New support to help children from families of low socio-economic status close word gap
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New support to help children from families of low socio-economic status close word gap

by Freya Lucas

July 02, 2020

A new e-book, developed as part of a research project from Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development is supporting parents and children of low socio-economic status to close the widely researched ‘word gap’ which typically widens as children reach school age. 


The enhanced electronic book (e-book), researchers said, can help parents to learn reading methods that facilitate parent-child conversations, which are known to spur preschool vocabulary development and the language processing skills necessary to close the word gap.


In a study recently published in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Associate Professor Georgene Troseth, and her research team investigated whether a questioning character in a narrated e-book could help promote conversations between parents and children while reading. 


Talking about books can challenge children to use a more diverse vocabulary than they typically hear or use in conversation with an adult, Associate Professor Troseth explained. 

“Tugboats and caterpillars, wild animals and distant cultures bring up a wider range of words than is typical in daily activities. When a parent asks a question [about a book], the child has to go into their long-term memory of words, their lexicon and their grammar, to say what they want to say. It gives the child practice in all the language skills they will need.”

Associate Professor Troseth and her research team designed an enhanced e-book to be read on a tablet computer that could teach parents dialogic reading. This method stimulates engagement between the parent and child by asking questions that help the child develop a better sense of how their own life relates to what they read.


The e-book used in the study is based on the PBS Kids animated series Peg + Cat, produced by Fred Rogers Productions. An interactive character from the series named Ramone, an African American adolescent, was added to the e-book to model dialogic reading techniques for parents.


Two versions of the e-book were developed. In one, Ramone appears on each page after the story narration, suggesting simple questions for parents to ask. In version two, Ramone suggests questions to elicit more complex responses. Children are asked to make inferences and connections between the story and their own lives. Ramone encourages parents to take over the questioning on the last five pages, or to tap an icon if a hint is needed.


Study participants included 32 children around four years of age, along with an adult caregiver, all from families with few socio-economic advantages. 


Half of the children in the study were from an urban area and half from a small-town, rural setting. A control group of 16 parent/child pairs listened twice to the unmodified, narrated e-book. The other 16 pairs listened to the two versions of the enhanced e-book with the Ramone character. 


Sessions were recorded and transcribed to count the number of words, unique words, and utterances exchanged as well as conversational turns taken between parent and child during reading.


“After only reading the book twice, we had our fingers crossed that parents would pick up on the questioning method and that we might get an increase in parent-child conversation,” Associate Professor Troseth said. 


“The families who read the e-book with our helpful character in the corner talked three times more than the families who did not have the character. They used significantly wider vocabulary while talking, and there were many more conversational turns of questions and answers back and forth.


“We also analysed cognitive challenge, looking at the use of harder questions or more linguistically sophisticated questions, and found much more in the experimental group,” she said. “By the end of the second book, where Ramone did not appear, most parents didn’t tap the icon to get a hint. They asked their own questions.”


As a follow up to the findings, Associate Professor Troseth and her research team are exploring funding to develop a web-based or downloadable product that models dialogic reading. 


They hope that the questioning methods learned will mean that parents in the study continue to ask their children questions while reading together and generally, as more conversations between parent and child mean better communication overall.


“We want parents to be able to go beyond this book and use these techniques when they’re reading other books, too,” she said. “And we hope that when they’re making connections between the book and the child’s life, that they will continue to use the same kind of questioning in the car, when they’re watching television together or cooking together, so they get in the habit of asking their children questions about their feelings or about what happens next.”


 To read “An enhanced eBook facilitates parent-child talk during shared reading by families of low socioeconomic status” in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, please see here

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