Catherine Snow: Everyday conversation is the basic activity in the classroom for 3- to 5-year-olds. They aren't ready to learn about things by reading books or by having direct learning experiences through observation. All of those ways of learning have to be mediated by adults reading books to them, talking to them about dinosaurs, or whatever else they might be interested in. For young children, it's through the talk that learning goes on. It's key that the classroom be structured so there's lots of opportunity for conversation with children, because during those conversations adults can expand on young children's understandings.
ECT: Can you suggest any techniques that will help teachers get the most out of these conversations?
Snow: Talk to kids about what they're talking to you about. With kids under 5, conversations are much better when they get to pick the topic. That doesn't mean it can't be a topic that's introduced by you. You can read a book to children but then ask questions based on what children find interesting about the book. Also, ask questions that are open-ended. After reading The Snowy Day, instead of asking "Who made those tracks in the snow?" ask, "Gee, what do you most like to do when you go out and play in the snow?"
ECT: How does a teacher work with children who are at different stages of development and who have varying levels of ability?
Snow: I think it's important in large-group activities to make sure that there's enough explanation so that kids who are low in language skills get the concepts while not forgetting about the children who have an easy time of it and need more stimulation. That's the challenge of every teacher in every classroom. In early childhood, it's not so hard because even children with very advanced language skills still get lots of benefits from repetition and practice.
ECT: What about the multilingual classroom?
Snow: Yes, that can present challenges for the teacher, but not as great a challenge as you might find in a second grade classroom. Threes and fours can be having a good time without fully participating linguistically, and children whose home language is not English can participate physically with other members of the classroom, even if they don't fully understand what's going on. But we don't want teachers to forget that there are crucial things that these children are not understanding. They'll need special attention at small group time, or more of an instructional approach.
ECT: How do we define the connection between language and literacy?
Snow: There are a million connections, but the simplest one is that knowing language is a prerequisite to reading. Language is the most sophisticated and well-developed skill of the 5-year-old. They're probably better at it than at violin playing, chess, or basketball. Given that, learning an alternative representation system for that language can be relatively easy, although it does mean going beyond just knowing the language to having more sophisticated capabilities. So, for the 5- and 6-year-old, knowing language makes acquiring literacy a very meaningful activity. You have words, you want to represent those words, you want to be able to use those words in communicating. For example, you can call up your grandmother and talk to her on the phone or you can write her a letter. That's a pretty clear connection for us!
Catherine E. Snow, PhD, is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She recently chaired the National Research Council Committee on Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children.