Everything about (first/bilingual) language acquisition
October 16, 2012 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Tell me everything about teaching kids how to speak and read and write.

Methods. Tricks. Recommended vocabulary. Which words and in which order and at what age? Which concepts (colors, shapes, etc.) come before which? What works best? What doesn't work? Got any links to great resources? Also things related to raising kids in bilingual homes, but not only.

I'm looking for real science here, not just what worked for you and your kid. Every approach works eventually and to a degree, but I want to know the best approaches. I'd like to hear from professionals in the field if you're out there.
posted by pracowity to Education (19 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
There was a recent article called "Acquiring Literacy Naturally" in American Scientist you might find interesting.
posted by griphus at 6:39 AM on October 16, 2012

The research in the American Scientist article griphus links is also presented here (from UCSC's Perceptual Science Lab).
posted by Francolin at 6:51 AM on October 16, 2012

I'm not sure how we are supposed to answer your question about what works best, since, as you say, every approach works eventually and to a degree, and, at some point, which approach works best is going to be largely dependent on your kid. For instance, some kids learn best in a Montessori environment, where the order in which they learn is going to be largely dependent on how they show interest, where other children might do better in a more structured environment.

Here's a link to a bunch of recommended vocabulary words, including "Dolch" words - which are the most frequently used words.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:55 AM on October 16, 2012

An acquaintance of mine studies language acquisition and has told me that all of the research basically points to the idea that talking to/with and reading to/with your kids from the get-go and never really stopping is the single biggest thing that determines literacy outcomes. Further, most of these things are pretty much set by the time kids are three or four. That's the key time. Discussions about pedagogical styles after that are maybe responsible for like the last 25% of literacy acquisition, but most of it comes from that early few years.

And it's not like there's one "method" that works best at that time other than just engaging with your kids linguistically right away. They may not talk back, they may not write, but they're listening and learning, even if they don't know it or show it. Much of it is passive. But the use of proper and sophisticated grammar in their hearing will essentially program their brains that way for life.

If you've got that down, it almost doesn't matter what "method" you use later in life. A child raised in a high literacy environment is almost bound to be highly literate, while a child raised in a low literacy environment will always struggle with literacy.
posted by valkyryn at 7:00 AM on October 16, 2012

Response by poster: I'm not sure how we are supposed to answer your question about what works best

I just meant that, while I understand that every parent has had experience teaching their own children, I'm hoping for the generally researched and proven methods, not anecdata from a few parents.
posted by pracowity at 7:02 AM on October 16, 2012

I've been researching this lately, as I plan to turn Baby Yarly into a genius. As Valkyryn said, the key is talk, talk, talk to your baby. Pretty simple - no need for any fancy flash cards or methods. Also important to turn off the tv - not that young babies are hurt by tv per se, but the tv distracts parents from talking to their babies. Once the kids are over 2, tv may have some benefit, but there is no benefit under 2.
posted by yarly at 7:12 AM on October 16, 2012

Hm, I think you're conflating two things here. Teaching kids to read and write is a vastly different beast from teaching them to speak. Children don't need to be taught to speak, even in a bilingual context; their little child sponge-brains are built to acquire spoken language rapidly and naturally. Short of depriving them of all contact with other humans (which has happened), you couldn't stop a child from learning to speak if you tried. Reading and writing, on the other hand, are cultural inventions that need to be taught...and I'm not sure it's really true that all methods work eventually! So it will probably be more meaningful if you get answers to the question of teaching literacy than if you get answers to the question of how to teach speech.

Ok clarifications aside, years ago I spent a little while working on developmental literacy in a psychology lab, although this is not at all my main area of expertise. My recollection is that statistically, one of the best predictors of reading ability was always the metalinguistic skill of phonological awareness. This means understanding how to break words up into their component sounds. So a child who can break the word "cat" up into "kuh" "aahh" "tuh" is going to have a lot more success learning to recognize the written word "cat", because when they learn the alphabet they have something to match those letters up to. A child who knows the word "cat" but doesn't recognize that there are three different sounds in there is going to have a harder time figuring out what the letters in "cat" are supposed to relate to. I'm afraid I don't have any recommendations for how to teach this because I only ever worked on the very research-y side of it. But if I wanted to teach a child to read, I'd look for a method that emphasized phonological awareness.
posted by ootandaboot at 7:12 AM on October 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

As another commenter has mentioned, these are two very different things. Unless you take great pains to the contrary, your children will acquire spoken language. The research shows that children learn to speak by having opportunities to speak and listen. The research also indicates that "baby talk" is not helpful. Just talk normally. But, there is no particular word order to be learn. It doesn't matter if "ball" is learned before or after "chair". Children will learn words to describe the concepts that are relevant to them. In fact, this is the same for you in your native language, but you do not notice it because your vocabulary is so broad.

The topic of teaching children to read is rather politicized in the United States, with the major fight between phonics and whole language approaches. Unfortunately, English is not as well suited to phonics as many other languages because English orthography is not particularly phonetic e.g. why don't "tough" and "though" rhyme? Usually, rather than either-or, both approaches are used. I am aware of no consensus that says what particular method best teaches English literacy.

FWIW, I am the parent of two bilingual children. I get the fun of teaching my kids several thousand Chinese characters, so getting them to learn 26 letters was a kiss on the cheek.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:53 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Regarding language, Caroline Bowen is a SLT in Australia and has some lovely charts for professionals and parents to learn about developmental milestones. But I wouldn't fret too much. In general, if you expose your child to language and engage them in conversation, they will learn the language. If your gut tells you something is not right, get an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist. We can't help you make your child a super-genius, though :)

WRT reading and writing, I'm seconding Ootandaboot about phonological awareness (PA). That is the one thing that will really help a child understand the insane spelling system that is English. (A nibbly aside: when breaking down the sounds in words, don't add a "schwa" at the end of the sound, like "Kuh". Instead, try to just say the sound without the shcwa at the end, like "Kh".) You can start with rhyming and syllabification (clapping out the beats of a word), then go on to ask them to take out parts of a word ("If I say 'snowman', and you take away 'snow', what is left?") add in new sounds, move sounds around, etc. You can do all this without letters, and indeed, most children should be able to do this to varying degrees before they learn to read. PA is a good early predictor of future reading ability.

As for reading instruction,Whole Language has more or less been thrown out the door, and phonics has been reintroduced as the preferred method of teaching sound-symbol correspondence to young readers. Phonics has good research to back it up and can help weak readers become better (whereas Whole Language methods tends to only benefit average or above-average readers, and weak readers are left behind.)

I know I should throw citations in here, but heavens, I'm knee deep in comprehensive exams and only have those citations handy. So, for more information, hit up the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, anything written by Catts and Khami, and anything by Rhea Paul or Jean Berko Gleason. For bilingual language acquisition, check out anything by Barbara Pearson (among others, but I happen to know she's got some good pamphlets and booklets out).

Feel free to message me if you'd like more info.
posted by absquatulate at 8:13 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are number of language acquisition studies described in Nurture Shock.

The factoid that sticks with me (several years after reading this) was that with very young children, speech is motivated (in part) by physical contact and praise in response to vocalizations.
posted by colin_l at 8:45 AM on October 16, 2012

This smashing TED Talk by Patricia Kuhl gives some really interesting insight into the very early stages of language learning.
posted by ZipRibbons at 8:47 AM on October 16, 2012

You might want to start with the Language Instinct by Steven Pinker. It's accessible and has science, and a solid bibliography to lead you in the directions you may wish to go after finishing.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:00 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I taught reading to kids in Japan using the Jolly Phonics method. They were reading basic words after a few lessons and were really motivated to read more. Kids that had struggled for years picked it up quickly and had fun learning too.

Jolly Phonics starts with 6 letters that can immediately be used to form words and are easy to visually distinguish. I taught letters in groups of 3. It starts with s-a-t, then i-p-n. After those 6, you can make words like sit, sat, cat, pat and so on. Each letter has an action as a memory aid, to be performed while saying the letter sound.

Most of what you need is in their Handbook.
posted by nevan at 10:32 AM on October 16, 2012

This really can't be answered in a single post. Teaching children to read and write is arguably one of the most complicated processes ever. Some people, like me, are all about really hardcore phonics instruction. Others say start with whole word instruction and phonics will come later. It honestly depends on the kid and how that kid learns. If you're an American looking to know more about how the reading instruction process works in a state like California, pick up a copy of "Ready for RICA" to get a decently delineated explanation of the different facets of reading instruction (ie, learning to read before you read to learning identifying what might be happening if a kid can't deal with certain phases of reading). Teaching kids to write is an even murkier area as experts tend to have pretty divergent views on how the writing process is even supposed to go, which is why so many US schools hastily adopt new writing programs every year or two. I am big on vocabulary development and grammar games, so I always always always vouch for stuff like Wordly Wise and etymology lessons. It's a tricky business... Tricker, in my opinion, than teaching math by far.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:58 AM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Glenn Doman method worked spectacularly well on my sister and I when we were toddlers. My mother started when I had just turned 3 and my sister had just turned 2.

We entered kindergarten with a grade 2+ reading level, and accelerated beyond that, both having high school level vocabularies & comprehension by grade 4-5. I distinctly remember thinking in gr. 1 - 2 that the whole phonics aspect of written language just seemed like an amusing, silly, and entirely unnecessary distraction. I've just always read in words and phrases.

I think that 3 is probably about the latest age when kids can easily acquire written language through the automatic language acquisition mechanism, and my sister had a distinct advantage starting a year earlier.

Caveat, we did also grow up in a house where there was no television, and where reading was a daily recreational activity for both of my parents.

[I am aware that this is an anecdote and am making no claim otherwise, blah blah blah]
posted by lastobelus at 11:26 AM on October 16, 2012

I'm doing the multilingual thing with my daughter and I'm a (computational) linguist. I speak one language to my daughter, my husband speaks another, and she spends the day at school immersed in a third. Before my daughter was born I talked to a lot of other linguists/bilingual parents about how they talked to their children. The consensus seems to be that volume and consistency are key.

I will mention that it is a lot easier to do this if both parents speak both languages used at home. The language A parent will start to feel left out if they can't understand what the language B parent is saying. It gets harder to stick to the "always language A/always language B" paradigm if anyone feels excluded; eventually language B gets relegated to the times when parent A isn't around, and quite often it gets dropped all together.

We use a divide an conquer strategy when it comes to learning things like colors, numbers, and shapes. For instance, she knows colors in one language and shapes in another. Mixing the two leads to confusion and mayhem. We teach her one set of concepts in one language, wait until she is comfortable, and only then do the same thing over again in one of the other languages.

Books are also helpful, so that there are visual connections with what we're learning, plus they can be read in language A by one parent and then translated into language B by the other parent.

We also keep two sets of story books in our home languages that are really different, so that it will be easier to help her distinguish between the two languages and keep from mixing up vocabulary. Right now my daughter doesn't understand that she is immersed in three different languages every day and we're trying to speed up the realization that each language is different and has its own set of grammar and rules. If she mixes all three no one is going to understand what she is saying most of the time, and we'd like her to build separate "language closets" sooner rather than later to save on frustration.

Also, I can't say enough good things about signing. Some words are just hard for a toddler to say (like "elephant" or "giraffe") and gestures are much easier to learn. Plus, there are many times when "ba" or "ma" can mean a dozen different things and a sign can make all the difference. More communication tools = fewer tantrums. The idea is to create a positive feedback loop where the child feels understood and therefore communicates more.

I also keep a lot of data on the phonemes she can say and keep a log of her vocabulary so that I can see what we need to focus on next. That is probably not practical, but it gives me the illusion of control over a process that is completely out of my hands.
posted by Alison at 12:04 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Videos of babies reading at age 12 months to 24 months:

posted by lastobelus at 12:05 PM on October 16, 2012

FYI, there's a pretty sizable influx of research on kids learning to read before they can walk, and the outcomes are negative. Really do your research before you embark on the baby reading stuff, and focus more on reading to and with your kid at that age rather than actively teaching them to read. It may be okay for some kids, but it looks like the science is saying it screws with brain development.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:38 PM on October 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just saw a link to this book, which might be of interest: Beyond Baby Talk By Drs. Apel and Masterson. They cover many of the things you wanted to know about: how language develops, how reading and writing is learned, technology, fads and scams, etc.

Disclaimer: I have not read this book. It just popped up in an email and thought it might help you out.
posted by absquatulate at 5:25 AM on October 24, 2012

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