This chapter provides an in-depth discussion of some of the key educational practices identified in Chapter 5 that, when applied with consistency and high quality over time for children as they age, can continuously support the development and early learning of children from birth through age 8. First is a discussion of cross-cutting principles for instructional practices and curricula, with an overview followed by examples of applications of instructional practices specific to working with infants and toddlers, language and literacy, mathematics, science, and socioemotional development. The sections that follow then cover other important educational practices, including using technology effectively, supporting the early learning of dual language learners, supporting children with and at risk for disabilities, working with families, and conducting child assessments.
This section reviews some of the principles for instructional practices that are generally applicable provided that they are developed and applied in specific ways for different developmental domains and learning needs, including general learning competencies, socioemotional development, cognitive development, and specific subject-matter content (as illustrated in the specific sections that follow). These principles include managing the learning environment, teaching subject-matter content through learning trajectories, using tiered intervention approaches, using a mix of instructional methods, using interdisciplinary approaches to instruction, and ensuring
follow-through and continuity. Through the application of these principles, effective educators can challenge and have high expectations for all students to make progress in development and early learning (Askew et al., 1997; Clarke et al., 2002; Clements and Sarama, 2007, 2008; Thomson et al., 2005).
The discussion of several of these principles includes some the context of available validated, research-based curricula and other materials that serve as an important means to support educators in their work, especially given the broad range of content areas and domains they are responsible for in educating young children. These tools help educators by presenting material in sequences aligned with learning trajectories, providing the teacher with instructional activities and questions to ask children, informing the teacher of common misconceptions that children may hold or mistakes commonly made and how to address them, and providing updated information as research becomes available.
Unfortunately, research-based curricula and tools are not equally available across age ranges and subjects. Educators working with infants and toddlers have fewer such resources than other educators, which hinders the quality of their practice and puts the burden entirely on the provider. They lack, for example, developmentally appropriate curricula to help them lay the specific foundations needed for later learning in core subject areas, compared to some tools that have been developed for language and mathematics in preschool and those for educators in the early elementary years, who have greater availability of curricular resources. In addition, some subject areas have had greater research and development invested in curricular tools than others.
Managing the Learning Environment
Managing the learning environment encompasses managing a number of important components of the context in which young children are educated (several of which are also discussed in more depth in subsequent sections of this chapter):
- the physical environment, indoors and outside, to create an environment that is comfortable, safe, and responsive to the needs of young children (e.g., room arrangement, furnishings, use of wall and floor space/lighting/color, storage, use of outdoor space) (LePage et al., 2005; Sutterby and Frost, 2006; Tanner, 2009);
- learning materials (e.g., equipment, toys, technology) (LePage et al., 2005);
- time and structure (e.g., daily schedule, routines, distribution of time to tasks, pacing, transitions) (LePage et al., 2005);
- the materials used in teaching and learning (e.g., forms, assignments, documentation, materials going home and coming in) (Knoche et al., 2012; Wien, 2011);
- instructional strategies (e.g., selecting the instructional strategies best suited to children’s needs and the content to be learned, sequencing instruction, diversifying instructional strategies, organizing classroom activities around a validated, research-based curricula) (LePage et al., 2005; Simonsen et al., 2008);
- student behavior (e.g., supporting the development of positive relationships, promoting and teaching responsible behavior, establishing rules and expectations, preventing typical discipline problems, addressing problem behaviors constructively) (LePage et al., 2005; Simonsen et al., 2008);
- communication (e.g., adult–child, child–child, colleagues, classroom teams, families, across settings, across areas of responsibility, and across systems) (Knoche et al., 2012; LePage et al., 2005); and
- classroom climate (e.g., promoting a positive verbal environment, demonstrating respect for culture and diversity among children and families in the program and beyond, practicing democracy, promoting equity and social justice) (LePage et al., 2005).
Teaching Subject-Matter Content Through Learning Trajectories
Although children are ready and eager to learn, many early childhood educators are not prepared to engage children in rich subject-matter experiences that lay the groundwork for success later in school and in the workplace (Brenneman et al., 2009b; Clements and Sarama, 2009; NRC, 2001b, 2007; Sarama and Clements, 2009). In general, teachers historically have not been prepared to teach subject-specific knowledge to young children (Isenberg, 2000), although language and literacy has received more attention for young children relative to other subject-matter areas (Aydogan et al., 2005; Cervetti et al., 2006). Decisions about what subject-matter content is taught are made locally, and such subjects as mathematics and science usually are underemphasized for young children (Barnett et al., 2009).
To teach subject-matter content, educators need three categories of knowledge (Hill et al., 2008; Shulman, 1986; Wilson et al., 2014):
- General pedagogical knowledge is knowledge of general teaching strategies that apply to many different subjects.
- Content knowledge is knowledge of the subject matter itself, including common content knowledge, specialized content knowledge, and horizon knowledge.
- Common content knowledge is that which students are to learn.
- – Specialized content knowledge includes concepts and skills used in teaching but not taught to students directly.
- – Horizon knowledge is how the content is developed over years so that teaching and learning are coherent, and teachers are effective with exceptional students. Such knowledge includes how subjects differ. For example, mathematics knowledge relies heavily on logic, and scientific knowledge depends largely on observation and experimentation.
- – Pedagogical content knowledge is knowing the subject matter for teaching. This involves knowledge of students, including how students understand and learn specific topics; common conceptions or misconceptions; what makes concepts and skills difficult or easy to learn, and what students typically find challenging or motivating. It also involves knowledge of teaching, including how to represent and present concepts from a particular subject such as science or math or reading (through good illustrations, analogies, examples, and explanation), the sequencing of content, and what teaching strategies affect the learning of certain topics.
Children learn in a developmental sequence. Well-designed curricula are therefore based on developmentally sequenced activities, and quality instructional practice requires educators who understand those sequences and can assess progress and remediate accordingly. Learning trajectories can help educators of young children understand and be responsive to children’s developmental processes and constraints and their potential for thinking about and understanding content, and apply that understanding in creating more effective environments, instructional activities, and conversations. The learning trajectories construct organizes, connects, and operationalizes the above three types of knowledge—especially content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge—for teaching specific subject-matter content. It also adds an essential component of knowledge gained from psychological and educational research on how children think and learn about the content. Understanding and applying developmental sequences of learning and teaching requires that educators understand the components of distinct learning trajectories in each subject-matter area. Those components include
- the goal and subject-matter content (understanding the subject itself);
- the developmental progression of children’s thinking and understanding as they learn particular content (the levels of thinking through which children develop as they gain competence and the patterns of thinking they display at each level), including the acqui-
sition of new facts and skills and the development of different ways of thinking about the content that are increasingly sophisticated, abstract, and complex; and
- the instructional tasks and strategies that promote learning at each level and how to sequence and individualize those learning activities (knowledge of how to cultivate both content knowledge and learning competencies as part of everyday instructional practices).
Learning trajectories also should be linked to the use of formative assessment—the ongoing monitoring of children’s learning to guide and inform instruction (see the section on conducting child assessments later in this chapter).
Conclusion About Learning Trajectories
Learning of subject-matter content for children from birth through age 8 is best promoted through the use of learning trajectories that are specific to subject areas and developed through research as the core of learning standards, instruction, and curricula. To foster comprehensive, high-quality early learning, educators need to understand and employ all three components of learning trajectories: the subject-matter content itself, the developmental progression of how children’s thinking and understanding grows as they learn particular content, and the instructional tasks and strategies that promote learning along that progression.
Teaching Subject-Matter Content: Implications for Professional Learning
Professional learning needs to include all three categories of knowledge for teaching subject-matter content: content knowledge, general pedagogical knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge. Current educational opportunities need to be expanded to help educators develop such knowledge in language and literacy, mathematics, and other core subjects. At the same time, professional learning needs to support professionals in their practice across all domains of development and learning, which will also contribute to children’s progress in subject-matter learning.
Using Tiered Intervention Approaches
Tiered intervention approaches, also called response-to-intervention models, have been used to stimulate the learning of children in the areas of
reading, mathematics, and socioemotional development. These approaches make use of ongoing formative assessment to determine which children have mastered specific skills or knowledge and which might benefit from additional, more intensive instruction and learning opportunities. These additional learning opportunities, called Tier 2 interventions, are differentiated by being offered in smaller groups with more scaffolded instruction. Often children respond quickly to Tier 2 interventions (e.g., see Fuchs and Fuchs, 2006; Horner, 1990; Lewis et al., 2010; O’Connor et al., 2013; Sugai and Horner, 2009)—some to the extent that they catch up to their peers and begin to learn better in typical preschool and K-3 classroom instruction and experiences.
Conclusion About the Use of Tiered Intervention Approaches
Tiered intervention approaches, in which educators identify which children have learned particular content or skills and which children might benefit from additional instruction and support, are important for early prevention and intervention. Educators need to be able to implement these approaches so that they are continuous, flexible, dynamic, and focused on the range of critical skills and proficiencies children need to develop.
Using a Mix of Instructional Methods
Many seemingly dichotomous approaches to instruction actually serve children best when used in combination. Some of these “dichotomies” include “direct” versus “inquiry” instruction, play-based versus academic instruction, development of content knowledge versus socioemotional learning, and mainstreaming versus special instruction. Even the structure of examining instructional strategies in a dichotomous frame may restrict what can be learned about when, how, and how much to use each. For example, for teaching mathematics a recent review found that different methods are effective for different learning goals, and most dichotomies describing ways of teaching mathematics were not helpful (Hiebert and Grouws, 2007). Similarly, students benefit from a mix of code-based and meaning-based approaches to learning to read compared to instruction that focuses on only one approach (Connor et al., 2009; Graves et al., 2006).
Thus, effective approaches combine multiple complementary instructional strategies, ranging from initial children-centered exploration and invention, to guided lessons on optimal strategies and generalization, to practice for fluency (Clements and Sarama, 2009; Murata and Fuson, 2006; NCTM, 2006; NMP, 2008). The following are examples of such ap-
proaches to instruction that are often treated as dichotomous but may in fact be most effective in combination.
Student Centered Versus Educator Directed
One of the 10 pedagogical issues investigated by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMP, 2008) was whether instruction should be student centered or educator directed. Given the tendency of some to promote one approach over the other, the panel’s conclusion was important: “all-encompassing recommendations that instruction should be entirely ‘student centered’ or ‘teacher directed’ are not supported by research” (NMP, 2008, p. xxii). This same dichotomy has been investigated with respect to instructional practices for reading (Connor et al., 2009).
Another dimension of this discussion is the use of peer-assisted learning. Research has found that cooperative learning strategies lead to more positive academic and social outcomes than competitive or individualistic strategies (see reviews in Johnson and Johnson, 2009; Nastasi and Clements, 1991). For elementary students, for example, such cooperative learning strategies might include constructive group discussions with different views presented, group engagement, solicitation and provision of explanations, and shared leadership (Wilkinson et al., 1994).
Conceptual Versus Practice Based
Substantial practice is required for learning certain knowledge and skills, but this requirement is not incompatible with the establishment of conceptual foundations. The term repeated experiencing describes activities that support practice as well as generalization and transfer (Baroody, 1999; Clements and Sarama, 2012; Sarama and Clements, 2009). Also, distributed, spaced practice has been found to be more effective than massed practice (all in one session, repetition of the same item over and over) (Cepeda et al., 2006), although in some cases students learn and retain information longer when they first experience frequent, repetitive practice followed by distributed practice. As an example, in the Swanson and colleagues (1999) meta-analysis of effective interventions for students with learning disabilities (including studies from preschool through grade 3 as well as with older students), focus on practice to achieve mastery of a skill or concept (massed practice) accompanied by distributed practice and review were more effective in promoting reading and mathematics ability than interventions without these components. Distributed practice can be achieved by providing occasional opportunities to use the learned skill after students have demonstrated competence in that skill, or by incorporating newly learned skills into more complex activities that require independent use of the skill, which
encourages conceptual knowledge. Because the goal is for the knowledge to be available quickly throughout the student’s life, the optimal approach entails short, frequent practice sessions of facts and skills whose conceptual foundations have been well learned and understood.
Findings from a number of studies have found that memorization without understanding does not facilitate student learning. One 2008 study of textbooks that emphasized memorization of math facts found that only 7 percent of students demonstrated adequate progress over the course of 1 year (Henry and Brown, 2008). Another teaching method that showed negative effects was the use of timed tests, which can increase children’s math anxiety (Beilock, 2001; Boaler, 2014; Ramirez et al., 2013). Approaches that use thinking strategies are more successful. For instance, in an addition problem students might solve 8 + 7 by thinking, “I need 2 more to make a 10 out of 8. That leaves 5 out of the 7, and 10 and 5 is 15,” thus using a strategy to “make 10” of breaking apart numbers (Clements and Sarama, 2012).
Order of Skills Versus Understanding
A related false dichotomy is what should be taught first: skills or conceptual understanding. A better approach appears to be the simultaneous development of conceptual understanding and procedural skill, with the flexible application of multiple strategies (Blote et al., 2001; Clements and Sarama, 2012; Fuson and Briars, 1990).
For young children, shared writing activities in which adults help children to add to a grocery list or generate a thank you note (O’Connor et al., 1996) or write a sentence about a character in a storybook (Aram and Biron, 2004) embody purposes for reading and writing, as well as develop the phonological skills and letter knowledge children will need to read words. Moreover, combining the tasks of identifying a word’s first sound and selecting a letter that makes that sound (e.g., “We want bananas; what sound starts ‘bananas’? What shall we write?”) demonstrates the alphabetic principle (i.e., that any word we say can be broken into sounds, which are represented by letters of the alphabet) in both conceptual and personally meaningful ways. Similarly, educators can emphasize elements of story structures that support reading comprehension (Cain and Oakhill, 1996) alongside phonemic awareness and letter knowledge.
As another example, a 2001 study compared two methods for teaching first-grade math: one focused on ensuring that students mastered step-by-step procedures for solving a math problem, while the other emphasized conceptual understanding and flexible application of multiple strategies and procedures. The students in the flexible group scored higher and showed superior conceptual understanding and were better at recognizing how dif-
ferent concepts were interrelated (Blote et al., 2001). Other research has shown that mechanical instruction is inferior to good conceptual and procedural instruction in helping students achieve mathematical goals (Hiebert and Grouws, 2007). Thus, educators should teach students to help them build skills and ideas, using skills adaptively. Effective instruction poses problems and makes connections, leading to solutions that make those connections visible; how active a role the educator takes can vary. Students then have fluent and adaptive expertise rather than mere efficiency (Baroody, 2003). In addition, acquiring skills before developing understanding can lead to learning difficulties (Baroody, 2004a,b; Fuson, 2004; NRC, 2001a; Sophian, 2004; Steffe, 2004).
Research suggests that effective instruction for imparting skills, or promoting instrumental learning, is rapid paced, uses teacher modeling and many teacher-directed product-oriented questions, and smoothly transitions from demonstrations to substantial amounts of error-free practice. Teachers organize, present, and pace information to meet well-defined goals (Hiebert and Grouws, 2007; Kame’enui et al., 2013).
For the purpose of developing conceptual or relational understanding, effective instruction entails attending explicitly to concepts, which means discussing the connections among facts, procedures, concepts, and processes. Several studies have found that this leads to high levels of student achievement, particularly when teaching methods were student centered (Clements and Sarama, 2012; Fuson and Briars, 1990; Hiebert and Wearne, 1993). It is also important that educators allow students to struggle with important concepts or problems (Hiebert and Grouws, 2007) as the process of making connections and working to make sense of a subject can help students achieve conceptual understanding (Clements and Sarama, 2012). This kind of understanding, and teaching to impart it, appears to be as effective in supporting skill development as teaching to impart skills only (Clements and Sarama, 2012; Hiebert and Grouws, 2007).
In summary, concepts and skills develop together and support each other (Carpenter et al., 1998; Fuson and Briars, 1990; Fuson et al., 1997b; Resnick, 1992; Verschaffel et al., 2007). Indeed, instruction and curricula that emphasize conceptual understanding simultaneously with procedural skills and flexible application of multiple strategies lead not only to equivalent skills but also to more fluent, flexible use of those skills, as well as to superior conceptual understanding, compared with approaches that initially emphasize mastery of procedures (Fuson and Kwon, 1992; NMP, 2008). Effective instruction and curricula build on students’ thinking, provide opportunities for both invention and practice, and ask students to explain their various strategies (Hiebert, 1999), thereby facilitating higher-order thinking and conceptual growth without sacrificing the learning of skills.
Conclusion About Using a Mix of Instructional Methods
Debates about instruction that treat different approaches as dichotomous or in opposition can dominate discourse about policy and practice when the most effective strategy may be a mix or balance of these approaches, with dichotomies being set aside in favor of more cohesive and coherent practices.
As part of selecting and applying an appropriate mix of established instructional methods, other instructional practices that promote learning of subject-matter content include taking into account such factors as motivation, self-concept, confidence, and engagement; providing opportunities for both creative invention and practice; helping students see connections among various types of knowledge and topics to build well-structured, coherent knowledge; and placing learning in context by using problems that have meaning for students and expecting that students will invent, explain, and critique their own strategies within a social context. Effective educators also consistently integrate real world situations, problem solving, and content into instruction and curricula (Fuson, 2004). For example, making connections to real-life situations enhances students’ attitudes about and knowledge of mathematics (Perlmutter et al., 1997), just as explaining words in child-friendly contexts increases children’s motivation to learn and their attention to new words they encounter in their environment (Beck and McKeown, 2007).
Using Interdisciplinary Approaches to Instruction
Many argue that curricula should be integrated or combined across domains and subjects because (1) real-world topics and phenomena are inherently interdisciplinary, (2) children’s worlds typically are not divided neatly into disciplines, and (3) disciplines can work synergistically. As an example of the latter point, research has shown that exposure to science- and math-oriented curricula helps develop vocabulary and other language and literacy competencies, such as understanding of increasing grammatical complexity, willingness to reproduce narratives independently, and inferential reasoning (French, 2004; Peterson and French, 2008; Raudenbush, 2009; Romance and Vitale, 2001; Sarama et al., 2012). Also, children who engaged in mathematics-related storybook reading, discussed these books, and played with related mathematics materials had a better disposition toward and learning of mathematics than a control group (Hong, 1996; van den Heuvel-Panhuizen and Elia, 2012).
However, little research has explored the question of whether and how multiple subjects can be combined in ways that address time competition in
the classroom and do not reduce necessary specificity. For example, those teaching the youngest children argue that they do not have time to include math and science because of other requirements, especially supporting literacy (Greenfield et al., 2009; Sarama and Clements, 2009).
Moreover, reviews of fully integrated curricula (e.g., activities that involve all subject areas) reveal little evidence that they are superior to traditional content-specific curricula and suggest that there are challenges in implementing such curricula (Czerniak et al., 1999). Often these curricula entail thematic units of instruction that connect only surface features (Barton and Smith, 2000). Further, evidence suggests that different areas of knowledge are organized into distinct mental structures rather than into domain-general structures (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004; NRC, 2001b; NRC and IOM, 2000; Sarama and Clements, 2009), which suggests that there may be value to maintaining some subject-specific distinctions in approaches to learning and instruction.
For these reasons, it may be preferable to take an interdisciplinary approach to, for example, language and literacy, mathematics, science, and socioemotional competencies, in which rich connections are made among them, but they retain their core conceptual, procedural, and epistemological structures (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004; Mantzicopoulos et al., 2009; Sarama and Clements, 2009). For example, expose children to prerequisite math skills in an appropriate sequence, and design science inquiry (Furtak et al., 2012) to promote a deep understanding of conceptual content and science skills (with language and literacy and socioemotional competencies always at play). Then, when connections are drawn between math and science, they will be genuine and detailed, with their impact undiluted by less productive attempts at integration.
Conclusion About Interdisciplinary Instructional Approaches
Teaching and learning need to be connected across developmental domains and subject areas. Such connections across standards, curricula, and teaching are best made through approaches that are not just “integrated” (which often means making connections that are superficial and do not serve learning goals) but “interdisciplinary”—making rich connections among domains and subject areas, but allowing each to retain its core conceptual, procedural, and epistemological structures.
Interdisciplinary Instructional Approaches: Implications for Professional Learning
Methods courses for educators that emphasize how to connect subjects and domains, such as mathematics, language and literacy, and socioemotional development, could foster early childhood teachers’ confidence and attention across developmental domains. However, this approach needs to be adopted without a reduction in disciplinary focus that shortchanges attention to each of the individual domains and subjects.
Ensuring Follow-Through and Continuity
Given how young children develop, it is unrealistic to expect the effects of early interventions to last indefinitely, without continual, progressive support in later schooling of children’s nascent learning trajectories (Brooks-Gunn, 2003; O’Connor et al., 2013, 2014). This is especially unrealistic if goals and approaches are not aligned between early childhood and elementary settings or children end up following high-quality early childhood experiences with attendance at poor-quality schools (Brooks-Gunn, 2003; Currie and Thomas, 2000). Early positive effects may be weakened by, for example, later settings that assume low levels of knowledge, focus on lower-level skills, and have low expectations for certain groups (Carpenter and Moser, 1984; Engel et al., 2013; van den Heuvel-Panhuizen, 1996). Similarly, the effects of even high-quality instruction in elementary school can be hampered by children’s lack of prior exposure to foundational, high-quality learning experiences. Indeed, there is a cumulative positive effect of students experiencing consecutive years of high-quality teaching and a cumulative negative effect of low-quality teaching (Ballou et al., 2004; Jordan et al., 1997; Sanders and Horn, 1998; Sanders and Rivers, 1996; Wright et al., 1997). Unfortunately, the latter is more probable for high-risk children (Akiba et al., 2007; Darling-Hammond, 2006).
The research on sustaining developmental progress is documented most thoroughly for the preschool and kindergarten years. However, the issues, challenges, and implications apply to all ages, birth through 8 years and beyond. Systems-level approaches to supporting greater continuity and consistency in high-quality learning experiences are discussed in Chapter 5.
Cross-Cutting Conclusions About Instructional Practices
Across the birth through age 8 continuum, children benefit when educators assume both (1) a developmental orientation that engages with the child as an integrated whole, involves a cumulative progression of
learning over time, and employs flexible developmental expectations, and (2) an educational orientation that fosters the development of cognitive skills and subject-matter–specific knowledge and skills through guided activity. Early childhood settings typically are viewed as emphasizing a developmental orientation, while early elementary settings typically are viewed as emphasizing an educational orientation. The science of child development and early learning supports professional practice and policies that incorporate both orientations continuously across care and education settings for children.
Proficient learning in each domain of development and early learning is facilitated when standards, curricula, assessments, and teaching practices are coherent, aligned with each other and across ages and grade levels, based on rigorous research and evaluation, and implemented with fidelity.
There are some special considerations worth emphasizing for working with infants and toddlers in childcare settings to aid in promoting their optimal development and early learning. Many of these are on a continuum with the principles that apply across age groups, but are manifest in particular ways for professionals working with the youngest children.
Small Groups: Caring for infants and toddlers in small groups is essential, as it reduces noise, distractions, and confusion, and can promote high levels of intimacy between infant and educator. Maximum group sizes and adult–child ratio vary with age.1 In small and intimate group settings, educators are able to identify and work toward the needs and developmental progress of individual infants. Educators can accommodate to individual eating and sleeping schedules for infants and toddlers, as well as establish potty-training routines when needed. These small settings also make it possible to recognize and meet the needs of children with special needs (Lally et al., n.d.).
Primary Caregiving Assignments and Continuity of Care: In order to build quality and intimate relationships, each child should be assigned to a primary educator who is responsible for establishing a relationship with the child and ensuring their comfort in the childcare setting. The secure attachments that young children develop with educators (discussed in Chapter 4) enable young children to approach learning opportunities more positively and confidently. Emotional support of this kind is important for develop-
1 For group size and caregiver–child ratio, see Lally et al. (n.d).
ment and is a positive accompaniment to the task of learning, and it is also an essential prerequisite to the cognitive and attentional engagement necessary for young children to benefit from learning opportunities.
Continuity of care is also important, yet often lacking, in programs. This can have negative effects on the educator–child relationship. Young children must build relationships and establish trust with their educators, and movement from one to another can create a sense of loss and confusion. Some centers offer a “practicing toddler” group, which dedicates a time for infants to visit their future educators in order to begin establishing trust and building relationships. This process takes place over time and is adjusted to the individual needs of each infant.
Instructional Practices: As discussed in Chapter 4, the cognitive abilities of very young children are easily underestimated. Infants and toddlers are taking significant strides in both their implicit (nonconscious) and explicit knowledge of language, the functioning of objects, and the characteristics of people and animals in the world around them. Early learning occurs rapidly, even when it is sometimes difficult for educators to observe.
Educators can support the growth of these cognitive abilities through their instructional practices in the learning environment. Using an abundance of child-directed language during social interaction, playing sorting and counting games (e.g., while stacking blocks), putting into words what a classroom pet can do or why somebody looks sad, exploring together what happens when objects collide, engaging in imitative play—these and other shared activities build on understandings that young children are implicitly developing related to language; number; object characteristics; and implicit theories of animate and inanimate objects, physical causality, and people’s minds. The purpose is to provide young children with cognitive stimulation and to embed that stimulation in social interaction that provokes young children’s interest, elicits their curiosity, and provides an emotional context that enables learning.
The central feature of these shared activities is that, rather than being entirely directed by the educator, instruction emerges from the interaction of the educator with the young child and their context. This interaction builds on the child’s interests and understanding and the educator’s efforts to stimulate early learning by responding to those interests and stimulating them through the learning opportunities afforded by the classroom or other learning context. Instruction thus derives from the educator’s observations and immediate efforts to notice young children’s interests and questions, extend them, and contribute to further discoveries. The underlying structure relies on the educator’s knowledge of the developmental progress for which children of this age are ready, the interests of the particular child, and the effort to create a classroom or other context that has materials to which children can respond (e.g., blocks, storybooks, imaginative play materi-
als). This approach to instruction builds on the cognitive characteristics of young children, particularly the motivation for learning that derives from immediate cognitive engagement, the limitations in cognitive and attentional self-regulation for which adult support can be beneficial, and the importance of the child’s affective as well as cognitive response to new learning. This approach to early education has been described in what is known as emergent curriculum (Jones and Nimmo, 1994; Stacey, 2009), and other curricular approaches follow similar principles.
It is important to note that such an approach does not mean educators assume a background role. Rather, educators assume an active role both in their structuring of the environment to provide age-appropriate cognitive challenges and in their immediate interaction with the child to stimulate new discovery. In many respects, this approach might be considered a “purposeful play-based” curriculum. It is well suited to very young children who are not yet deliberate, self-regulated learners but whose minds are growing very rapidly based, in part, on the kinds of learning opportunities available to them. This approach advances the standard for quality practice beyond what has often been treated as a dichotomous choice between entirely educator-directed instruction and entirely “play-based” instruction.
Environment, Safety, and Health: The physical environment can affect the educator–child relationship. An inviting and safe environment for infants and toddlers enhances interactions and encourages exploration. Additionally, peer relationships among infants and toddlers can develop through room arrangements and play materials. The environment can also offer parents a space to visit and encourage play, breastfeeding, and the parent–child bond. The environment is also important in ensuring the health and safety of all children in early care and education settings. These settings also offer opportunities to incorporate health and safety education and life skills into everyday activities and for staff to model good health habits (AAP et al., 2011).
Cultural and Familial Continuity: It is important that educators in childcare settings understand the cultural values of the children they serve, which can also facilitate strong relationships with families and help create continuity for children across home and care and education settings. For this reason, it is essential that educators reflect on and explore their own cultural backgrounds in order to understand and be sensitive to culture.
The active ingredient of supporting language development in care and education settings relates to educators’ use of high-quality language interactions (such as extending what a child says and using varied and complex language) and social scaffolding of language and literacy skills, a form of
instructional guidance by which educators progressively provide less ongoing support as development proceeds to enable students to exercise independent skill (Duke and Block, 2012; Turnbull et al., 2009). Age-appropriate language proficiency can be achieved through systematic instruction in vocabulary, listening comprehension, syntactic skills, and awareness of the components of language (August and Shanahan, 2006; Aukrust, 2007; Bowers and Vasilyeva, 2011; Francis et al., 2006).
As discussed in detail in Chapter 4, there is a reciprocal relationship between vocabulary development (a complex and integrative feature of language that grows continuously) and reading words (a skill that most children master by third or fourth grade), and together these skills support reading comprehension (Ehri, 2005; Gough et al., 1996). In developing language and literacy skills, children benefit from extensive opportunities to listen to and use complex spoken language (National Early Literacy Panel, 2008). A stronger speaking and listening vocabulary provides a deeper and wider field of words with which students can attempt to match a printed with a spoken word and check that the word they select makes sense in a given context. When a child’s home language is not the predominant language of the school, parents and preschool educators can be particularly useful in improving depth of vocabulary (Aukrust, 2007; Roberts, 2008).
For children with reading disabilities, longitudinal studies have found that 70 percent of poor readers had a history of language difficulties (Catts et al., 1999), including syntax (rules for combining and ordering words in phrases) (Scarborough, 1991) and morphology (meaningful parts of words and word tenses) (Elbro, 1990). Importantly, understanding and use of syntax and morphology can be taught to young children in preschool through the primary grades. Teaching children to use morphemes in reading and spelling facilitates vocabulary and reading comprehension (Carlo et al., 2004). Reviews of instructional studies beginning as early as kindergarten have found consistent positive effects for teaching children to identify and use morphemes in words (Bowers et al., 2010; Reed, 2008).
Researchers who have developed tiered intervention approaches for children whose reading trajectory suggests risk for reading disabilities and delays have in the last few years incorporated vocabulary and listening comprehension activities along with early reading skills (Case et al., 2014; O’Connor et al., 2013, 2014; Otaiba et al., 2014). Combining these skills in an intervention provides the language stimulation needed by students with poorly developed vocabulary (O’Connor et al., 2010). It also may address the troubling issue of late-emerging learning disabilities (Catts et al., 2012; Kieffer, 2014), whereby reading difficulties emerge in second and third grade and later, primarily in the area of comprehension, despite adequate development of word-level skills. These issues mirror those of children who
learn number “facts” on time but continue to struggle with mathematics concepts and problem solving.
High-Quality Practice in Care and Education Settings Serving Infants and Toddlers
From birth, infants are taking in information from the language environment and using their own voice to communicate their needs and feelings. As they grow into toddlers (~15-33-month-old), children’s language acquisition quickly becomes apparent—they are picking up approximately two new word meanings each day, expanding and deepening what they can communicate and understand (Bloom, 2000). But, as discussed in Chapter 4, this language development rests on positive and nurturing language-based interactions with the adults who care for them. Educators serving infants and toddlers can use several key strategies to foster strong early language environments, thereby supporting young children’s language development:
- Use language-based interactions to develop trusting bonds. Consistently responding to infants’ and toddlers’ communication with talk and encouragement that is emotionally attuned is crucial for early language development. At this stage of development, it is particularly important that these language interactions be responsive to children’s emotional expressions (e.g., laughter, crying) and expressions of need. These relationship-building language practices set in motion reciprocal interactions in which children then respond in turn, with increased attempts at communication.
- Use talk for learning. Ongoing exposure to elaborate language, as well as simple requests and questions that draw out children’s first words and phrases, all support language development. Therefore, educators of infants and toddlers create high-quality language environments when they intentionally and thoughtfully use their own talk—through explanations, questioning, and descriptions—to build up the knowledge of those in their care. This instructional use of talk includes “narrating” events of the day (e.g., “We’re crossing the road to get to the park.”) and describing children’s actions as they are performing them (e.g., “You’re putting your hand in the warm mitten.”). In addition, using talk for learning involves extending children’s language, repeating their language, and then supplying additional words and more complex sentence structures (e.g., saying, “You want me to pick you up?,” when a child says, “up!”). Using talk for learning is most effective when early educators engage in discussions of the here and now that brings young children beyond their immediate surroundings and experiences
(i.e., decontextualized talk). For example, an educator might begin with the here and now (e.g., a child’s expression of interest in an object), expand from there (e.g., talking about what one can do with that object, what it feels like, or what it looks like), and then engage in talk that is even more decontextualized (e.g., make a plan for using the object later in the day, remember a prior experience with the object, or discuss other objects and how they are similar or different) (Copple et al., 1984). In this example, the educator is responding to children’s interests and real-time experiences, situating language learning in meaningful contexts.
- Engage in language-rich play. Play is a means of learning in early childhood, and language learning can be woven throughout the play of young children. Educators can and should use songs and gestures, flannel board stories, puppets, or other materials that prompt the use of talk by children and adults alike. Importantly, at this stage, language-rich play not only includes adult–child interactions and experiences, but beginning as early as toddlerhood, this play for learning can and should take place among groups of children. In this case, the guidance and facilitation of the educator is a key element in making these language-rich experiences. When facilitating play among groups of toddlers, educators should intentionally scaffold the language experience; for example, ask questions, narrate events, model using language to collaborate, and use strategies to encourage peer interactions.
- Read a variety of books and reread favorites. Children become “readers” long before they begin to read. Infants and toddlers enjoy listening to, and engaging with, a variety of books: board books with faces, animals, and objects that can be talked about; predictable books that quickly become familiar favorites; and books that include new information and ideas that begin to open up young children’s worlds and extend their vocabulary and knowledge. Educators should make shared book reading part of the daily routine, thereby building children’s language as well as their interest in print. This is another chance to be emotionally attuned and strengthen bonds with young children.
As described in Chapter 4, interactive book reading between children and their caregivers is one of the best-documented methods for improving the vocabularies of children. Conversations as stories are read improve children’s vocabulary (Hindman et al., 2008; Weizman and Snow, 2001), especially when children are encouraged to build on the possibilities of storybooks by following their interests (Whitehurst et al., 1988; Zucker et al., 2013). A book serves as a stimulus for conversation outside the im-
mediate context—the “decontextualized” language described above—and introduces new or less familiar words. As books are read repeatedly, children become familiar with the vocabulary and their conversations can be elaborated. Routines also help children with developmental delays acquire language and use it more intelligibly (van Kleek, 2004).
As digital materials become increasingly available, educators may need to learn how to foster language development through media beyond books (see the discussion of using technology effectively later in this chapter). By drawing attention to items or illustrations on a tablet, smartphone screen, or electronic whiteboard, educators can adapt the skills of interactive reading to ensure that digital media become a platform for decontextualized language and other forms of language development (Strouse et al., 2013). However, a few studies of e-books also have shown that the bells and whistles of the devices can interfere with this interactive process if the readers and the e-book designers are not intentional about the use of e-books to develop content knowledge and language skills (Parish-Morris et al., 2013).
High-Quality Practice in Care and Education Settings Serving Children in Preschool and Early Elementary School
Language and literacy development is a major focus of instruction in prekindergarten and K-3 classrooms. Primary grade educators are strong in certain aspects of effective instruction, such as word-reading skills, but there are also important shortcomings in instructional practices related to language and literacy. In particular, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and conceptual and content knowledge are not emphasized, particularly in the use of informational texts that would enhance early reading skills. Instructional practices in these areas can be intentionally embedded in children’s social experiences with educators and peers in the classroom that involve children interacting with partners throughout reading activity, and educators explaining and discussing vocabulary terms and encouraging children to make personal connections with the concepts in text. As noted above, language and literacy skills also benefit from social scaffolding (Duke and Block, 2012).
Research has shown that in high-quality classroom language environments, educators use a variety of abstract words and complex sentences; whether they are providing directions, reviewing information, or posing questions, sophisticated talk permeates classroom instruction and conversation. It is also known that high-quality classroom language environments are interactive spaces where children are part of content-based discussions and purposeful play and above all, have the chance to talk (and talk and talk). The following are three strategies for augmenting the quality of classroom language environments:
- Organize classroom learning around content-based and multifaceted units of study. Learning through extensive study of a topic is a hallmark of effective language and literacy instruction in the preschool and early elementary school years. For example, thematic units organized around content-based and multifaceted topics elicit the use of complex vocabulary by teachers and are one approach for fostering this complex language knowledge among children. Each unit should not only revolve around content-rich themes, but also a complementary, small set of target vocabulary words (Neuman et al., 2011). These vocabulary words should be academic in nature (i.e., words that are used much more frequently in the academic content areas than in day-to-day conversation); drawn from texts read during the unit; relevant to the content-based theme, lending themselves to talking and writing throughout the unit; and conceptually abstract—therefore requiring “study” and extended discussion to promote an understanding of the abstract concepts and ideas they represent.
- Vary instructional groupings such that students have regular, frequent opportunities for extended conversations with their peers and teachers. Different instructional groupings (i.e., whole group, small group, and pairs) lend themselves to different kinds of language experiences, all of which combine to make for a high-quality classroom language environment. In particular, pairs and small groups often are optimal formats for providing students with the opportunity to participate in strong language experiences. When designing instruction that involves small-group or paired conversations, it is particularly important to (1) plan groupings that strategically support language development (e.g., in heterogeneous groupings, children with stronger language skills around a particular topic can provide a language model for peers with more limited language skills); and (2) integrate strategies for scaffolding peer interactions (e.g., assigning roles, providing language frames, and/or posting visuals that display steps). In all cases, it is important to offer students topics to discuss and/or protocols for conversation. For example, students might participate in literacy-enriched learning centers where they collaboratively investigate and discuss books or artifacts related to the unit’s topic. It also is important for students to have regular, frequent opportunities to participate in educator-facilitated small-group discussions. This format lends itself to back-and-forth conversations in which the educator builds on and extends students’ language and ideas—a hallmark of a
high-quality classroom language environment. The ways in which extended conversations support children’s learning is a reminder that the whole day is filled with moments ripe for planned and spontaneous teaching and learning moments. In this sense, every activity is a learning activity because back-and-forth conversations can be incorporated into many aspects of the daily schedule—even during routines such as hand-washing, lining up, and gathering belongings. For example, educators might provide daily questions for students to contemplate as they engage in a transition, lining up to go down the hall for example, and then have students share their responses with a partner when they reach their destination. In addition, “table tents” featuring pictures and/or questions can be placed on the snack or lunch table, providing educators and children with topics for conversation.
- Use read-alouds as a platform for conversation. Interactive readings of diverse texts related to the content under study increases the quality of the language environment in at least two ways. First, the language of text, in and of itself, often stands in contrast to conversational, and even instructional, language. It is important to introduce young children to this language of text from their earliest years by listening to and discussing books. Second, classroom read-alouds are foundational for spurring content-rich classroom discussions. The content of high-quality children’s literature and informational texts lends itself to discussion of topics rooted in the sciences, social studies, and the arts, all of which spur the use of academic and sophisticated words.
Silverman (2007) compared means of improving the oral language of kindergarten students through storybook read-alouds, and found that teachers who engaged their students in conversations that used new words in contexts outside the storybook generated greater vocabulary gains for both dual language learners and native English speakers. Other preschool and kindergarten studies have similarly shown that the interactive storybook routines and features of educators’ talk that support children’s use of language during book discussions support vocabulary growth of dual language learners and other children with poorly developed vocabulary in English (Coyne et al., 2007; Loftus et al., 2010; Silverman, 2007). Children who begin school with poorly developed vocabulary can make large language gains when instruction includes interactive book reading and discussion (Beck and McKeown, 2001; Coyne et al., 2012; O’Connor, 2000; O’Connor et al., 1996).
Teaching Language and Literacy: Implications for Professional Learning
- Programs that prepare care and education professionals to work with young children should help them understand that children’s vocabulary and comprehension improve when they have extended opportunities to discuss stories, use the language of books, and relate new and unusual words to familiar situations. Reading and discussing stories and other texts with children in small groups is consistently more effective than similar approaches in large classes because students in small groups have more opportunities to use words in conversation. These routines can be demonstrated and rehearsed through professional learning.
- The notion of scaffolding children’s attempts to converse and to answer questions also deserves attention in professional learning. When children have difficulty responding to conversation attempts, educators can expand on children’s responses, ask easier questions to facilitate children’s use of language, and gradually use more complex questions as children demonstrate understanding of words and their use in speech. Children in scaffolded conditions (e.g., given easier to more difficult prompts and questions depending on their knowledge of words) make greater gains during language interventions regardless of initial vocabulary knowledge.
- Educators need to be trained to impart more than simple literacy skills, especially listening and reading comprehension, vocabulary, and conceptual and subject-matter content knowledge (e.g., using informational texts).
Although learning standards exist and curricular attention to mathematics has increased, this subject is not generally taught well to young children nor is it emphasized in professional learning through educator preparation or in-service programs. Preschool educators tend not to support mathematics learning, and when they do it is often of low quality (Brenneman et al., 2009b; Brown, 2005; Early et al., 2005, 2007; Graham et al., 1997; Rudd et al., 2008; Tudge and Doucet, 2004; Winton et al., 2005). Moreover, achievement gaps in mathematics have origins in the earliest years—for example, low-income children have less extensive math knowledge than middle-income children in preschool, having typically received less support for mathematics learning in their home or childcare environments (Blevins-Knabe and Musun-Miller, 1996; Brenneman et al., 2009a; Griffin et al., 1995; Holloway et al., 1995; Jordan et al., 1992; Saxe et al., 1987; Starkey et al., 1999). The lack of math in the education
of young children means that gaps in the foundation for later academic success, especially among underserved populations, are unlikely to improve.
The lack of mathematics learning is illustrated by a study in working- and middle-class preschools, in which 60 percent of 3-year-olds had no mathematical experience of any kind across 180 observations (Tudge and Doucet, 2004). Another study documented dramatic variations in the amount of mathematics-related talk educators provided, which was significantly related to the growth of children’s mathematical knowledge over the school year (Klibanoff et al., 2006). Unfortunately, little time is dedicated to mathematics talk in most prekindergarten classrooms. Even when such conversation occurs, it rarely lasts longer than a minute and it is focused on basic concepts such as numeral identification or names of shapes; few or no higher-level mathematical concepts are discussed (Rudd et al., 2008). Preschool educators often believe that when they provide puzzles, blocks, and songs they are “doing mathematics.” Even when they teach mathematics, often that content is not the main focus, but is instead “embedded” in a reading or fine-motor activity (Clements and Sarama, 2009; NRC, 2009). Unfortunately, evidence suggests such an approach is ineffective; instead, intentional teaching of mathematics is effective and complements incidental approaches (NRC, 2009).
Even when preschool settings adopt the most commonly used, ostensibly “complete,” prekindergarten curricula this often engenders no increase in mathematics instruction (Aydogan et al., 2005; Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Consortium, 2008). Not surprisingly, evaluations show little or no learning of mathematics in these preschools (Clements and Sarama, 2007; HHS, 2005). For example, observations of the Opening the World of Learning preschool curriculum, which includes mathematics, revealed that only 58 seconds out of a 360-minute school day was devoted to mathematics. Most children made no gains in math skills over the school year, while some lost mathematics competence (Farran et al., 2007).
Kindergarten classrooms include more mathematics—about 11 percent of the day—than prekindergarten settings. Despite this, many missed opportunities persist, with kindergarten students not being engaged in any instructional mathematics activity in 39 percent of observed intervals (NRC, 2009). Most children entered kindergarten knowing basic verbal counting and simple geometric shapes, but their educators report spending the most mathematics time on just these topics. Further, attention to these low-level competencies is negatively associated with learning, whereas most children benefit from engaging with more advanced content (Engel et al., 2013). Primary grade educators spend yet more time on mathematics than kinder-
garten teachers, but again, the quality of the mathematics and mathematics instruction often is not high.
Most early childhood educators in the United States receive weak preparation for teaching mathematics, and in particular lack knowledge of mathematical content (Blömeke et al., 2011), probably as a result of a low level of mathematics knowledge prior to any teacher education. This deficiency is exacerbated by a gender gap favoring men in this knowledge category but a preponderance of female educators in the preschool and elementary school years. This may be one reason preschool teachers spend less time engaging children in mathematics than in any other subject (Early et al., 2010). Because content knowledge is a prerequisite for implementing pedagogical knowledge (Baumert et al., 2010), increasing the mathematics knowledge of early childhood educators needs to be a priority.
Educators also need to be familiar with and know how to implement effective, research-based curricula. Such curricula often include a comprehensive set of cognitive concepts and processes; are based on developmentally sequenced instructional activities; and help educators assess and remediate based on those developmental progressions (Clements et al., 2011, 2013; Griffin et al., 1994; Sarama et al., 2012). Many studies of research-based curricula have been directed toward helping children living in poverty and those with special needs. They show statistically and practically significant increases in mathematics achievement (Campbell and Silver, 1999; Fuson et al., 1997a; Griffin, 2004; Griffin et al., 1995; Ramey and Ramey, 1998), which can be sustained into first grade (Clements and Sarama, 2007; Griffin et al., 1994; Magnuson et al., 2004) or even third grade (GamelMcCormick and Amsden, 2002).
Role of Mathematical Learning Trajectories in the Creation of Research-Based Standards and Curricula
Children generally follow certain developmental paths in learning mathematics, as described in Chapter 4. As they learn about a mathematical topic, they progress through increasingly sophisticated levels of thinking. These form the core of a learning trajectory: to develop a certain mathematical competence (the goal), children construct each level of thinking in turn (the developmental progression), aided by tasks and teaching that are designed to enable thinking at each higher level (instructional activities) (Clements and Sarama, 2014; Sarama and Clements, 2009). Effective educators understand both the mathematics and the progression of levels of thinking along these paths, and are able to sequence and individual-
ize activities accordingly, thereby building effective mathematics learning environments.
Research has suggested that learning trajectories can help early childhood educators recognize children’s developmental processes and their potential for thinking about and understanding mathematical ideas (Bobis et al., 2005; Clarke, 2008; Clements and Sarama, 2009, 2014; Dowker, 2007; Franke et al., 2007; Wright, 2003). Learning trajectories have therefore been the basis for several recent efforts to improve mathematics teaching and learning (Bobis et al., 2005; Clarke, 2008; Clarke et al., 2002; Horne and Rowley, 2001; Perry et al., 2008; van Nes, 2009; Wright, 2003). The National Research Council’s (2009) report on early mathematics, for example, is subtitled Learning Paths Toward Excellence and Equity. Research-based learning trajectories informed the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted by most states to inform instruction (CCSSO and NGA, 2010). The authors used progressions for each major topic to determine the sequence of learning goals, which were then assigned to grade levels, creating the specific standards.
To use learning trajectories, educators need to understand and be able to apply all three components described above. They have to understand the content for which competence is the goal. For example, they must understand how counting involves much more than simple verbal recitation of number words. They also need to understand the levels of thinking in the developmental progression and how to use a variety of assessment strategies to determine where their class—and individual children—are functioning along that developmental progression. Finally, they have to understand what instructional activities are appropriate to support children’s development of each level of thinking, why they are appropriate, and how to adapt and implement instructional tasks and activities to support children’s learning.
To illustrate, Table 6-1 describes just a few sample levels from a more elaborate learning trajectory for counting (Clements and Sarama, 2014; Sarama and Clements, 2009). The first column names and briefly describes each level of thinking in the counting learning trajectory and provides examples of related behavior. The middle column sketches hypothesized cognitive components for each level of the developmental progression. The column on the right shows instructional tasks matched to each of the levels of thinking in the developmental progression and designed to help children learn the skills and ideas needed to achieve that level.
TABLE 6-1 Sample Levels from a Learning Trajectory for Counting: The Goal Is to Count Objects with Understanding
|Developmental Progression||Instructional Tasks|
|Level Names and Descriptions||Cognitive Components|
|Chanter Chants “singsong” or sometimes-indistinguishable number words. “one, two-twee, four, seven, ten.”||Initial (bootstrap) sensitivity to quantity supports the implicit categorization of words into quantity/number relevant versus irrelevant (Mix et al., 2002). A verbal list composed of a string of paired associates of sounds/syllables is available (and increasingly expanded and differentiated). It can be produced at will.||Verbal Counting Repeated experience with the counting sequence in varied context. This can include songs, finger plays such as “This Old Man,” counting going up and down stairs, and just verbal counting for the fun of it (how high can you go?).|
Reciter Verbally counts with separate words, not necessarily in the correct order after five. “one, two, three, four, five, seven.”
May put objects, actions, and words in many-to-one or overly rigid one-to-one correspondence.
Counts two objects. “two, two, two.”
|The verbal list is differentiated into distinct number words associated with the term “counting” and the notion of quantifying (Fuson, 1988; Ginsburg, 1977). It is produced reliably from one to five or ten; after ten, increasing amounts, sometimes with omissions or other errors, can be produced (Fuson, 1988). The procedure to produce the list is, with more or less strength, associated with “indicator” acts (frequently pointing), using an initial bootstrap process (probably linked to naming objects and rhythm) to produce a partial correspondence (Sarama and Clements, 2009).||Count and Move Have all children count from 1 to 10 or an appropriate number, making motions with each count. For example, say, “one” [touch head], “two” [touch shoulders], “three” [touch head], etc.|
|Developmental Progression||Instructional Tasks|
|Level Names and Descriptions||Cognitive Components|
Corresponder Keeps one-to-one correspondence between counting words and objects (one word for each object), at least for small groups of objects laid in a line, such as: P P P P “1, 2, 3, 4”
May answer “how many?” by recounting the objects, or violate 1-1 or word order to make the last number word be the desired or predicted word.
|The counting procedure is further constrained in producing a correspondence, both in the development of the initial bootstrap process (Downs et al., 2009; Gelman and Gallistel, 1978) and by developing conceptual constraints (i.e., the idea to “count each object once and only once”) so one-to-one correspondence is maintained in simple contexts (and is strove for in most contexts, until other mental demands, especially fatigue, achieve prominence) (Fuson, 1988). Gesturing helps children maintain both types of correspondences, keeping track and coordinating number words with objects (Alibali and Goldin-Meadow, 1993).||Kitchen Counter Students click on objects on a screen one at a time while the numbers from 1 to 10 are counted aloud. For example, they click on pieces of food and a bite is taken out of each as it is counted.|
|Counter (Small Numbers) Accurately counts objects in a line to 5 and answers “how many” with the last number counted. When objects are visible, especially with small numbers, begins to understand cardinality.||Connection is made between the output of subitizing processes and counting process (Carey, 2009; Eimeren et al., 2007; Sarama and Clements, 2009). During object counting (which can apply to any set of “objects,” including events, etc.), a procedure applies to the final counting word makes a count-to-cardinal transition, producing a cardinal value that is associated with the set (Fuson, 1988).||Game Board Counting Game Students identify number amounts (from 1 through 5) on a die and move forward a corresponding number of spaces on a game board.|
|Developmental Progression||Instructional Tasks|
|Level Names and Descriptions||Cognitive Components|
Producer (Small Numbers) Counts out objects to 5.
Recognizes that counting is relevant to situations in which a certain number must be placed.
Produces a group of four objects.
|Extended the goal structure (Siegler and Booth, 2004) to a new executive control procedure that monitors the move-and-count procedure to check, at the production of each count word, if that word matches the goal number; if so, stops the move-and-count procedure. This requires the (at least implicit) understanding that a cardinal word sets a goal (cf. Steffe and Cobb, 1988).||Count Motions Children count how many times you jump or clap, or some other motion. Then have them do those motions the same number of times. Initially, count the actions with children. Later, do the motions but model and explain how to count silently. Children who understand how many motions will stop, but others will continue doing the motions.|
SOURCE: Adapted from Clements and Sarama, 2014.
The Importance of Follow-Through for Mathematics
As noted earlier, the importance of following through on early interventions with continued and cumulative learning support into elementary school and beyond applies across developmental domains and subject areas. For mathematics, research shows that kindergarten curricula and educators fail to build most children’s mathematical competencies (Claessens et al., 2014; Engel et al., 2013). As described previously, kindergarten educators spend the majority of classroom time on basic counting and recognition of simple geometric shapes even though most children enter kindergarten with mastery of this content. Such focus is negatively associated with mathematics achievement across kindergarten. Only children with the lowest levels of math skills benefit from exposure to this basic content; all others benefit from exposure to more advanced content, such as adding small numbers and the beginnings of place value. A similar pattern is seen with advanced literacy content. Claessens and colleagues (2014) found that all children, regardless of preschool experience or family socioeconomic status, benefited from additional exposure to advanced mathematics and reading content in kindergarten.
The limited focus on and lack of advanced content in mathematics
instruction in kindergarten may be a factor, along with others described previously, in accounting for the lack of longitudinal effects in studies of prekindergarten mathematics, as in the Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Consortium (2008) project. One project evaluated the effectiveness of a follow-through intervention, testing a hypothesis that such follow-through is the “missing piece” in many early interventions whose longitudinal evaluations have found less positive effects (MacDonald et al., 2012; Trinick and Stevenson, 2009). An instantiation of the TRIAD (Technology-enhanced, Research-based Instruction, Assessment, and professional Development) scale-up model was designed to teach early mathematics for understanding, emphasizing learning trajectories and technological tools. Schools were randomly assigned to two interventions or control. The interventions were identical at prekindergarten, but only one included TRIAD’s follow-through component in students’ kindergarten and first-grade years. The effects of the prekindergarten intervention persisted with such follow-through, while without it they were significantly less likely to persist.
The Importance of Fostering Positive Beliefs and Attitudes About Mathematics
Educators help children develop positive beliefs and attitudes about mathematics by providing tasks that make sense to students and relate to their everyday interests and lives. As discussed in Chapter 4, the right degree of challenge and novelty can foster interest and a mastery orientation. Clements and Sarama (2012) have summarized the following characteristics of learning environments that enhance students’ attitudes and beliefs about mathematics:
- using problems that have meaning for students (both practical and mathematical);
- expecting that students will invent, explain, and critique their own solution strategies within a social context;
- providing opportunities for both creative invention and practice;
- encouraging and supporting students in progressing toward increasingly sophisticated and abstract mathematical methods and understandings, and in understanding and developing more efficient and elegant solution strategies; and
- helping students see connections among various types of knowledge and topics, with the goal of having each student build a well-structured, coherent knowledge of mathematics.
Teaching Mathematics: Implications for Professional Learning
- Given its central role in children’s development and in prediction of school success, more emphasis is needed on training educators to teach mathematical concepts, reasoning, problem solving, and communication.
- Educators need to understand the mathematics they teach, how children think about and learn that mathematics, and how instructional tasks and strategies can be adapted for children at different levels of thinking. They need to know how to integrate these three components into effective research-based learning trajectories for every topic in mathematics and to use them to conduct effective formative assessment.
- Educators need to be able to move beyond false instructional dichotomies and develop sound mathematical concepts, fluent skills, and flexible and adaptive problem-solving abilities in their students.
- Educators need to know how to support children in struggling productively with challenging mathematical ideas and problems.
- Educators need to know about strategies for developing children’s positive attitudes and productive dispositions toward mathematics.
Young children are fascinated with and construct many ideas about how the world works. They investigate and refine these ideas by exploring and questioning the world around them. Research shows that preschool children know a great deal about the natural world, including concepts related to physics, biology, psychology, and chemistry (NRC, 2007). As with language and literacy and mathematics, they also possess thinking skills and habits of mind that support later, more sophisticated, scientific reasoning. For example, young children might question why leaves fall from trees or where animal babies come from. They might observe that people’s eyes are different colors, and generate possible explanations (Callanan and Oakes, 1992). Older preschoolers interpret simple data patterns and show some understanding of how different patterns support different conclusions (e.g., Klahr and Chen, 2003).
A recent review found that children arrived in kindergarten with lower science readiness scores than in any other subject area or developmental domain (Greenfield et al., 2009). Similarly, international studies have found that knowledge of science, like knowledge of math, is low—at best average internationally—among American students, especially those from low-resource communities (Gonzales et al., 2008). The current frequency and duration of kindergarten teaching of science in the United States was
not shown to predict science achievement at the end of kindergarten or the end of third (Saçkes et al., 2011) to eighth grade (Saçkes et al., 2013). However, early instructional experiences appear to be predictive of science achievement in other countries (Tao et al., 2012). Thus, educators need to address both the overall low level and the quality of instruction and curricula in science in the United States, with special attention to more vulnerable populations.
Like mathematics, young children today are not exposed to adequate educational experiences in science, and it also tends not to be emphasized in the professional learning of educators of young children, even though there are learning standards and some increased attention to science curricula (Brenneman et al., 2009b). Evidence suggests that these educators tend not to support science learning through time spent in either planned or spontaneous science-related activities (Brenneman et al., 2009b; Brown, 2005; Early et al., 2007; Gerde et al., 2013; Hanley et al., 2009; Nayfeld et al., 2011; Tu, 2006; Wenner, 1993). Second, educational experiences in science are not of high quality. If science instruction does occur, it tends to consist of simple, isolated activities, giving young children little or no occasion to develop important experiential and skill bases for future science learning. Further, even when teaching science, educators may use general school vocabulary rather than domain-specific vocabulary, especially when they are not secure in their knowledge of the scientific phenomena (Henrichs et al., 2011).
Primary grade educators also devote limited attention to science because of a lack of time, materials, and space, as well as their perceived lack of content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and self-confidence and comfort in the subject (Appleton and Kindt, 1999, 2002; Greenfield et al., 2009; Saçkes et al., 2011). In addition to spending less time on science, they emphasize simple biology over physics and simple hands-on activities over more conceptually rich activities (Akerson, 2004; Appleton and Kindt, 1999; Saçkes et al., 2011). Moreover, educators’ expectations for children and strategies for grouping them instructionally can produce inequitable learning opportunities for children from low-resource communities and minority groups (NRC, 2007).
In general, science needs to be reconceptualized as more than teaching facts (NRC, 2007). Giving children opportunities to engage in scientific exploration supports science learning, but it also fosters learning and school readiness in other subject areas and developmental domains, including language and literacy, mathematics, and learning competencies (Gelman et al., 2009). Consistent science experiences are related to children’s vocabulary growth (French, 2004) and use of more complex grammatical structures, such as causal connectives (Peterson and French, 2008). Further, the knowledge that children build about the natural world is a critical contributor to
later achievement not only in science but also in reading (Grissmer et al., 2010). Moreover, such experiences close a gender gap in motivation and interest (Patrick et al., 2009).
Educators’ use of research-based curricula and learning trajectories can help ameliorate problems with early teaching and learning of science (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004; Mantzicopoulos et al., 2009). As with mathematics, research has identified learning trajectories for key content areas in science, such as physics and biology, and has provided evidence for the effectiveness of following these pathways (Gelman and Brenneman, 2004). What is “developmentally appropriate” for children to learn is influenced by maturation but determined mainly by learning along these trajectories (NRC, 2007).
Admittedly, work on identifying learning progressions and core concepts in science is less advanced than in mathematics (Gelman et al., 2009). There is a need to identify a few core ideas and plan standards, curricula, and pedagogy around those ideas (NRC, 2007). Studying successful implementation of research-based curricula (including analyses of video) could be useful to inform instruction strategies. Comprehensive strategies that eschew simple dichotomies such as “play” versus “academic” learning and teaching need to be modeled and researched. An important focus for this work is investigating inquiry approaches and distinguishing them from unguided “discovery” approaches (Clements and Sarama, 2014; Furtak et al., 2012; Sarama and Clements, 2009).
As one example, Preschool Pathways to Science (PrePS) is a science-based curricular planning framework used to plan learning experiences that encourage children to think about and work with a science concept (e.g., change through growth, form and function) for many weeks or months (Gelman et al., 2009). Developed by preschool educators and developmental psychologists, the approach is based on learning research showing that children actively construct knowledge and that this process is facilitated when the information to be learned is connected to what was learned before (NRC, 2000). Moreover, this approach is consistent with recommendations that science curricula and standards identify and support a few core ideas rather than many disconnected topics (NRC, 2007), and that researchers and educators focus on learning trajectories for core concepts instead of trying to teach a little bit of everything. The PrePS approach also incorporates science practices that children use repeatedly across content areas, including observing, predicting, and checking predictions; comparing, contrasting, and experimenting; using the vocabulary and discourse patterns of science; counting, measuring, and using other mathematical skills and reasoning; and recording and documenting science ideas and results (Gelman et al., 2009). In practice, PrePS has good to excellent scores on widely used classroom quality measures, and PrePS researchers recently empirically tested
children’s learning from specific science units. Successful outcomes were found for units on growth and life cycles of living things (Downs et al., 2009), senses as tools for observation (Brenneman et al., 2009a), and light and shadows (Massey and Roth, 2009).
Teaching Science: Implications for Professional Learning
Content and methods courses in higher education, as well as other professional learning activities, need to enhance the competencies of educators of children from birth through age 8 in all aspects of science learning trajectories: science goals and content, developmental progressions for a variety of science topics, and instructional tasks and strategies.
As discussed in Chapter 4, research on socioemotional development illuminates its importance for successful learning. Many young children in early education settings and early elementary classrooms arrive with prior experiences of adversity and chronic stress that can affect their behavior and learning, in part owing to biological effects on brain and behavior (see Chapters 3 and 4). It is important for educators to have the knowledge needed to interpret young children’s anxiety, difficulties in paying attention and following instructions, impulsivity, and problems with emotion regulation as arising, in part, from the effects of chronic stress on developing brain systems instead of attributing these characteristics, as adults often do, to uncooperativeness, defiance, or disinterest in learning.
Generally speaking, learning environments that are well structured and predictable, that provide support for children’s self-regulatory capacities, and that offer secure and warm relationships with educators will provide the greatest benefits to all children. Children experiencing chronic stress and adversity may have other specific needs for support as well, but such a learning environment can help buffer stress for these children. Providing such an environment not only helps these children, but also helps educators maintain a constructive classroom environment that is not regularly subject to behavioral disruptions.
Instructional Practices and Interventions That Enhance Supportive Relationships and Foster Socioemotional Development
Although the socioemotional development of young children is receiving increased attention, this domain typically is not well supported in the instructional and other practices of educators. National surveys indicate
that the field of early education is in need of effective training that can help educators develop skills in promoting socioemotional development. For example, faculty in teacher training institutions reported that, compared with practices across other developmental domains, their graduates were least prepared to address the needs of children with challenging behavior (Hemmeter et al., 2008).
Some curricular resources and other intervention appproaches provide effective approaches for fostering the socioemotional development and learning of children in early childhood and early elementary settings and enhancing supportive relationships (CASEL, 2012; Durlak, 2015; Pianta et al., 2007; Preschool Curriculum Evaluation Research Consortium, 2008). These approaches focus on various aspects of socioemotional competence, including self-regulation and prosocial behaviors toward peers and adults. In most cases, these approaches have both strengths and weaknesses and mixed evidence for success across elements of socioemotional development. However, evaluations have shown that, when implemented at scale with appropriate supports, these approaches can improve some aspects of socioemotional competence, in some cases especially for children at highest risk or those who begin school with low self-regulation competencies (Morris et al., 2014; Tominey and McClelland, 2011). Box 6-1 lists some examples of these approaches.
Examples of Approaches for Improving Socioemotional Competence
- PATHS: Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (Domitrovich et al., 2007)
- The Incredible Years (Hutchings et al., 2013; Webster-Stratton et al., 2008)
- Tools of the Mind (Barnett et al., 2008; Bodrova and Leong, 2007; Clements et al., 2012; Diamond et al., 2007; Farran et al., 2011; Lonigan and Phillips, 2012)
- Pyramid Model for Supporting Social Emotional Competence: A framework for the implementation of evidence-based practices to promote socioemotional competence and address challenging behavior of preschool children, including those with persistent problem behavior (Fox et al., 2003; Hemmeter et al., 2006, 2011)
- Video-Feedback Intervention to Promote Positive Parenting and Sensitive Discipline (Juffer et al., n.d.)
- Chicago School Readiness Project: Teacher strategies coupled with classroom and individual student-focused support from a classroom-based mental health consultant (Raver et al., 2009, 2011)
Fixsen and colleagues (2005) suggest that it is the combination of effective intervention practices and programs and effective implementation supports that results in positive outcomes for children and families. For educators to implement interventions with fidelity, program-wide implementation supports, including professional learning activities, are needed. Although there is a substantial body of literature on school-wide approaches to implementing tiered behavior support models in elementary, middle, and secondary schools, the literature on implementation of these models in early childhood settings is in its infancy (Fox and Hemmeter, 2009; Frey, 2009; Stormont et al., 2005). The following elements have been explored as important factors for implementation: establishing a leadership team that guides program-wide adoption and engages in data-based decision making, ensuring the buy-in of all staff in the model, creating strategies for promoting family engagement, providing ongoing training and coaching for classroom staff, promoting the use of universal screening and progress monitoring to ensure that children’s socioemotional needs are addressed, developing a behavior-support planning process for children whose problem behavior is persistent, and creating an ongoing process for monitoring implementation and outcomes of the approach (Fox and Hemmeter, 2009).
Interventions also have been developed that are aimed at fostering cognitive self-regulation and other cognitive processes, frequently referred to collectively as executive function (see Chapter 4). The rapid development of executive function in the early years makes the use of such interventions optimal during that period, although no age is too late (e.g., Center on the Developing Child, 2015; Zelazo and Carlson, 2012). Some studies have shown enhancement of such capabilities with computer games (e.g., Rothbart and Rueda, 2005; Rueda et al., 2008; Thorell et al., 2009), other executive function tasks (e.g., Espinet et al., 2012), or particular curricula or programs (e.g., Bierman et al., 2008a,b; Diamond, 2012; Diamond and Lee, 2011; Diamond et al., 2007; Klingberg, 2009; Lillard and Else-Quest, 2006; Lyons and Zelazo, 2011; Perels et al., 2009; Raver et al., 2011; Riggs et al., 2006; Weiland and Yoshikawa, 2013; Weiland et al., 2013). The latter often include specific teaching approaches such as guiding impulsive children to self-monitor their behavior by talking to themselves (four different interventions of this sort were effective; see Reid et al., 2005) or teaching 3-year-olds to repeat change-of-criteria categorization tasks (Dowsett and Livesey, 2000).
The Importance of Mental Health Consultation and Cross-Sector Services
As suggested by Gilliam (2005), educators are likely to benefit from consultation with early mental health experts to best understand how to work with children in need of specialized support in their classrooms.
Child mental health consultants can provide educators with guidance on classroom management and instructional practices for all children as well as individualized consultation for particular children based on classroom observations, and offer teachers continuing support as they incorporate these practices (see Amini Virmani et al., 2013; Johnston and Brinamen, 2006). Unfortunately, as noted 15 years ago in the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine (2000) report From Neurons to Neighborhoods, most communities lack expertise in child mental health services and consultation, and no well-developed national infrastructure exists for training developmentally oriented clinicians in providing these services (see also Osofsky and Lieberman, 2011).
More broadly, the importance of socioemotional health to early learning calls for the involvement of multiple service systems that affect young children and their families in meeting the special needs of young children facing mental health challenges (Osofsky and Lieberman, 2011). Thus, beyond incorporating developmental knowledge in this area into educator preparation, it is important to also do so across sectors and settings, for professionals in pediatric practice, the child welfare system, early intervention, special education, childcare and after-school care, and programs for children with special needs. This would help ensure that children experiencing mental health challenges would be identified and provided with appropriate services that would be aligned across different programs with which these children come in contact. Such cross-sector preparation of professionals concerned with young children could even be conducted collaboratively across professional communities. Such a cross-sector approach is especially important given that these different professional sectors have distinctly different professional reference groups and funding streams that tend to make their efforts insular rather than collaborative, even though the same child is the focus of their attention.
An additional benefit of cross-sector collaborative training in the socioemotional needs of young children is that it would enable professionals to coordinate assistance across multiple generations. The connections between the well-being of an adult and the well-being of a child who has an emotional attachment to that adult make it important to coordinate supportive services to parents and children within the family (IOM and NRC, 2009). Thus, for example, a physician treating an adult for depression should have the training to consider the consequences of that depression for children in the adult’s care, and any pediatrician identifying characteristics of stress in a young child should seek to understand family processes that may contribute to that stress. Similarly, the benefits demonstrated by intervention programs aimed at supporting the developmental health and learning of young children by providing broader family support should spur efforts to consider how children can be assisted through a two-generational approach
(Chase-Lansdale and Brooks-Gunn, 2014). Similar considerations apply to the associations between the well-being of children and the emotional health of those who care for and educate them outside the home.
Fostering Social and Emotional Development: Implications for Professional Learning
- Early care and education professionals need training to foster socioemotional development and create supportive learning environments for all children.
- Professionals in education, health, and social services need training to recognize when children need specialized support for their socioemotional development, to provide that support directly and through linkages to specialized services, and to connect to multigeneration intervention approaches that take into account the mental health and well-being of the adults in children’s lives instead of viewing children in isolation.
The use of technology in educational settings can take two major forms, both of which have implications for the competencies needed by professionals. The first is use of technology as a tool for directly facilitating children’s learning. In terms of professional competency, educators must have proficiency in technology as a set of tools that can enhance pedagogy, knowledge of how and when children learn through what kinds of technology and the ability to integrate that knowledge into their pedagogy and lessons, and proficiency in teaching children how to use technology and acquire digital literacy skills. The second entails the use of technology to facilitate other aspects of professional practice, such as assessment of children, creation and management of the learning environment, documentation, information sharing, and communication with families and with other practitioners. This section focuses primarily on the first form of technology use: what knowledge teachers need to have about how children interact with and learn through technology and what skills they need to put that knowledge into practice in the classroom.
Effects of Digital Media on Development and Learning
While there is still much to learn, the science of how children relate to new media has expanded through research over the past decade that offers insights into how, and at what age, young children may develop cognitive skills from using different types of new technology, as well as when profes-
sionals and parents should be alert to potential misuse of these technologies. The emergent science on the effects of media is becoming increasingly important for researchers and practitioners who want to meet the needs of today’s families. According to a recent national survey of 1,200 American families, more than 8 in 10 children (ages 2-10) use digital media every week and two-thirds have tablets or e-readers.
Questions about video and video screens—sometimes framed in terms of “screen time”—are at the heart of this new science. Developmental scientists long have wondered how babies make sense of the moving image. Some research has shown that until about 18 months of age, infants tend to reach out to touch or grasp an image (whether a picture or a video) instead of pointing to it, as they do after 18 months (DeLoache et al., 1998). Researchers have theorized that the grasping is a sign of babies exploring the image as a physical thing, while their later pointing behavior is a sign that they are starting to gain “symbolic understanding” or “pictorial competence” (DeLoache, 2005). In other words, it appears that infants eventually progress to a stage of cognitive development in which they comprehend that an image is a symbol that represents something instead of being the thing itself. This may be a milestone in children’s being developmentally prepared to construct meaning from what they see represented in media of all kinds.
A separate body of research has focused on gleaning evidence that infants and toddlers can learn from what they see on a video screen, and at what age. Research has shown evidence of a “video deficit,” a phenomenon whereby children learn less readily from a prerecorded video than from a person talking with them face-to-face, even when the video shows a person speaking as if he/she is face-to-face with the audience (Anderson and Pempek, 2005). This deficit has been seen in children younger than 12 months old and up through age 3. It takes many forms and has been shown in some experiments to be overcome by repetition; that is, if a child sees something on video multiple times, the child can learn from it (Barr and Hayne, 1999; Barr et al., 2007).
Some studies have examined whether children’s viewing of these media is replacing important social experiences and “serve and return” interactions that are so strongly associated with cognition and learning (see Chapter 4). A few studies in the mid-2000s showed associations between television viewing in early childhood and poor cognitive outcomes (Christakis et al., 2004), while other studies have shown no impact of television viewing (e.g., Schmidt et al., 2009). In these cases and many others, however, while researchers typically controlled for socioeconomic status of the parents, they did not include information on what types of shows children were watching. More recent studies have rectified this omission by examining the content of the viewing in addition to the quantity. One such study found links between infants regularly watching television shows made for
adults (such as dramas and the news) and low scores on tests of executive functioning at age 4 (Barr et al., 2010). Another found associations between attention problems and television viewing for children who watched violent programming, but not educational shows, before age 3 (Zimmerman and Christakis, 2007).
More insight comes from studies on video specifically designed to be educational for children. Studies using randomized controlled trials yielded evidence showing that children learned new vocabulary words and skills such as problem solving and self-regulation after watching videos with an intentional pedagogical approach or curriculum (Singer and Singer, 1998). Longitudinal studies have shown a link between viewing Sesame Street before kindergarten and school readiness, as well as positive outcomes in high school (Anderson et al., 2001; Wright et al., 2001).
Effective Use of Technology in Instruction
It is important to emphasize that any benefits of technology will depend on the use of high-quality educational technology implemented well (see, e.g., the negative examples in Plowman and Stephen, 2005). Limited research has examined how different technologies can be used effectively with students at different ages for different subjects, how to incorporate digital content into curricula, and how best to employ technology to enable early skill development. A recent RAND report summarizes how much is still unknown about technology use in early childhood, calling for research on the effects of using different types of technology to determine “whether the intuitive notions of developmentally appropriate use are supported by evidence” (p. 20). Among the factors suggested for consideration are “time, interactions between the student and the software, different approaches to technology use employed by [early childhood education] environments in lower-income versus upper-income areas (perhaps to account for lower parental involvement in the former group), interactions between the student and adult facilitators, interactions between the student and peers, the types of software provided, and the types of devices used” (Daugherty et al., 2014, p. 20). Although these research questions warrant further exploration, available research provides some guidance on how technology can contribute to effective early childhood settings (Clements and Sarama, 2003; Sarama and Clements, 2002).
Appropriate implementation of high-quality educational technology can help teaching and learning be more effective, efficient, and motivating (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 2010; Bus and Kegel, 2013; Clements and Sarama, 2003, 2010; Clements et al., 2014; Fatouros, 1995; Foorman, 2007; Hitchcock, 2008; Lee and Shin, 2012; Neuman, 2013; Penuel, 2012). High-quality educational technology, implemented well in meaningful con-
texts, can facilitate children’s development of knowledge and skills for language and literacy and for mathematics, as well as higher-order thinking skills and creativity (Clements and Sarama, 2007). These benefits extend across diverse populations and may be especially important for children with special needs (e.g., Hutinger and Johanson, 2000).
In some cases, the use of educational technology has been shown to increase social interactions, especially those centered around subject-matter content. Children prefer to work with a peer rather than alone when they use the computer, a context that can promote collaborative work, including helping or instructing each other as well as discussing and building upon each others’ ideas. These social interactions in turn generate increased use of language (Clements and Sarama, 2007). Technology-assisted instruction also can help build prereading and reading skills (e.g., Chambers, 2008; Pelletier, 2006), as well as develop writing abilities (Bangert-Drowns, 1993; Gustafsson et al., 1999; Roblyer, 1988; Yost, 1998). Educational technology also can support the teaching and learning of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Clements and Sarama, 2008; NMP, 2008; NRC, 2009; Sarama and Clements, 2006). There can also be collateral benefits for digital literacy: the integration of an interactive literacy program into curriculum increases computer skills, computer self-efficacy, and enjoyment of computers (Ross et al., 2001).
Most recently, debates about the value of video in early childhood have centered on whether any positive impact is evident when educational videos are watched before the age of 24 months. Thus far the few studies addressing this question have focused on word learning, and their results are mixed: two showed that children younger than 24 months of age cannot learn words from videos even when the videos are explicitly designed to teach them those words; another two showed that children just a few months shy of 24 months are, in fact, able to learn the words (DeLoache et al., 2010; Krcmar et al., 2007; Richert et al., 2010; Vandewater et al., 2010). With the research still nascent and unsettled, parents and early educators continue to receive mixed messages about the value of so-called baby videos.
Moreover, very little scientific research exists regarding babies’ learning from new forms of interactive technology, such as apps for babies on touch-screen tablets. Among the few published studies to delve into toddlers’ and preschoolers’ use of touch screens, one showed that 3-year-olds can overcome the “video deficit” discussed above when interacting with a video by pressing a button to advance the video’s action, but cannot do so when watching video passively (Lauricella et al., 2010). Another study showed that 2-year-olds using touch screens learn more from the on-screen content than those who only watch, as long as they are asked to touch specific areas of the screen that relate to the task they are learning (Choi and
Kirkorian, 2013). A similar study showed that the same caveat applies to word learning as well (Kirkorian et al., 2013).
An only slightly more extensive line of research has emerged on the impact of interactive technologies for children aged 3-8. For example, a study of the Building Blocks Pre-K math curriculum examined, among other questions, whether software integrated into a suite of curricular activities could have a positive impact on student learning. This study, which involved 106 teachers and more than 1,300 students across two states, found a correlation between classrooms using the software and children’s performance on assessments of math and expressive language. Students in classrooms using the software scored higher than children in classrooms that employed the curriculum without the software (Sarama and Clements, 2009) (see also, Clements and Sarama, 2007). On the literacy front, a series of e-book studies in Israel with 40 kindergarteners and 50 first-graders showed that digital text with embedded questions and audio dictionaries (definitions spoken aloud when a child clicks on a word) can lead to improvements in phonological awareness, vocabulary knowledge, and word-reading skills (Korat, 2010).
In a 2012 article on literacy software and e-reader research, Biancarosa and Griffiths (2012) review the Israeli e-book study and several others, concluding that while technology appears promising in helping children learn to read, research thus far has been “small-scale in nature, focusing on feasibility and efficacy in tightly controlled contexts rather than on wide-scale use.” The authors also stress that teachers get “virtually no empirical guidance” on how to use software and other technology tools to support literacy (Biancarosa and Griffiths, 2012).
Any curricular product’s effectiveness will depend on its content and design, as well as how it used by educators, and interactive media and software are no exception. Good results are seen when educators use the products intentionally and are given support in integrating them into their classroom practices. One example comes from research on the television show The Adventures of SuperWhy, which is broadcast regularly on PBS and was also designed to be part of a classroom literacy curriculum for children aged 4-5. In an experiment with the curriculum version, children watched episodes twice per week that were linked to teacher-led whole-classroom activities, small-group activities, online games, and individual exploration. Teachers received professional development and training in how to integrate these activities throughout the 10 weeks. With funding from the U.S. Department of Education, researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial of 398 low-income children in 80 preschools to determine the impact of the media-enriched literacy curricula. They found that children outscored the control group on measures of letter recognition, letter sounds, print concepts, and knowing the letters of their names (Penuel
et al., 2009). The control group in this case did use digital media in their daily activities, but the media were not focused on improving children’s literacy; the study therefore shows the importance of using media that are intentionally integrated with curricula and learning goals.
The most important feature of any high-quality educational environment is a knowledgeable and responsive adult (Darling-Hammond, 1997; Ferguson, 1991; NRC, 2001b; Watson, 1993), and this is no less true for technology as part of the learning environment. As research continues to examine what kinds of tools, media, and curriculum integration may be best for young children at which ages, one area of consensus is already forming: children consistently show greater signs of learning if they watch media with an adult who engages them in the content or helps them connect the ideas on screen to their world. Researchers exploring this concept, known as “joint media engagement,” often are building on findings from studies of another type of media—the printed book. Just as they do with books, adults can spark conversations about the subject matter of a video or a game by using dialogic questioning and other ways to prompt deeper engagement. A recent study on video books with 3-year-olds showed that when parents were trained to use questions while watching, their children scored well on later tests about the books’ storylines and vocabulary words; children did not show evidence of learning when watching the video books with parents who simply pointed and labeled objects or did not converse with them at all (Strouse et al., 2013). In short, computers and other technology are used well in classrooms where educators use effective instructional strategies. Moreover, there is evidence that if educators receive more support in the use of computers, their students benefit, even more than if the support is targeted at students (Fuller, 2000).
As the science of how children are affected by and in what ways they can learn from various forms of media and technology emerges, research is starting to focus on a corollary question: What skills and knowledge do young children need to acquire about how to use technology and media—that is, what does digital literacy or technological fluency look like for young children?
For the latter end of the birth through age 8 spectrum—children in grades K-3—educators regularly face this question even though research on children’s development of skills in and knowledge of technology remains sparse. A handful of states have standards for digital literacy or technology use starting in kindergarten, and a majority of states’ literacy standards for elementary schools include a reference to children’s ability to use online ma-
terials.2 Elementary schools increasingly are employing specialized curricula on such issues as password protection and online etiquette. Many elementary school children are now taught “keyboarding.” State standardized tests, which typically are administered to students starting in third grade, increasingly are offered using computers instead of pencil and paper. There are instances of children as young as 5 learning how to produce multimedia projects, and some case studies suggest that such projects could prompt better reading comprehension (Hobbs and Moore, 2013).
For children at the beginning of the birth through age 8 spectrum—toddlers and preschoolers—the issue of digital skill building is emerging from studies of children’s learning how video is created. As families snap photos and capture video with mini-cameras, today’s young children are witnessing (even participating in) the creation, production, and publication of family videos.
Given the role these tools are already playing in schools and workplaces, more scientific research is needed on how and when young children develop skills in and knowledge about technology and media.
Expectations for Educators
Educators working with older students—5-8 years old—have clearer expectations for the use of technology than their counterparts working with children under age 5. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has developed comprehensive standards for both educators and students. These standards call for students to be able to demonstrate the following with respect to using technology: research and information fluency; critical thinking, problem solving, and decision making; creativity and innovation; and communication and collaboration (ISTE, 2007a, 2008). At one count, nearly all 50 states had adopted or used part of the ISTE student standards.3 Neither the ISTE student standards nor the teacher standards are differentiated by grade level, but several states cite them as the base for their K-2 or K-3 technology standards.4 The Council for Accreditation of Educator Preparation also lists standards for teachers; it calls for teacher
2 For example, the English Language Arts standards in the Common Core State Standards, which have been adopted in 44 states, set expectations for elementary school-age children to, “with guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers” (CCSSO and NGA, 2010).
3 In 2007, 49 of 50 states were noted as having adopted or used the ISTE standards in their tech standards development (ISTE, 2007b).
4 See for example Alabama’s technology standards focused on technology operations and concepts, digital citizenship, research and information fluency, communication and collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving and decision making, and creativity and innovation (Morton, 2008).
candidates to “use technology to enhance their teaching” and wants them to “use technology effectively in their job role to support student learning” (CAEP, 2013).
Another indicator of technology expectations for educators comes in the Common Core State Standards. Consider, for example, the kindergarten standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.K.6: “With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers” (CCSSO and NGA, 2010). To be able to help children use digital tools for writing, educators themselves need a high level of familiarity with those tools and developmentally appropriate methods for introducing them to young children who are still learning how to write with analog tools such as pens and pencils.
Expectations for the use of technology are very different in settings outside of elementary schools. In prekindergarten and childcare settings, there is no widely adopted set of standards for using technology with these young children, nor are there common standards for what the children should know and be able to do regarding technology. Some states do not mention technology in their early learning guidelines at all (Daugherty et al., 2014).5 Not surprisingly, technology use varies widely in these settings, as do opinions about what constitutes good teaching with technology. Some preschools proudly advertise the availability of computers and electronic whiteboards for children’s use, while some preschools take pains to keep children away from screen media of any kind. Some states’ Quality Rating and Improvement System and licensing systems ask childcare centers to limit children’s use of screen-based technology to no more than 30 minutes per week (see, for example, National Resource Center for Health and Safety in Child Care, 2012).
In 2012, the joint position statement “Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children Birth Through Age 8” was released by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. The intent was to provide guidance to teachers in settings across the birth through 8 age spectrum. The statement says that technology and digital media can be “effective tools in early childhood education when used intentionally and appropriately, taking into consideration each child’s age, developmental abilities, and social and cultural life context.” It also calls for equitable access for all children; ongoing professional learning for teachers; and careful consideration of public health statements about the importance of avoiding violent content and limiting the use of passive screen media, such as videos, with
5 Six of 23 states’ preschool standards surveyed by RAND did not make any mention of technology or computers (Daugherty et al., 2014, p. 12).
infants and toddlers if the use does not promote social interactions. Zero to Three has also developed guidelines specifically for screen use for children under 3 (Lerner and Barr, 2014).
Conclusion About Digital Media and Early Learning
Digital media—whether television, video, or games on interactive tablets—are a regular presence in the lives of young children. How much young children can benefit from various forms of media depends on the content on the screen, the context in which they watch or play, and a child’s needs and stages of development.
- Young children learn more from digital media when they watch or play with adults who talk to them about what they are seeing and playing. This “joint media engagement” benefits children’s literacy skills when adults use techniques of discourse to engage with children around themes, concepts, or new vocabulary brought forth by the media, similar to the well-established benefits of interactive book reading.
- For passive media without adult mediation, children older than 24 months can learn new vocabulary words and skills such as problem solving and self-regulation from videos developed with an intentional pedagogical approach or curriculum.
- For interactive touch screens, some programs integrated with a research-based curriculum have been associated with gains in math and reading skills among children in preschool and above.
Using Technology Effectively to Foster Early Learning: Implications for Professional Learning
Educators across professional roles and age ranges are expected to have competency in the use of technology for learning. This competency includes knowing how children learn through technology and having the ability to integrate that knowledge into practices that support development and learning. These professionals need better support in the use of technology and more opportunities to learn how to use technology appropriately, effectively, and to its fullest potential to foster early learning for children from birth through age 8.
In addition to what is known about supporting healthy development among children, writ large, the current research base points to a set of essential practices for educators in early care and education settings and elementary schools with respect to the specific language-learning needs of the multilingual population.6 These features can be categorized into three domains: (1) screening for literacy difficulties; (2) targeted, intensive language-building opportunities; and (3) tailored family partnerships (discussed in the subsequent section on working with families).
Screening for Literacy Difficulties
Comprehensive early screening of the key skills and competencies related to literacy development is essential to prevent risk and vulnerabilities from becoming difficulties, given what is known about the relationships between early language and literacy skills and later academic achievement. The current research base highlights features of effective early assessment practices with multilingual learners, which together make for a comprehensive approach:
- Screening for word-reading difficulties—Screening for word-reading difficulties (or risk thereof) among multilingual children should make use of screening practices similar to those established with monolingual English-speaking populations (Francis et al., 2006; Lesaux et al., 2007; Linan-Thompson et al., 2006; Lipka and Siegel, 2007; Otaiba et al., 2009; Samson and Lesaux, 2009). This is because, for both groups of children, word-reading skills are rooted in the development of phonological processing skills (e.g., rhyming and manipulating the sounds in words). In the context of high-quality instruction, on average, young multilingual learners develop phonological processing skills, and subsequently word-reading skills, on par with their English-only-speaking classmates. Therefore, if young multilingual children appear to be struggling with phonological processing skills or with early alphabet knowledge and word reading, they need targeted support. This is the case even when multilingual learners demonstrate underdeveloped English oral language proficiency. A child’s phonological processing skills develop similarly across languages, and therefore are not
6 An ongoing study and forthcoming report of the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council focuses on research, practice, and policy for young dual language learners. More information can be found at www.iom.edu/activities/children/duallanguagelearners.
influenced by exposure to English in the same way as, for example, English vocabulary knowledge. Yet multilingual learners often are overlooked for targeted supports because practitioners think their phonological processing and/or word-reading difficulties will remediate themselves once the children’s oral language proficiency develops further.
- Screening for reading comprehension difficulties—The multilingual population comprises a diverse, heterogeneous group of learners. Nonetheless, a now robust research base converges on a common source of difficulty among those multilingual learners who experience or are at risk of difficulties with reading comprehension: the language-based competencies central to understanding and making meaning of the words on the page. Therefore, this risk requires timely, ongoing assessment of language-based skills, such as vocabulary knowledge, oral language proficiency, and listening comprehension (Betts et al., 2009; Geva and Yaghoub-Zadeh, 2006; Jean and Geva, 2009; Lesaux et al., 2006, 2010; Mancilla-Martinez and Lesaux, 2011; Proctor et al., 2005). This screening and progress monitoring is particularly important because difficulties in this area often are not readily apparent. Therefore, the role of screening and progress monitoring is to identify these key indicators of later reading comprehension difficulties and provide at-risk learners with targeted supports to boost their development. Many multilingual learners are developing their oral language skills at a fast pace, but still not fast enough to attain age-appropriate levels. When screening and progress monitoring are used to identify underdeveloped language-based skills, and this information is then used to guide targeted language-building opportunities, instruction can capitalize on the rapid learning rates demonstrated by many multilingual learners and further accelerate their language development.
- Assessments to gauge the quality of the learning environment—Children’s learning environments, and their daily opportunities to learn, are inextricably linked to their development. Yet most available assessment data focus only on the students themselves—not the environments in which they are learning. As setting-level measurement tools become more sophisticated, they can be used to gain a better understanding of the quality of the learning environments provided for children, gauging the appropriateness of instruction in meeting learning needs. This setting-level approach to assessment is particularly important with multilingual children—a group that demonstrates disproportionate risks for academic difficulties and for whom risks are closely linked to inappropriate or inadequate classroom learning opportunities. For many of these learners, for
example, the quality of classroom teaching and curricula is lower than that offered to their English-only-speaking peers. Assessments of the quality of the settings and interactions experienced by multilingual learners can inform agendas for improvement in an ongoing cycle of action to advance the quality of settings and services and, ultimately, children’s development.
Providing Targeted, Intensive Language-Building Opportunities
Supporting the development and learning of multilingual children in early care and education settings and schools requires an instructional approach that is organized around language and knowledge building while simultaneously addressing the children’s need to acquire early reading skills (e.g., letter knowledge, word reading). Research on effective instructional practices with young multilingual learners highlights the promise and importance of several strategies and approaches that, together, prepare multilingual learners for the oral and written language they will encounter in the later grades:
- A content-rich curriculum is designed around units of study to promote children’s content knowledge and features a wide variety of reading materials (e.g., fiction, expository trade books, leveled books, magazines, audio) that are used as platforms for dialogue and learning.
- Scaffolded, back-and-forth conversations, steeped in content, bring learners beyond the here and now and into abstract explanations, narratives, and pretend (Dickinson, 2003). Opportunities for extended conversations, both planned and spontaneous, are embedded in daily routines and occur in various group formats (e.g., whole-group instruction, teacher-led small groups).
- Targeted small-group instruction, using supporting materials that connect to the content of daily instruction, is provided to multilingual learners who demonstrate difficulties (Castro et al., 2011; McMaster et al., 2008; O’Connor et al., 2010, 2013; Vaughn et al., 2006). Combining vocabulary and listening comprehension activities along with early reading skills in an intervention provides the language stimulation needed by students who are dual language learners (O’Connor et al., 2010). In a response-to-intervention approach, small-group instruction focusing on vocabulary and reading skills beginning in kindergarten can improve dual language learners’ reading skills and decrease the proportion of students who required assistance in later grades (Connor et al., 2014; O’Connor et al., 2013).
- Instruction builds first-language skills and strategically uses children’s first language to support their English-language development (Castro et al., 2006, 2011). However, although considerable research indicates that the use of children’s first language in instruction supports development and learning, this research is based on instruction in contexts in which groups of multilingual children’s first languages were largely the same (e.g., Spanish speakers), and teachers had relatively high bilingual proficiency. This scenario is not always feasible, and it is important to note that it is the quality and quantity of language-learning opportunities that is most important for multilingual learners’ development, not the particular language used (e.g., English versus Spanish). Therefore, educators need to focus first and foremost on fostering cognitively stimulating and interactive classroom language environments.
Supporting Mathematical Learning
In addition to general principles that support all learners (such as small class sizes that allow for tailored individual learning experiences, team teaching with collaborative planning and reflection, and positive relationships between educators and students as well as with their families), Clements and Sarama (2014) have summarized the research on instructional approaches that are beneficial for the mathematics learning of dual language learners:
- bilingual instructional support and consistent access to the home language, including from paraprofessionals (instructional assistants, parent volunteers, and older and more competent students) as well as use of cognates and other means of explaining math concepts with familiar language (Burchinal et al., 2012; Janzen, 2008; Turner and Celedón-Pattichis, 2011);
- discussion between children and educators as well as among children to explain solutions and work toward more formal mathematical language and ideas;
- word problems that are created from students’ personal narratives, helping them “mathematize” situations (Janzen, 2008);
- generating mathematical problems through storytelling, giving additional time to problem solving, posing a broad range of problems involving multiple steps (Turner and Celedón-Pattichis, 2011; Turner et al., 2008);
- strong emphasis on language development for mathematics at school and home; encouragement to families to use the home language to talk about mathematics (especially number, arithmetic,
spatial relations, and patterns) with children of all ages and to visit school and share where mathematics is used in the home and community (Kleemans et al., 2013; Levine et al., 2011);
- simple print material in the children’s home language in learning centers and labeled objects;
- age-appropriate books and stories in the child’s home language (in school and loaned to the home), which might include e-books (Shamir and Lifshitz, 2012); and
- interventions in preschool through the primary grades, preferably with bilingual components (Clements et al., 2011, 2013; Fuchs et al., 2013; Sarama et al., 2012).
Researchers have developed specific instructional strategies or components of instructional strategies for the acquisition and generalization of key skills by young children with or at risk for disabilities (Godfrey et al., 2003; Roark et al., 2002; Sewell et al., 1998; Whalen et al., 1996). These approaches vary along several dimensions, including what is taught, when teaching occurs, the spacing of teaching trials, and the type of instructional procedure that is used. An issue with these strategies is how they can be implemented during naturally occurring activities and routines so that the instruction leads not only to the acquisition of new skills but also to higher levels of engagement in ongoing activities and routines for children with disabilities.
A number of studies have evaluated the effects of such strategies on children’s learning when the instruction was embedded into ongoing classroom activities and routines (Daugherty et al., 2001; Grisham-Brown et al., 2000; Hemmeter and Grisham-Brown, in press; Hemmeter et al., 1996) and into ongoing routines in the community (Rogers et al., 2010) and home (Hemmeter and Kaiser, 1994; Kaiser and Hemmeter, 1989; Mobayed et al., 2000). These evaluations showed that teachers’ implementation of embedded instruction was associated with positive changes in children’s target learning behaviors and in some standardized assessment scores.
Although this type of embedded instruction is a recommended practice in early childhood special education (Wolery, 2005) and early childhood education (NAEYC, 2009), evidence indicates that it frequently is not used in early childhood settings. An observational study in primary-grade classrooms found that for some children, across multiple academic and social activities, there were no instructional trials focused on their learning objectives (Schuster et al., 2001).
Another issue of particular concern is how to support children with
special needs in mathematics. Until more is known, students should be labeled as “math learning disabled” only with great caution and after good instruction has been provided. For some students math skills may be delayed, but if formally classified as learning disabled they may be miseducated and mislabeled. In the earliest years, such labeling will probably do more harm than good. Instead, high-quality instruction (preventive education) should be provided to all students. This instruction should go beyond that provided regularly to students and should be sustained over months and years to provide dynamic, formative assessments of the students’ needs. Foundational abilities in subitizing, counting and counting strategies, simple arithmetic, and magnitude comparison are important. In later years, competencies in arithmetic combinations, place value, and word problem solving should also be ensured (Dowker, 2004). Other students may have a true math learning disability and be in need of specialized instruction.
An example of the value of different kinds of additional instruction comes from a study showing that in the primary years, students with a math learning disability alone or in combination with a reading learning disability performed worse than normally developing students on timed tests but just as well on untimed tests. Students with a math learning disability alone may simply need extra time studying and extra time to complete calculation tasks. Using a calculator and other computational aids can enable these students to concentrate on developing their problem-solving skills. Students with both mathematics and reading learning disabilities may need more systematic remedial intervention that is aimed at problem conceptualization, the development of effective computational strategies, and strategies for efficient fact retrieval (Jordan and Montani, 1997). Further, specific mathematical competencies may have different relationships to reading learning disabilities. In one study, children with dyslexia experienced difficulty with both arithmetic fact fluency and operations. In addition, however, the findings distinguished between these two areas, as arithmetic fact fluency appeared to be affected by domain-general competencies, whereas operations appeared to be related to specific competencies in literacy (Vukovic et al., 2010).
Historically, many have called for Direct Instruction in skills for students with math learning disabilities. This method provides educators with scripts for frequent interactions with students, clear feedback on the accuracy of students’ work, and sequencing of problems (Swanson and Hoskyn, 1998). Research also supports other approaches that share characteristics with Direct Instruction—such as explicit, systematic instruction—but include more student problem solving and student-generated talk rather than highly educator-directed lessons with specific instructions and demonstrations of procedures. For example, educators may not only explain and demonstrate specific strategies, but also encourage students to think aloud
about their reasoning and to ask and answer questions—thus playing an active role. Further, instruction is not limited to memorization of simple skills but includes computation and solving word problems, including those that apply mathematics to novel situations. Using visual representations may make such explicit instruction even more effective. Further, educators need to ensure that students are acquiring all foundational concepts and skills necessary to learning mathematics at their grade level (NMP, 2008). Such interventions should be used in addition to other mathematics instruction.
Clements and Sarama (2014) have summarized the research on instructional approaches that help students at risk of experiencing problems with learning mathematics:
- Use information about students’ performance, share this information with students, and target specific areas of need (supporting formative assessment, including differentiated activities).
- Individualize instruction. Many students with special needs have distinct learning needs (Gervasoni, 2005; Gervasoni et al., 2007).
- Teach with learning trajectories and the use of formative assessment, strategies that are especially helpful for students with special needs.
- Provide clear, specific feedback to parents on their students’ mathematics learning.
- Use peers as tutors.
- Encourage students to verbalize their thinking or their strategies, or even the explicit strategies modeled by the teacher.
- Explicitly teach strategies, not just “facts” or practice of “skills.” Encourage students to think aloud, and provide feedback from peers and the teacher. Highlight key aspects of each type of problem (not “key words”) (Tournaki, 2003).
- Use high-quality, research-based software (Clements and Sarama, 2009).
- Include individualized work, even for brief periods, as a component of focused interventions (Dowker, 2004; Gersten et al., 2008).
- Consider small-group tutorial sessions, including the use of concrete objects, to promote conceptual learning (Fuchs et al., 2005).
- Focus on geometry and spatial sense as well (Clements and Sarama, 2009). It may not be necessary for students to master one domain (e.g., arithmetic) to study another, such as geometry, meaningfully.
There are many gaps in the availability of resources to help students with special needs. For example, there is no widely used measure with which to identify specific learning difficulties or disabilities in mathemat-
ics (Geary, 2004). Finally, it may be most important, and have the most potential to prevent most learning difficulties, if high-quality early and elementary childhood mathematics education is provided for all students. Gersten and colleagues (2009) offer specific guidelines to this end.
Care and education professionals need skills in communicating, working collaboratively, and developing partnerships with families. They have an important role in preparing families to engage in behaviors and activities that enhance development and early learning, and to maintain continuity and consistency across home and out-of-home settings and learning environments for young children. Even with few resources, there are actions care and education professionals can encourage parents to take to improve their children’s school readiness. For example, parents can
- read to children, arrange for other adults and older siblings to do so (Doucet, 2008), and participate in reading and other programs at the public library;
- provide challenging books, games, and puzzles;
- help children learn to count and solve math problems (Sylva et al., 2005); and
- provide warm and consistent parenting (Lara-Cinisomo et al., 2004).
Families are the people most invested in their children’s growth and development, they can be the most valuable support they have in their school career—and they are experts on their children. Early educators can and should capitalize on families’ commitment to their children’s learning by building partnerships that revolve around this shared commitment.
Following are two examples of the role of family partnerships in supporting child development and early learning. The principles illustrated by these examples also can be applied generally across different domains.
Family Partnerships to Support Language Development
Strong partnerships between families and care and education professionals are key to promoting language-rich home environments for the youngest children. With the common goal of supporting children’s language and literacy development in mind, educators can take several specific steps to encourage and support families in cultivating strong home language environments:
- Build relationships with all families. Before educators can encourage specific language-building activities or have insight into the particular practices that may work best for a family, they need to have an established relationship with the family. Positive and productive relationships are foundational to supporting the home language environment and thus must be formed with all families. Understanding the various concerns that might impede family engagement—from language barriers, to mistrust of institutions, to fears related to documentation status for immigrants—can help providers begin to devise how best to position themselves as trustworthy, respectful, and collaborative partners to families who may be reticent. Strategies for building strong relationships with families include connecting them to the care and education setting’s community (e.g., conducting home visits, welcoming families on site, encouraging volunteerism); setting up the center or school as a community resource in which all members of the community can find support; regularly creating forums to enable families to ask questions and interact with educators, and removing barriers to participation in such forums (e.g., providing childcare, food, and transportation; scheduling them in evenings or on weekends); inviting families to weigh in on programmatic or curricular decisions; making interpreters available for non-English-speaking families; and translating newsletters into languages families can readily understand. In sum, a more reciprocal, rather than school-centric, approach to linking “home and school” is key for building relationships with all families.
- Encourage families to talk, read, and play. Educators can encourage and support families in talking about what they are doing or thinking, telling stories and recounting memories, and singing or reciting songs and rhymes. Educators also can provide concrete suggestions and tools to help families support their children’s learning and development at home and to connect home activities to classroom learning, such as word games, conversation starters, and all types of books—including multilingual and wordless picture books.
- Share children’s progress with families. Families are best poised to create a developmentally responsive home language environment when they are provided with regular, timely, and accessible updates on their child’s progress and learning. Educators should not only provide these updates but also check in with families to ensure that they understand their children’s literacy needs and how to help them and connect classroom activities to those being sent home for extended learning. In addition, inviting families to school to share
their knowledge and experiences and to participate in classroom activities can give families additional insight into their children’s progress, developmental needs, and learning in the context of the classroom.
- Foster two-way channels of communication. Families can provide a wealth of information about their children to educators seeking to promote strong and supportive classroom language environments where all children participate and learn. For example, families can introduce their children to subjects in a way that motivates them and engages them in conversations about topics that interest them, or they can provide the educator with insights regarding the supports their children may need to feel comfortable with participating actively in classroom conversations.
Tailored Family Partnerships for Dual Language Learners
Engaging in practices that promote partnerships with all families also particularly benefits multilingual children’s development and learning. Because the cultural constructs for the families of multilingual children are in many cases different from the long-held cultural norms of U.S. schools, practitioners working to cultivate these partnerships must bridge these cultural gaps (Doucet, 2008; Doucet and Tudge, 2007). In all cases, these efforts should affirm and value families’ care for and efforts to support their children’s development and learning. When building partnerships with linguistically diverse families, it is particularly important for practitioners to provide regular, accessible, accurate updates on their children’s progress in learning and development. Also important is to connect families’ strong aspirations for their children to the information and ideas provided about how to support children in pursuing those aspirations (Goldenberg et al., 2001). Educators also need to remind families that when they talk and interact with their children, their children learn. Educators should encourage families to talk, read, and play in the language(s) with which they feel the greatest comfort and facility. When caregivers speak using the language that best facilitates sharing ideas, telling stories, and having rich dialogue, they are boosting children’s access to vocabulary and their world knowledge, which almost always boosts their ability in any language (August and Shanahan, 2006). Families of emerging bilingual (or multilingual) children may have concerns that children will not learn English if they continue to speak in another language (or languages) at home. Care and education professionals are well positioned to share with families the benefits of bilingualism or multilingualism, as well as to celebrate the linguistic diversity in their classrooms with the children themselves (Bialystok, 2001, 2002).
Barriers to Parent–Educator Relationships
The relationship between care and education professionals and families is not always easily negotiated, particularly across ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic differences. Both racism and classism can act as barriers to family and parent engagement in schools. A 2003 study found that parents’ perceptions of racism in schools was linked to their involvement in schools and in the home, and found it critical that interventions around family engagement in schools explore perceptions of race and what parents learn from their children about race (McKay et al., 2003). This is also an opportunity for educators to discuss race with their students in order to prepare them for race-related issues they may encounter. However, a 1998 study found that many teachers are unaware of institutional racism and how it affects parents, families, and students (Bernhard et al., 1998).
Similarly, working-class and middle-class families may perceive family engagement and parent involvement in schools differently; working-class families may not recognize the connection between home and school which may lead to less parent involvement (Lareau, 1989; Lareau and Horvat, 1999). A study also found that working-class and low-income parents may be less involved due to feelings of insecurity in their academic skills or because of their own negative experiences they may have had in school (Lareau, 1989; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003). The care and education workforce needs to be prepared to recognize and address these barriers to family engagement (Ambe, 2006; Bloch and Swadener, 1992; Strizek et al., 2006).
Power dynamics between parents and educators can also be a barrier to effective family engagement in schools. Some parents may feel intimidated upon entering the classroom, as they may reflect back on their own childhood school experiences, which may have been negative (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003). The power structure may also be seen with immigrant parents who may experience language barriers with educators and who also strive to impress their child’s teacher (Hanhan, 2003). In order to eliminate the uneven dynamic, the educator has the responsibility to recognize and address any power issues in order to help parents feel comfortable communicating about the child (Doucet and Tudge, 2007; Lawrence-Lightfoot, 2003).
While early learning standards provide a roadmap for what young children should know and be able to do, early care and education professionals, including practitioners and leaders, also need the competencies to understand how individual and groups of children are learning and developing across the birth through age 8 continuum. In the course of their work, early
childhood professionals will need answers to a variety of questions about the progress of young children and of early childhood programs: How are an individual child’s literacy skills progressing? Are mainstreamed children with special education classifications making the anticipated progress? What competencies do children possess as they enter kindergarten? Are early childhood programs that receive local, state, or federal funds improving in quality and helping young children meet the state’s early learning standards? Are children in a program for infants and toddlers developing significantly better than similar children who are not receiving services?
Care and education professionals and policy leaders need information in order to modify instruction, support curriculum reform, fund new and existing programs, and develop regulations that will support student learning. Therefore, child assessments serve a variety of purposes (Chittenden and Jones, 1999). Sometimes “assessments” are used for high-stakes purposes such as obtaining continued program funding or conducting teacher evaluation. Sometimes the term suggests a more diagnostic function, for example, to identify children with special needs. Within the classroom, “assessment” serves to guide instruction and learning. For educators, assessment should enhance their powers of observation and their understanding of children’s overall thinking and learning. Across all levels of education systems, assessments can be used to inform continuous quality improvement (Chittenden, 1991; Chittenden and Jones, 1999).
The intended purpose of assessment should determine its content; the methods used to collect information; and the nature of the possible uses—and consequences—for individual students, teachers, schools, or programs. It is confusion of purpose that often leads to misuse of tests and other instruments in early childhood. Instruments designed for one purpose, such as identification, may be totally inappropriate for another, such as measuring the success of a program. Assessments can inform teaching and program improvement and make a crucial contribution to better outcomes for children, but only if they are selected appropriately, matched to their purpose, well designed, implemented effectively in the context of systematic planning, and interpreted and used appropriately. Otherwise, assessment of children and programs can result in negative consequences for both. The potential value of assessments will therefore only be realized if fundamental attention is paid to their purpose (NRC, 2008).
Realizing the potential value of assessment also requires attention to the design of the larger systems in which assessments are used. Although this section focuses on the ability of care and education professionals to conduct child assessments, it is important to emphasize that such child assessment should not occur in isolation but rather as a component of a comprehensive assessment system, as described in Box 6-2 (NRC, 2008).
Components of Comprehensive Assessment Systems
Standards: A comprehensive, well-articulated set of standards for both program quality and children’s learning that are aligned to one another and that define the constructs of interest as well as child outcomes that demonstrate that the learning described in the standard has occurred.
Assessments: Multiple approaches to documenting child development and learning and reviewing program quality that are of high quality and connect to one another in well-defined ways, from which strategic selection can be made depending on specific purposes.
Reporting: Maintenance of an integrated database of assessment instruments and results (with appropriate safeguards of confidentiality) that is accessible to potential users, that provides information about how the instruments and scores relate to standards, and that can generate reports for varied audiences and purposes.
Professional development: Ongoing opportunities provided to those at all levels (policy makers, program directors, assessment administrators, practitioners) to understand the standards and the assessments and to learn to use the data and data reports with integrity for their appropriate purposes.
Opportunity to learn: Procedures to assess whether the environments in which children are spending time offer high-quality support for development and learning, as well as safety, enjoyment, and affectively positive relationships, and to direct support to those that fall short.
Inclusion: Methods and procedures for ensuring that all children served by the program will be assessed fairly, regardless of their language, culture, or disabilities, and with tools that provide useful information for fostering their development and learning.
Resources: The assurance that the financial resources needed to ensure the development and implementation of the system components will be available.
Monitoring and evaluation: Continuous monitoring of the system itself to ensure that it is operating effectively and that all elements are working together to serve the interests of the children. This entire infrastructure must be in place to create and sustain an assessment subsystem within a larger system of early childhood care and education.
SOURCE: Excerpted from NRC, 2008, pp. 305-306.
Principles for Assessment Literacy
Stiggins (1991, 1999, 2001) coined the term assessment literacy to describe the ability of care and education professionals to understand how to
select, administer, and interpret a range of assessment instruments (formal and informal) and how to use the information thus gathered both to understand the context and process of young children’s learning and development across a broad range of domains and to make decisions about instruction and intervention. The discussion in this section focuses on the principles of assessment and some of the tools and approaches that care and education professionals should be familiar with and able to use as they investigate questions about the progress of children and programs.
The NAEYC has articulated some of the characteristics of appropriate professional practice in the use of child assessments (NAEYC, 2009; NAEYC and NAECS/SDE, 2003). According to the NAEYC, educators should
- support children’s learning using a variety of assessment methods, such as observations, checklists, and rating scales;
- use assessment methods and information to plan appropriately challenging curricula and tailor instruction that responds to each child’s strengths and needs;
- use assessment methods and information to design goals for individual children and monitor their progress;
- use assessment methods and information to improve teaching strategies;
- use assessment methods that are appropriate for each child’s age and level of development and that encompass all domains of development;
- use assessments to help identify children with disabilities and ensure that they receive needed services;
- integrate assessment into their day, rather than making it a large task to be attempted all at once; and
- provide families with information about their children’s development and learning on a regular basis to help ensure that assessments occur within the context of reciprocal communications with families and with sensitivity to the cultural contexts in which children develop.
Key to applying these principles using the assessment tools described in the next section is for professionals to be trained not only in how to administer assessments but also in how to interpret their results and apply that information to make changes in instructional practices and learning environments (Kauerz and Coffman, 2013; Tout et al., 2013). In addition, data collection, interpretation, and sharing in ongoing practice need to be supported through structured and facilitated means to ensure the quality of the data analysis, interpretation, and use. Leaders in educational settings as
well as systems and oversight policies must support the time and structures needed to realize the potential of assessment data to inform day-to-day instructional practices, professional learning, and organizational planning. In many settings, accountability requirements increasingly demand unprecedented amounts of data gathering. This demand may be having unintended consequences in detracting from meaningful interpretation and use of assessment data. A shift may be required to decrease the volume of data collection and reorient the current focus on reporting and compliance in favor of devoting more time, support, and resources to data analysis, interpretation, and use (Lesaux and Marietta, 2012; Lesaux et al., 2014).
Approaches and Tools for Child Assessments
There exists an array of tools that, when selected wisely and according to the purpose for which they were intended, administered appropriately, and interpreted accurately, can inform practice and policy to help create successful learning environments and achieve strong outcomes for children. The terms used in any assessment discussion (e.g., “assessment,” “test,” “formative assessment,” “summative assessment”) have different meanings and connotations for different audiences. This report generally follows the definitions of assessment-related terms from the 2014 Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing Assessment (AERA et al., 2014). Assessment that supports early learning can draw on a range of sources of evidence on children’s thinking development, as outlined in Box 6-3. At appropriate ages, all of these sources can be useful.
Screening is the use of a brief procedure or tool to identify children who may require a more in-depth diagnostic assessment to determine whether they need more in-depth intervention services. When such services are needed, the follow-up typically requires coordination among families, early educators, and medical or early intervention specialists (NRC, 2008). Screening competencies include the knowledge and ability to help ensure that health and developmental screenings are being administered at the right stages and using appropriate, valid screening tools; skills in early identification of the potential need for further assessment and referral for developmental delays, mental health issues, and other such concerns; skills to help families find necessary resources; and skills for follow-up on the outcomes of referrals (HRSA, n.d.; Meisels and Atkins-Burnett, 2005).
Sources of Assessment Information
General Observation and Records of Activities
- anecdotal records
- inventories of student activities
Class Discussions and Conversations
- whole-group discussions
- students’ comments and questions about their work
- conferences and conversations
- writing and journal entries
Performance Tasks and Curriculum-Embedded Assessments
- solving a problem, with explanation
- telling a story problem
Interviews and Tests
- textbook/unit questions
- standardized, norm-referenced
SOURCES: AERA et al., 2014; HighScope Educational Research Foundation, 2003; Meisels et al., 1995; NRC, 2008; Riley-Ayers et al., 2008.
Diagnostic assessment is used to better describe an identified problem, to locate a cause, or both. A child identified by a screening assessment as possibly having delayed language development, for example, needs further assessment to determine whether an actual delay exists; whether there are other, related delays (e.g., intellectual functioning, cognitive processing); and whether there are obvious causes (e.g., hearing loss). Individual diagnostic assessments increasingly are being tied to “response to intervention,” in other words, to assess what interventions are needed and whether interventions are successful (NRC, 2008).
Formative assessment is conducted during instruction to provide information and feedback that can be used to adjust ongoing teaching with the goal of improving students’ learning and their achievement on intended outcomes. These assessments are based heavily on educators’ observations and documentation of children’s learning and development across a range of domains. Research indicates that formative assessment is an effective teaching strategy (Akers et al., 2014; Black and Wiliam, 1998; Clarke, 2008; Clarke et al., 2002; NMP, 2008; Penuel and Shepard, in press; Shepard, 2005). It helps all children learn, but helps lower-achieving children the most. They gain not only subject-matter knowledge but also cognitive competencies often already attained by higher-achieving children. However, the strategy is of little use if educators cannot accurately assess students’ progress in learning a topic and determine how to support them in learning the next level of thinking. As described earlier, learning trajectories help define the content educators need to teach, understand it well themselves, and match instructional tasks to children’s developmental progression. Formative assessment is an important part of the cycle of understanding the levels of thinking at which students are operating, identifying the next level of thinking they should learn, and matching this to educational activities to support that learning (Clements and Sarama, 2008; Clements et al., 2011, 2013).
The instruments often promoted for formative assessment are “curriculum-embedded assessments,” such as small-group record sheets and computer records (Penuel and Shepard, in press; Shepard, 2006). Compared with assessments that are merely curriculum based, curriculum-embedded assessments have the potential to address higher-level thinking and understanding, which has the added advantage of being intrinsically more interesting to students. In addition, although there is reasonable concern that assessments can narrow curriculum and teaching, comprehensive, research-based assessment instruments (often individually administered) (Clements et al., 2011; Ginsburg and Baroody, 2003; Greenfield et al., 2008, 2009) can support and expand learning activities in frequently neglected areas such as science and mathematics (Brenneman et al., 2009a). Along with curriculum-based assessments, they can help educators understand the many concepts and processes young children are capable of learning and, by identifying learning trajectories and children’s progress along them, help educators use formative assessment to modify instruction so it is more efficacious.
Summative assessments typically are carried out at the completion of a program of learning, such as at the end of an instructional unit, to de-
termine a test taker’s knowledge and skills. Summative assessments can be used for multiple purposes. In some cases, they are used for accountability, and sometimes they are administered by educators themselves to be used for that purpose. In such circumstances, a caution is that “performance (classroom-based) assessments of children can be used for accountability, if objectivity is ensured by checking a sample of the assessments for reliability and consistency, if the results are appropriately contextualized in information about the program, and if careful safeguards are in place to prevent misuse of information” (NRC, 2008, p. 11).
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