Thursday, July 23, 2015

Development: What Does That Mean?

Oftentimes the word “development” is used in relationship to children’s growth in several domains: physical development, social/emotional development, language development, and cognitive development.

In education and the educational literature, we also see references to a “developmental approach” or “developmentally appropriate practice.” (See, for example:

Before we continue to talk about oral language “development,” we need to address some issues with the concept of development:

A.      Is language “development” due to nature or nurture?

B.      Is there a developmental progression for all domains of language growth?

C.      Are there accepted ages ranges for particular areas of development?  Should we be concerned about the child’s “rate or pace” of development if they are outside of those ranges, specifically in the areas of oral language and in the relationship of oral language to literacy?

(A) Nature or nurture?

My position:  Language Development is determined by both nature and nurture.

Here are some sources that propose or suggest that it is both: nature and nurture:

*How Babies Talk, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, 1999
So, is it [oral language development] nature or is it nurture?  This question fuels a debate that has lasted for centuries, a debate that affects our roles as parents, teachers, and caregivers.  If language is inborn, then we can stand back and watch the miracle unfold.  If, on the other hand, we teach language, we must be active partners in our children’s language growth.  All of us need to know because children’s language abilities are intimately related to many aspects of intellectual growth.

Those in the field of language development are finally in a position to answer some of these age old questions.  There has been a revolution within the study of language development in recent years.  New methods can evaluate the language capabilities of the fetus (yea, the fetus!} and newborn.  We can now see up close what newborns bring to the task of language learning (nature).  New methods also permit an even clearer view of the ways in which parents’ teaching affects their children.  It turns out that nature and nurture are involved in an intricate dance with each other….”  Pp. 3-4.

*Language Development, Erika Hoff, 2005  “Communicative Interaction As a Contributor to the Process of Language Development
“Even if the communicative function of language does not explain how language is acquired, communicative interaction is clearly the setting which children hear language input.  And, it turns out, properties of the communicative interaction children experience affect their linguistic and communicative development….´ P 96. 

*The Achievement Gap and “Ready to Learn”
There is a vast literature that suggests that some children arrive at kindergarten not as ‘ready to learn” as other children.  One of the principal domains of growth that is highlighted in the differences in “readiness” is language.  Some children, for example, have a far less extensive and sophisticated vocabulary than other children.  Some children are not as proficient in communicating as other children; some children seem to know less about sound/symbol relationships.  See, for example:

“Positive early language and literacy development can give children a window to the world, helping to ensure that each child can seize his or her potential for future success. During the first 3 years of life, the brain undergoes its most dramatic development and children acquire the ability to think, speak, learn, and reason. When this early development is not nurtured, the brain’s architecture is affected and young children begin to fall behind. Many low-income children arrive at school already behind in communication and language, a disadvantage that only persists over time….”
Dr. Lesley Morrow - Literacy Development Rutgers University,  4 MinuteVideo

Dr. Morrow, a renowned expert on early literature talks about early literacy before school, the role that parents and preschool teachers play, and the importance of language.


(B) Developmental Progression in all oral language domains?

My Position: Yes, but… and…Some domains are mapped out completely. All domains of language development  are not easily or completely mapped out sequentially, particularly during the preschool years. And all children do not follow the sequences that are mapped out at the “suggested” ages. Why is that?  What difference does it make?

To some extent my answer is based on a distinction made by Hoffman,Paciga, and Teale
Constrained and unconstrained skills

“In discussing the Common Core State Standards, the authors point out that some Literacy standards (“Foundational Skills” which they call “constrained” skills) are relatively easily conceptualized in terms of component parts that follow a fairly linear trajectory.  …. “(p. 8)
“However for other components of literacy development—language acquisition, vocabulary, text comprehension, and written composition—measurement is much less straight forward.  Theses aspects of early ELA learning continue to develop throughout life, thus having no measureable point of mastery (we never stop learning vocabulary, for example…  Second, they are considerably more complex to acquire than the foundational standards…..”  (p. 10)

Furthermore, attainment of such constrained skills are easier to measure.  “There already exist several valid, reliable measures of foundational skills such as concepts of print, phonological awareness, and phonics appropriate for preschool and kindergarten.  In addition, for teachers, the data from these measures tend to be reasonably straightforward to gather and interpret, and teachers can fairly readily learn how to use the information from these measures to differentiation instruction for young children….” (p. 10)

 The Task and Context Matter
Another perspective on why all “developmental” skill sequences are not mapped out completely is offered by Daniel T. Willingham (professor of cognitive psychology at UV) in an article titled:  What is Developmentally Appropriate Practice.  (American Educator, summer, 2008)

Although he is talking about cognitive development, I think his ideas are relevant.  He maintains that “Children’s Cognitive Abilities Vary by Task and Day, Not Just by Age and Individual Developmental Pace.” (p. 37)   His position address issues of ongoing assessment and pedagogy.  He asks:  “What Does This Variability Mean for Teachers?”  His answers:

1 Use information about (conceptual) principles but not in the absolute.
2 Think about the effectiveness of tasks.
3 Think about why students do not understand
4 Recognize that no content is inherently developmentally inappropriate.


(C) Accepted Age Ranges and Concerns About Pace or Rate of Development
My Position:  Yes, there are age ranges mapped out for some aspects of language development, but not for all of them.  We need to understand why some children are not keeping “pace” for those “developmental” language skills that are mapped out.  And we need to find ways to monitor progress for those language skills that are not as clearly sequenced.

Sounds.  We have fairly good age range markers for a child’s ability to recognize and produce the sounds of our language. We have fairly good age range markers for a child’s phonemic awareness skills.

Sentences:  We have fairly good age range markers for some aspects of sentences:  sentence length and syntax are examples.

Words.  Words/vocabulary is a more complex skill (unconstrained).  We continue to learn words, word meanings, word relations, and about words throughout our lives.   We do have important norms for how many words different groups of children “know” in the 0-5 range.

Discourse.  We know when children begin to “communicate” with others and something about what and how they communicate in the 0 to 5 range.  But this is such a wide and deep skill that we shave much more to learn.  We continue to learn how to communicate throughout our lives.

Despite that fact that age related sequences are not completely mapped out for all domains of oral language, we should use the knowledge we do have to monitor whether or not children are mastering oral language skills at a pace that will allow them to become successful learners, readers, and thinkers.  We want them to be “ready for school,” but we also want them to continue to be successful throughout their school years.















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