Literacy development begins at home from the moment parents start to use language to help their child navigate the world. The seemingly simple back-and-forth conversations between caregivers and children have actually been shown to transform the biology of a child’s brain. As such, conversations are a powerful tool that can shape cognitive development, build background knowledge about the world, and expand vocabulary for all children.
Importantly, the work of Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Meredith Rowe has revealed that the quality of these interactions matters significantly. Using complex or interactive words that explain or prompt a child’s imagination impacts vocabulary development significantly.
To help equip caregivers and families with the tools and knowledge to sustain these kinds of high-quality, authentic interactions, Rowe and her colleagues at HGSE’s Reach Every Reader — Joe Blatt, Paola Uccelli, and Rosa Guzman Turco — have partnered with FableVision and GBH to develop a series of free apps for ages 4 and up.
“Each app had its own little theory of change for how it helps that parent connect in a conversation that could be useful for language and literacy development,” says Rowe. “The overarching theory being that children learn from their social interactions and so using technology in interactive ways can promote early language and literacy development.”
Having tested the apps with a diverse set of families from a range of backgrounds and collecting data on the way conversations between caregivers and children changed over time, Rowe and her team found that caregivers do seem to develop an understanding of how to engage in richer conversations with children — conversations with more back and forth, prompting questions, and expanded vocabulary — while using the apps regularly over time.
Here are a few of the apps’ underlying research-based principles that lead to high-quality conversations between young children and adults:
Talk about the past and the future together.
Discussing things that are removed from the immediate environment — like what happened yesterday or what you might have for dinner tomorrow — supports language development and prepares children for reading by encouraging them to think about or imagine something in their mind.
Scaffold screen use
Caregivers are a vital part of learning and the app creators made their role explicit in the creation of these apps. No matter how interactive or useful (or fun!) media may be, human interaction is still key. A caregiver knows a child’s skills, interests, and background best and can explain something when a question arises.
Use a variety of vocabulary
In early childhood, conversations help explain the world and its complexity, giving names to different and difficult concepts. Making sure children have access to a range of vocabulary helps give them the tools they need to make sense of the world. “Through conversations we make visible aspects of the world that are totally invisible to them like emotions, thoughts, intentions. Through these conversations, children learn much more than language,” says Uccelli.
While introducing new ideas and words is key, deepening understanding of different concepts is also important. The apps allow users to record conversations, which caregivers can later elaborate on alongside the child by revisiting the same ideas and expanding the conversations with more questions to add nuance and detail.