Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn: Mind-Mindedness, Language Cues, and Early Care Environments

Project Category: Leveraging Technology for New Insights 

Kristina de Korsak, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Studies
Sonoma State University

Introduction: Early language exchanges are the basis of children’s language development (Tomasello, 2005) and some researchers posit that children in lower income homes hear fewer words than their more affluent peers, possibly creating a vocabulary difference (Hart &Risley 1995, Fernald et al., 2013). Others (Johnson 2015) contest the “gap” but the research nonetheless still demonstrates the importance of early language exposure. A majority of California’s children ages 6 months and above are enrolled in a care setting outside the home. The need to understand the language environment in ECE settings is crucial. Yet little data is available about how language acquisition occurs in childcare settings, with the majority of the research exploring parent-child dyads in the home. This qualitative research project bridges this gap by exploring how childcare provider-child social interactions influence language acquisition. The two aims of this study were (1) to uncover the types of interactions that foster language development and enhance social bonds, and (2) to better understand how care providers can promote development for children in early care environments. Studying the context of daily activities in a state subsidized, rural childcare center, I present new evidence that toddlers benefit from robust language exchanges during daily care-giving activities and when adults-children are engaged in joint attention. While specific book reading or literacy activities lead to hearty exchanges under certain conditions, many of the richest exchanges occurred during social activities such as diapering and adult-guided play activities rather than during structured skills time.  However, not all social activities (e.g., mealtimes) led to strong language exchanges.

Methods: Recruited through First 5, four care providers with basic ECE certification and six 24-38 month old children from a state subsidized childcare center serving 35, mainly low income, children participated in this study. Using Language Environment Analysis recorders (LENA), I collected naturally occurring language data during daily activities in the center. The LENA output provides information about conversational turns, child vocalizations, adult-child speech and electronic noises (e.g., television or radio) throughout the day. The children and providers were recorded during six sessions lasting between 4-10 hours. In addition, two classroom observations, and three Mind-Mindedness (MM) interviews were conducted to triangulate the data.  I identified three high and low five-minute language samples for each child, and the most robust 5-minute sample for each participant was transcribed. The provider interviews were coded using MM criteria (Meins and Fernyhough 2015).

Results: The MM interviews demonstrate that the providers have genuine concern for each child’s development. This is corroborated by the transcribed language exchanges and observations. The LENA data suggest that the richest language exchanges occur during caregiving semi-structured social activities (e.g., toileting, discipline, open-ended play). Morning circle time also was a moment of high turn exchanges. It is important to note that circle time is very participatory at this center. The children used language to negotiate, predict, vie for attention, and shout out names of objects or choices in songs. In fact, the set up and planning portion of the circle was particularly robust, and might be called adult-led transition time. Low exchanges occurred during mealtimes, very structured activities (e.g., table work, music class) and/or very unstructured activities (e.g., parent pick-up, unstructured play).  

Discussion: The study brings new evidence that toddlers outside the home benefit from interactions when an adult is available and focused on providing for the child’s needs. Neither very structured time nor unstructured time elicited the same level of turn exchanges between adults and children as semi-structured time. This is something to consider when planning activities for young children. The findings of this study indicate that social interactions in a toddler’s daily life are crucial. Diapering, redirecting behavior, and child-initiated play with an adult all surfaced as contexts that generated the largest amount of turn exchanges. The one social interaction that did not lead to robust A-C language exchanges was mealtime. Mealtime in childcare facilities may not encourage language exchanges because of the numbers of children and provider related lunchtime tasks.

Children in a childcare setting are limited in one-one exchanges with adults due to the ratios. However, finding ways to increase the times children are nurtured, have adults actively engage them in conversations while following the child’s lead may be a means of augmenting the A-C exchanges during the day.

The small number of participants, limited recording, and the specific context (geography, community, center, children) are limitations of this study. The project is qualitative, and therefore cannot be generalized to a larger population. It was not possible to fully explore the relationship between MM and the actual responsiveness of the providers. Instead, the MM interviews were used to triangulate the observations that indicated the providers had a caring bond with the children. The LENA recorders have excellent overall accuracy, but fine-grained transcriptions could provide further triangulation and information. Future research should explore how the language exchanges lead to development and how we can best support providers.

Dr. Kristina de Korsak, Assistant Professor
Sonoma State University
School of Education, Department of Early Childhood Studies
1801 East Cotati Ave.
Rohnert Park, CA 94928


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