceiling” be no higher than ninth-grade level. The test is bundled with many word processing programs and services such as IBM Lotus Symphony, Microsoft Office Word, WordPerfect, and WordPro.

In Flesch-Kincaid, a higher score indicates material that is easier to read; lower score, more difficult to read. Here are some examples of the approximate readability score for well-known publications or audiences (highest score/easiest is 120):

 * Reader’s Digest magazine = about 65
 * Time magazine = about 52
 * Average student writing assignment grade 6 (age 12) = 60–70; reading grade level of 6-7)
 * Harvard Law Review = low 30s
 * Life insurance policies in Florida = 45 or greater
 * Moby Dick (book) = average 57.9
 * Harry Potter books = average 72.83
 * 2000 articles about people in Wikipedia with most readable about sports people and entertainers, least readable about scientists and philosophers with least readable scientists being economists (41.70), psychologists (42.25), chemists (42.81), mathematicians (43.35)

The Flesch–Kincaid Grade Level Formula is used extensively in the field of education. Scores are presented as a grade level (the number of years of education generally required to understand the text) rather than a readability score. This makes it easier for educators, parents, and others to determine the readability level of reading materials for students.

Lexile. A Lexile is a number score for an individual’s reading ability or a text’s readability. It is represented as a number followed by L for Lexile. There are two types of measures: a reader and a text measure. The scale runs from below zero L to above 2000L. There is no specific bottom or top score though scores of zero L (0L) or below are reported as Beginning Reader.

The Lexile framework emerged over more than a decade of work that began in 1989 to develop a better measurement system for reading and writing. The framework uses quantitative methods based on individual words and sentence lengths rather than qualitative analysis of content to produce readability scores. In the U.S., Lexile scores are reported from school-based reading programs and student assessments annually. About half of U.S. students in grades 3-12 receive a Lexile measure annually. Lexile measures have been adopted by nearly half of the states, school districts in all 50 states, and used outside the U.S.

Lexile scores are used to match readers with books and other reading resources. Both readers and books/other reading resources are assigned a score on the Lexile scale. Lower scores indicate easier readability for reading materials and lower reading ability for readers. [This is opposite from Flesch–Kincaid scores in which higher scores equal easier readability.]

Lexile measures for individuals are typically obtained from a reading comprehension assessment or program. These range from basic early literacy skills to the adult level. Text measures are obtained by analyzing the word frequency and sentence length within a book or article using a software program, the Lexile Analyzer. To date, over 60,000 websites, 115,000 fiction and nonfiction books, and 80 million articles have Lexile measures. Over 150 publishers (e.g., Capstone Publishers, Discovery Ed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw-Hill, Pearson PLC, Riverside Publishing, Scholastic Corporation, Simon & Schuster, Workman Publishing Company, and World Book) offer certified Lexile text measures for their materials.

Although there is widespread use of Lexile measures in schools and in publishing, there is no direct correspondence between a Lexile measure and a specific grade level, and there are cautionary views of their use. For example, an evaluation of the Lexile measures in 2001 by the National Center for Educational Statistics “affirmed the value of both sentence length and word frequency” as measures of readability, but the measures do not include factors such as reader knowledge, motivation and interest which also have a major impact on readability.

The Lexile measures, as well as other products and services for reading, math, and writing are created by MetaMetrics®. The North Carolina company focuses on improving education for learners of all ages, developing scientific measures of academic achievement and complementary technologies that link assessment results with real-world instruction. In addition to licensing metrics tools to state departments of education, testing and instructional companies, and publishers, MetaMetrics offers training, resource measurement and customized consulting services. A short video that explains the Lexile is available here: https://lexile.com/pd/video/

Pre-K to K-3 transitions: what can states do?

Two new reports are out on the role of pre-K programs (pre-kindergarten) and K-3 (kindergarten through grade 3).[1] Not surprisingly, the news is these programs are important to children at both stages of development ─ and there is not a level playing field, depending on which state you live in.

Both pre-K and K-3 programs play a vital role in laying a solid foundation for children’s early development. If children participate in quality pre-K and proceed to a lesser quality K-3, they’re at risk of losing the gains they have made. Likewise, transitioning from quality pre-K benefits children in K-3.

What can a state do to ensure a strong transition process between pre-K and K-3? The new reports from Education Commission of the States (ECS) aim to answer this question. The reports identify 20 factors to consider in determining quality – and they provide a profile of each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia so you can look at the situation in your own locale.

The reports have consolidated the information into four categories they suggest we pay particular attention to:

  1. Transition from pre-K to kindergarten: Some one-third of the states (37% or 18 states plus the District of Columbia) provide guidance in the pre-K to kindergarten transition process. Examples of “guidance” include written transition plans, engaging families in the process, providing teacher/school meetings, and providing assessment data such as readiness for kindergarten.
  2. Preparation of teachers: Some form of teacher preparation and/or professional development in reading is required for educators in K-3 in nearly three-fourths of states (73% or 37 states). Examples include training for the teaching of reading, using reading assessment results, and providing interventions to children based on assessment information.
  3. Involvement of parents: Nearly half of states (43% or 21 states plus D.C.) require some level of parental involvement in the promotion and retention process.[2]
  4. Children’s social-emotional learning:[3] Nearly three-fourths of states (73% or 36 states plus D.C.) focus on social-emotional learning in K-3.Examples of this type of learning are social-emotional assessments conducted when children enter kindergarten, a state’s definition of school readiness, and a state’s requirements for teachers and/or teacher training.

If the data provided in these four categories truly indicate whether we have an effective “trapeze” in place from pre-K to K-3, children residing in many states are likely facing significant challenges in their transitions.

I wanted to get a better sense of the differences among some of the states on the 20 factors to consider in determining quality so randomly selected three to compare ─ Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. Although the information is not 100% complete among the factors since the ECS study relied on the availability of each state’s information, you can begin to draw your own conclusions.

Comparison of Oregon, Tennessee & Washington on 20 Factors

Basic Requirements

Does the state require full-day kindergarten?

  • OR: No, full-day kindergarten is not required.
  • TN: Yes, full-day kindergarten is required.
  • WA: Yes, full-day kindergarten is required to be implemented statewide by 2017-2018.

 How many hours are required for grades K-3?  

  • OR: 450 hours per year for half-day kindergarten (~2.5 hours/day). 900 hours per year for full-day kindergarten and grades 1-8 (~5 hours/day).
  • TN: 4 hours per day for kindergarten (~720 hours/year). 6.5 hours per day for grades 1-12 (~1,170 hours/year).
  • WA: 1000 hours per year for full-day kindergarten and grades 1-3 (~5.5 hours/day).

 What are the teacher-to-student ratio requirements for grades K-3?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: 1:25 maximum for grades K-3 (Goal of 1:20 average).
  • WA: By 2017-2018, average class ratios should be 1:17 for average general education class in K-3 and 1:15 for high poverty K-3 class.

 School Readiness & Transitions

 Are kindergarten entrance assessments required?

  • OR: Statewide kindergarten assessment is required to be administered to all enrolled kindergarten students.
  • TN: Districts must develop/implement comprehensive developmental assessment program for kindergarten children.
  • WA: WA Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WAKIDS) is required at beginning of school year for all state funded all-day kindergarten programs.

 What are states required to do with the results of the kindergarten entrance assessment?

  • OR: Results of the KEA are required to be included in statewide longitudinal data system.
  • TN: The results of the developmental assessment may be used in developing instructional programs.
  • WA: WAKIDS is used to support development of individual children, early learning provider and parental involvement and to inform instruction.

 Are there programs in place to guide pre-kindergarten to kindergarten transition process?

  • OR: Grant program-Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Program: Priority given to those applications that foster kindergarten readiness by forming partnerships between early learning, child care providers and/or elementary schools.
  • TN: In their application for funding, local education agencies are required to include plan for ensuring coordination between pre-kindergarten classrooms and elementary schools to ensure  elementary grade instruction builds upon pre-k classroom experiences.
  • WA: Schools receiving program support for all-day kindergarten must demonstrate connections with early learning community providers and must participate in kindergarten readiness activities with early learning providers and parents.

 Does the state have a statutory definition of school readiness?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.

 What do states use their definition of school readiness to inform?

  • OR: While term “school readiness” is not explicitly defined, the concept is used in a number of state programs including: Early Learning Kindergarten Readiness Partnership and Innovation Program, the Oregon Early Reading Program, and the Statewide Education plan for “plan” students.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.

 What are the re-classification procedures for English Language Learner students?

  • OR: Students are reclassified based on English proficiency assessment scores and consistent progress.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Students are reclassified after meeting superintendent-established exit criteria on state language proficiency exam.

Assessment, Intervention & Retention

 Are assessments required in grades K-3?

  • OR: The Early Success Reading Initiative includes screening and continuously monitoring reading progress of all children K-3 with research-based assessment systems.
  • TN: Assessments in reading/language arts, math, science and social studies are required in grade three.
  • WA: Second grade reading assessments are required.

 What do the results of K-3 assessments inform?

  • OR: Administrators and teachers are able to collect, interpret and use student data to guide instructional decisions, implement a school wide reading action plan, and provide strategies for student groups and structured interaction with parents. The results of the KEA are required to be included in the statewide longitudinal data system.
  • TN: State-mandated tests are prohibited earlier than grade three.
  • WA: Assessment results are used to provide information to parents, teachers, and school administrators. Assessments and diagnostic tools are made available at each grade level to inform instructional strategies and interventions.

 Are there interventions available beginning in kindergarten?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Interventions are available in third grade.
  • WA: K-4 interventions are available in any school where more than 40% of tested students are not proficient. For all other schools, third grade and fourth grade interventions are available.

 What are the interventions available for students in grades K-3?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Interventions include summer programs and before and after school programs.

 Is there a third grade retention policy?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Third grade retention is required, with good cause exemptions.
  • WA: Third grade retention is required with good cause exemptions

 Instructional Quality

 What are the requirements for teacher training or professional development in reading?

  • OR: Teacher Preparation: The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission must adopt rules that require approved educator preparation programs to demonstrate that candidates receive training in how to provide instruction that enables student to meet or exceed third-grade reading standards.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Professional development: opportunities in reading instruction and early literacy for teachers of kindergarten through fourth grade students made available, subject to funds appropriated. Grant Program: Primary grade reading grant program exists to enhance teachers’ skills in assisting students in beginning reading.

What ELL training or professional development is required of general classroom teachers?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Teacher preparation programs in Washington must ensure that pre-service teachers develop the following competencies to support English language development: theories of language acquisition, including academic language development; using multiple instruction strategies, including the principles of second language acquisition, to address student academic language ability levels and cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and student cultural identity.

Family Engagement

What are the requirements for teacher training or professional development in reading?

  • OR: Teacher Preparation: The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission must adopt rules that require approved educator preparation programs to demonstrate that candidates receive training in how to provide instruction that enables student to meet or exceed third-grade reading standards.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Professional development: opportunities in reading instruction and early literacy for teachers of kindergarten through fourth grade students made available, subject to funds appropriated. Grant Program: Primary grade reading grant program exists to enhance teachers’ skills in assisting students in beginning reading.

What ELL training or professional development is required of general classroom teachers?

  • OR: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations.
  • WA: Teacher preparation programs in WA must ensure  pre-service teachers develop following competencies to support English language development: theories of language acquisition, including academic language development; using multiple instruction strategies, including the principles of second language acquisition, to address student academic language ability levels and cultural and linguistic backgrounds; and student cultural identity.

Social-Emotional Learning

Where is social-emotional development emphasized in the state’s statute or rules and regulations?

  • OR: Social-emotional development is included as area of school readiness measured in kindergarten entrance assessment
  • TN: Not specified in statute, rules or regulations
  • WA: Social-emotional growth is supported by use of Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills.

Here’s what I’d like to see the schools in my state ─ and the state policies to support these ─ have in place after studying this information:

  • Full-day kindergarten
  • High number of hours required for K-3 instruction
  • Low teacher-to student ratio in the early grades so children have more attention from the teacher
  • Assess children’s readiness to enter kindergarten, including social-emotional factors related to school readiness and progress ─ to identify where early intervention can help children catch up
  • Linked K-3 to pre-K programs so they can align what they’re providing to children and work together on smooth transition processes
  • Schools have a definition of school readiness and these do not differ substantially within the state (there should be an equal playing field)
  • Assess progress early (grade 2 rather than 3) to identify needed interventions earlier
  • Decision whether to promote a child to the next grade based on best assessment data
  • Teachers in early grades trained in reading
  • Schools engage families in the education of their children

To learn more about your own state, check out the K-3 Quality State Profiles at http://www.ecs.org/k-3-quality-state-profiles/ and  think about what you would like to see in place to help children transition well from pre-K to K-3.

________________

[1] 50-State Comparison: K-3 Quality and Companion Report by Alyssa Auck, Education Commission of the States, July 18, 2016: http://www.ecs.org/50-state-comparison-k-3-quality/

[2] Promotion is moving up a grade; retention is staying at same grade level.

[3]Committee for Children (http://www.cfchildren.org/second-step/social-emotional-learning), the attributes of social-emotional learning are: 1) recognizing emotions in oneself and others; 2) managing strong emotions; 3) having empathy for others; 4) controlling impulses; 5) communicating clearly and assertively; 6) maintaining cooperative relationships; 7) making responsible decisions; 8) solving problems effectively. Social-emotional learning is increasingly a component in the school curricula, schools are helping young learners harness their energy and potential by teaching them to listen, pay attention, control their behavior, and get along with others..

Choppy waters in 4th grade reading — Why?

Picture your child in a long race. You’ve been running alongside him ─ pacing him ─ for the first few years, while he’s growing trillions more nerve cell connections (synapses) than you have in your own adult brain. You’re helping nurture his learning in so many ways, including learning to talk and read. He’s steadily progressing in learning to identify words ─ and over time, to interpret their meaning in longer reading passages. By the time he approaches the fourth grade, he likely doesn’t need or even want you to pace him in the reading department anymore because he can ─ and is ─ reading on his own.

So, you think he’s prepared at 9 or 10 years old when his teachers start to present a curriculum that focuses on more specialized learning. The task now is to start transitioning from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” This is a difficult transition for many children. A term was coined for this transition nearly 30 years ago─ the “fourth grade slump.”[1]

When I hear the word, “slump,” that doesn’t sound so bad. It implies there might be a dip in learning for a time ─ it might be temporary. But the words and phrases many use to describe the slump that can occur around ages 9-10 sound much more ominous: ‘this is education’s Bermuda triangle,’ ‘educators are wringing their hands over this puzzling phenomenon,’[2] ‘the fourth-grade slump is a time when some children, faced with increasingly complex schoolwork, start to lose interest in reading.’[3] For many children, the dip in achievement will not be temporary–it starts a downward spiral throughout the school years. Many children end up in high school as poor readers ─ and poor at math, social studies, science, literature, and other subjects ─ because reading is so key to advanced learning.

What is happening in the fourth grade to account for this “Bermuda Triangle”? There are four main factors thought to be stirring up these choppy waters:

  • The reading is harder. Students have to use their reading skills now to acquire new knowledge from increasingly difficult words and texts. They’re shifting from reading relatively easy, familiar words and passages to reading more advanced materials. Children who struggled with reading in the early grades enter a jeopardy zone. Unless they receive help, understanding and encouragement, including at home, they’ll have trouble keeping up. They’ll grow more frustrated and eventually, many give up.
  • Size (of vocabulary) counts. When faced with reading more difficult texts, students with stronger vocabularies read more easily ─ and in turn, typically read more and develop even larger vocabularies. Students with weaker vocabularies experience the opposite ─ they struggle, and in turn, typically read less ─ as a result, they lose ground in adding needed new vocabulary.
  • Knowing about things (prior knowledge) counts. Children generally struggle to read (understand) content that is unfamiliar. Those who know more ─ who bring prior knowledge on a range of subjects ─ struggle less than those who don’t. Think about topics a child may understand a lot about─ like dinosaurs, going fishing, cooking, or soccer. If the child encounters reading passages that use the vocabulary and concepts of these topics, they’re likely to read them more easily. If they encounter reading passages on topics they know little or nothing about, it is just plain more difficult.
  • Fitting in with the peer group. Research tells us that sometime in preadolescence, [4]children become strongly influenced by their peers ─ they may rely on them for information more than the adults in their lives, including their parents or teachers. If the school culture is not a positive one for learning, many children will try to fit in with their peers ─ and give up on trying to learn.

These are some harsh factors coming down on fourth graders ─ reading for comprehension, acquiring new and more difficult vocabulary, facing more complicated new subjects, and wanting to fit in with their peers.

So what helps children swim well through the fourth grade waters, especially those in trouble?

Not surprising, the first recommendation from researchers is ‘don’t wait until the fourth grade to see if the slump is going to set in.’ Provide good reading instruction in the early grades. And include attention to vocabulary-building to ensure that children are armed with a strong arsenal of words for the more difficult reading that is coming.

Schools can help too by providing a curriculum in the early grades that provides students with background knowledge useful in understanding the more difficult content coming in the later grades. And schools can work at creating a positive culture for learning so that students know it’s cool to be learning.

Even with a schoolwide approach that works on “boosting vocabulary and background knowledge gaps for younger students while developing a positive peer culture in which learning comes first…,”[5] many students will still be struggling.

Now what? More life-saving strategies are clearly needed. Unfortunately, recent research is finding that “…classroom teachers may not be employing the strategies that can get these students back on track. Despite the difficulties that students have with [reading], teachers in grades four to 12 typically do not instruct students in the reading comprehension process … Unfortunately many upper elementary, middle school and high school teachers presume that their students have mastered [the] ….fundamentals.”[6]

What are some of these effective strategies?[7]

  • Students who struggle can increase their reading comprehension by doing three things: 1) reading the paragraph, 2) asking questions about the main idea and the details, and 3) putting the main ideas and the details into their own words.
  • Putting the information they pull from the reading passages into a “visual map.” A visual map helps structure information, making it easier for students to make sense of what they have read.
  • Marking sections in the text that are confusing or important by using a pencil, sticky note, or other marks such as symbols like question marks (?) or exclamation marks (!).
  • Underlining or circling key words and phrases they don’t understand or that keep occurring in a text.
  • Writing a short summary of each paragraph or section of the text in the margin or on a sticky note.

There is not a ‘one-size fits all’ when it comes to learning. Different techniques work for different children. But the challenge is the same for all children: “The ability to comprehend and produce spoken and written [text] is critical for academic success and literacy development.”[8]

So, how many U.S. fourth graders are swimming in these choppy waters? How many are in danger of heading into the downward slide?

The Nation’s Report Card (National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP) tells us that two-thirds of our children are not swimming all that well. NAEP starts testing in grade four (students are also tested in grades eight and twelve). The results from the most recent assessment of fourth graders in reading (2015) is sobering ─ only about one-third (36%) performed at or above the Proficient achievement level in reading. Two-thirds (64%) did not.

These numbers sure look like an educational “Bermuda Triangle.” Rather than wring our hands though, we should be throwing them the life rafts they need ─ preparing them well in reading in the early years and using the many proven strategies to help them through the choppy waters of the fourth grade.

_________________

[1] Term coined by Jeanne S. Chall (1921-1999), Harvard Graduate School of Education psychologist, writer and literacy researcher for over 50 years.

[2]http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx: Research Says… / Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump. Bryan Goodwin

[3] Science Daily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm: Speech-language pathologists can help kids who struggle to read May 25, 2016 Source: University of the Pacific Summary: Classroom teachers may not employ the strategies that can help students master complex written language, according to speech-language pathology researchers. Journal Reference: 1.Jeannene M. Ward-Lonergan, Jill K. Duthie. Intervention to Improve Expository Reading Comprehension Skills in Older Children and Adolescents with Language Disorders. Topics in Language Disorders, 2016; 36 (1): 52 DOI: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000079

[4] Preadolescence is generally defined as the period from 9–14 years.

[5] http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr11/vol68/num07/Don’t-Wait-Until-4th-Grade-to-Address-the-Slump.aspx: Research Says… / Don’t Wait Until 4th Grade to Address the Slump. Bryan Goodwin

[6]Science Daily https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

[7] Info drawn from Science Daily   https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

[8] Science Daily   https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/05/160525084005.htm

Behind doors 1, 2 or 3──which toys promote infants’ literacy development?

Behind doors #1, 2 and 3, you can select three types of toys for your infant. Which door do you select to promote literacy development ── and why? Findings of a Northern Arizona University study examining the type of toys used by infants during play and the quantity and quality of parent-child communication using the toys provides some surprising answers.[1]

In the study, 26 parents and their 10-16 month old infants were given three sets of toys to play with:

  1. Books── five different board books[2].
  2. Traditional toys ── farm animal puzzle, shape-sorter, set of blocks.
  3. Electronic toys ── baby laptop, talking farm, baby cell phone.

Audio recording equipment in the families’ homes recorded the language between parent and infant as they interacted with the toys over a three-day period ──during two 15-minute play sessions for each toy set. This scenario enabled families to play with all of the toys in each set.

What were the researchers looking at during these interactions? Throughout each minute of the play sessions, researchers measured the number of adult words used, the child’s vocalizations, the conversational turns[3], the parent’s verbal responses to the child’s utterances, and the types of words produced by parents.

Why would a study like this be important? We know from a growing body of research that early language development creates the foundation to support a child’s success through school, children who know more words at age two enter kindergarten better prepared than others, and infants develop larger vocabularies by the types of interaction with their caregivers. We know too that “size matters” ── the size of a child’s vocabulary. More than a decade ago, Hart and Risley[4] studied families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between parents and their child shape language and vocabulary development. The findings revealed major disparities between the number of words spoken and the types of messages conveyed. After four years, these differences in parent-child interactions added up to significant discrepancies. Children from high-income families were being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. And follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life. This has become known as the 30 million word gap.

This knowledge informed the study to determine if the type of toys used during play affects a child’s language development?

What then did the researchers find when they analyzed the data collected by the recording devices?

The researchers found that there were indeed significant differences in the language interactions between parent and infant playing with books versus traditional toys versus electronic toys. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer parental responses, and fewer productions of content-specific words than during play with books or traditional toys. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys than play with books. Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than play with books and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys.[5]

  • Book play averaged 66.89 words per minute.
  • Traditional toy play averaged 55.5 words per minute.
  • Electronic toy play averaged 39.62 words per minute.

The researchers conclude that “to promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.”[6]

Many folks are looking at this study now and adding their perspectives – see two recent blogs: When It Comes to Infant Language Development, Not All Toys Are Created Equal (Aaron Loewenbeg) and Electronic versus Traditional Toys: What They Mean for Infant Playtime (Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent”).[7]

Loewenberg notes, “When children are engaged with electronic toys, such as a baby laptop or talking farm, parents may get the mistaken impression that the toy is helping the child more than their parents can. Or, given the demands and stress of juggling work and household duties, parents may feel no choice but to leave their infants and toddlers alone with these toys for periods of time. But there’s no evidence that children in the 10-16 month age range are able to learn vocabulary by using media without a parent or other adult talking with them about what they are seeing and playing with.”[8] Loewenberg also points out that the study size was small and not very diverse. “The study had a small sample size of just 26 parents and almost all of them were white and college-educated. Hopefully, similar research will be done in the future with a more demographically diverse set of participants.”[9] But these limitations aside, he concludes, “… it’s hard to dismiss research that shows such clear benefits of traditional toys over fancier (and more expensive) electronic items. So my advice to parents of very young children looking to purchase a toy to help their infant’s language development would be this: Be skeptical of a toy company’s grand claims about the educational benefits of their high-tech product since they rarely have research to back it up. Instead, opt for a low-tech toy or book that both parent and child can engage with together.”[10]

Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent” reminds us that, “Electronic toys …are pretty much ubiquitous. Young children are very attracted to them. So what is a parent to do? Electronic toys can be helpful if used sparingly. We all need a few minutes to do dishes or cook a meal and these toys can be good distractions for a few minutes. It’s good, however, to keep in mind that you as a parent are the best “toy” for your infant. Talking to him/her over toys and books is the best way for her/him to learn language and interaction skills … and narrating to your child what you are doing as you go about your daily routine.” [11]

My takeaway: when the “game show of life” has us standing before door #1 (books), #2 (traditional toys) and #3 (electronic toys), I’m selecting door #1 first for the infant in my care because vocabulary development matters and engaging infants through effective communication is a high-stakes ── 30 million word ──pay-off.

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[1] Sosa AV. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play with the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015. Dec 23

[2] Board books: designed to survive the wear and tear of infants’ mouths and hands and offer opportunity to share with a child on a caregiver’s lap. The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page.

[3] In conversation, turns include the pauses, silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party.

[4] “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. (2003). American Educator. Spring. http://www.readtosucceedbuffalo.org/documents/30%20Million%20Word%20Gap.pdf

[5] Sosa study

[6] Sosa study.

[7] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/ and http://www.thoughtfulparent.com/

[8] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[9] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[10] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[11] http://www.thoughtfulparent.com/