Too Small To Fail

We need to  nurture language and  literacy success from 3 months (or earlier) rather than grade 3.

Published Online: January 20, 2015

Published in Print: January 21, 2015, as Doctors Enlisted in Early-Literacy Campaign

Doctors Enlisted to Deliver Early-Literacy Message

Palmira Miller holds her daughter, Isabelle, at a wellness checkup with nurse Tesfa Gemechu at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, Calif. They are accompanied by Isabelle’s half-sister, Mayah, 3. A project at the hospital promotes the value of reading, talking, and singing to young children.

—Ramin Rahimian for Education Week

Too Small To Fail

Published Online: January 20, 2015

Published in Print: January 21, 2015, as Doctors Enlisted in Early-Literacy Campaign

Doctors Enlisted to Deliver Early-Literacy Message

By Lillian Mongeau

A Brief Excerpt

“Doctors are the newest group of proselytizers to join the national Too Small to Fail campaign encouraging parents to talk, read, and sing to their infants and toddlers as a key precursor to literacy. (Bold mine)

The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recognized the importance of telling parents to talk to and read with their children. But it has only recently begun advising its doctors to deliver that message for the first time at a child’s two-month checkup. What has been less clear, and never studied systematically, is how to deliver that information in a way that sticks during the 12- to 18-minute visits physicians generally have with families for well-baby checkups.

That’s where Too Small to Fail comes in. Working closely with doctors in Oakland, Calif., and Tulsa, Okla., leaders of the nonprofit effort hope to prove that medical professionals can provide parents with the tools and information they need to improve their child’s vocabulary and early-literacy skills. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, will be tracking the results of the program, which is rolling out at two hospitals in Oakland right now.”


Dialogue Blog Themes












Paying Attention to Where Kids Are

For Challenged Readers, Custom-Tailored Texts

By Christina A. Samuels

This is too good to pass up! Note the range of perspectives and questions that we need to answer.

Excerpt, but I hope you will read the entire article.


“School librarian K.C. Boyd has long been a cheerleader for “street lit”—gritty urban dramas with themes such as gang life or homelessness—as a way to engage the students she works with in a Chicago high school.

Her job, she says, is to get students reading comfortably, then to lead them to more complex works. As part of that goal, she has turned to what is known in library circles as “high interest, low readability” books, such as a series of books by author P.J. Gray, written at a 2nd grade level and featuring teen protagonists and their struggles…..”





What Do/Can Students Learn About Oral Language?

When a teacher/researcher focuses on oral language development, what is the child expected to learn?

Is talk-based learning about vocabulary or grammar, about stories, about content, about discourse?

When teachers/researchers encourage children to engage in conversation or structure situations to encourage conversation what is the hoped for/anticipated outcome? Well that depends…..

Here is the summary of a chapter by Gordon Wells and Gen Chang-Wells (appearing both in Language Development for Teachers (1996 ) and Constructing Knowledge Together (1992) titled the “The Literate Potential of Collaborative Conversation.”

In the Language Development text, the authors note:

“Gordon Wells’ 10 year longitudinal studies of children moving from home to school in urban England settings in the 1970s is still one of the most influential works in socio-cultural analysis of home-school links.”

I would suggest that it is still work worthy of attention and influence. Here is a lengthy summary I have used in a graduate class titled “Language and Learning.”

The Literate Potential of Collaborative Talk,   Gordon Wells and Gen Change-Wells

The authors suggest that “If we accept this argument (about the nature of literate thinking) then we must also accept that the process of becoming literate can potentially take place through speech as well as through engagement with written language. For it is not the mode of language use that defines literate thinking, but rather then manner in which the language is employed. Thinking is literate when it exploits the symbolic potential of language to enable the thought processes themselves to become the object of thought. Under appropriate conditions, this can occur in either writing or speaking….”

In this article/chapter they describe two children in grades ¾ engaged in a self-chosen project based on a school-wide theme of “The Enchantment of Winter.” The task is one of interactive problem solving, involving solving problems of increasing levels of difficulty.

Throughout this chapter, it has been assumed that the prime function of schooling is to develop effective thinking.   “….we should be attempting to promote the development of literate thinking…”       Characterized by…..

*Making argument explicit by giving reasons for one’s position

*Making argument relevant to one’s own position, as well as that adopted by the other

*Need to consider alternatives

*And to justify them by appeal to systematic knowledge

*Reflecting on what one has done–questioning the outcome of one’s effort

*Revising, if necessary

*Planning and similar processes are brought to the level of conscious attention/intentional control

*Self regulatory (a “What is my question?” “Where am I going? Stance

Critically reflective in order to construction an intelligible, coherent and convincing verbal formulation (5 and 9 may be the same)

Role of Talk in Active Learning: Collaborative Talk

*Involves learning that is focused on the acquisition and development of more complex conceptual structure and cognitive procedures

*Engaging in activities in which it is necessary to recognize and solve problems of increasing levels of difficulty

*Must be able to represent the problem to oneself in such a way that one is able to generate and choose between alternative means to its solution

*Problem solving is recursive (not simply linear)

*Conscious and deliberate problem solving….to help children develop reflective awareness of their own mental processes.

*The child must play an active role in selecting and defining the activities, which must be both challenging and motivating

*There must be an appropriate level of support (zone of proximal development)

Enabling and Empowering Learning

“For collaborative talk to have this empowering effect, however, it must meet two essential conditions. The first of these has already been addressed: it must be based on the assumption that the learner has ownership of the task…. A major objective of such talk will, therefore, be to help the learner to develop conscious and deliberate control over his or her mental processes, not only in order to complete the task at hand, but also so that he or she becomes progressively more able to take responsibility for his or her own learning more generally.”

“The second essential condition arises from the first: the expert’s contribution to the dialogue should be “contingently responsive” to the needs of the learners as these needs are understood in light of the immediate situation as well as of the longer term goals of education….”

*Take the child’s attempt seriously and treat it as evidence of his or her best effort to solve the problem

*Listen carefully to the child’s account and request amplification and clarification as necessary to ensure that you have correctly understood.

*In making your response, take the child’s account as a starting point and extend or develop it or encourage the child to do so him/herself.

*Select and formulate your contributions in the light of the child’s current manifested ability as well as of your pedagogical intentions, and modify it, as necessary, in the light of feedback provided by the childBold throughout this entry mine.

* * *

This article reminds me of the book by Nichols, Comprehension Through Conversation, reviewed on an earlier blog, in which she says, ‘My kids talk. What’s the big deal?’ She pursued the question over several years, resulting in her valuable text. (See my blog post on November 11,2014, for a summary of that text).

It also reminds me of work by other authors that highlight using oral language to learn about history and science (blogs forthcoming).

With these and other sources on oral language in the classroom we need to ask the conditions under which these language skills are learned.  Does it require explicit teaching? scaffolding? opportunities for practice?  cultural and contextual sensitivity?

What Goes Around Comes Around…and Around…and Around

I woke up (early) this morning thinking about a program I heard on public radio yesterday. It was a rebroadcast of an interview with Governor Mario Cuomo talking about issues of justice, including poverty and opportunity. The broadcast was originally aired 20 years ago. It reminded me of another story that doesn’t seem to have changed much either in the last 20 (or 30 or 40) years—oral language, literacy, and the achievement gap.

I have been reading online and from text a great deal about the achievement gap and its relationship to oral language development and early literacy skills.   The rebroadcast prompted me to go to my library and find a book on Language in Early Childhood Education, edited by Courtney B. Cazden. It was published in 1972 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Although this book does not directly address the relationship between oral language and literacy or literacy and the achievement gap, it clearly focuses on the relationship between home (language)and school (language) and between the role of disadvantage in learning. In this text Cazden and her colleagues analyzed existing language programs used in preschool, and contrasted effective home and school practices.

Another of my favorite “old” references is a book produced by the National Council of Teachers of English written by Walter Loban: Language Development, Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve, also published in the 1970’s. In that text Loban traces the language and literacy development of the same 211 children from kindergarten to grade 12. His most telling finding is that the children who start behind, those in the lowest socioeconomic groups, stay behind….unless there is specific intervention. These are not children who differ in innate intellectual ability when they start school.

Loban says: “Although various ethnic backgrounds are included in all three groups (high, low, mixed), the same is not true of socioeconomic background. The high functioning group is definitely skewed in the direction of the most favored socioeconomic conditions; the low functioning group members from the least favored background.”

Eternal optimist that I am, I don’t believe that this recycling has to continue. We know a great deal about oral language development, early literacy, and the achievement gap. We need to know how to put what we know into practice and why what we know isn’t put into practice. I hope this blog will offer insights into how to make that happen by high lighting successful programs and practices.

One of the sources I’ve mentioned before is Listening and Speaking for Preschool Through Third Grade edited by Lauren B. Resnick an Catherine E. Snow, Published by the International Reading Association in 2008.

Three other sources I’m reading now and recommend:

Assessing Preschool Literacy Development by Billie J. Enz an Lesley Mandel Morrow Oral Language and Early Literacy in Preschool: Talking, Reading, and Writing by Kathleen A. Roskos, Patton O. Tabors, and Lisa A. Lehnart

Both were also published in 2009 by The International Reading Association.

A third resource, one of the best articles I have read on early literacy is: Common Core State Standards and Early Childhood Literacy Instruction: Confusion and Conclusions by Jessica Hoffman, Katie Pagica and William Teale. I think this is an extraordinarily balanced treatment of the reading standards in relation to preschool learning.

Vocabulary Measurement in PreSchool

Assessing vocabulary learning in early childhood

Jessica L Hoffman

Miami University, USA

William H Teale

University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

Kathleen A Paciga

Columbia College Chicago, USA


There is widespread agreement with in the field of early childhood education that vocabulary is important to literacy achievement and that reading aloud can support vocabulary growth. However, there are unexplored and significant problems with the ways we assess young children’s vocabulary learning from read-alouds. This paper critcally reviews the forms of vocabulary assessment commonly used with young children, examining the benefits and drawbacks of each. ….

Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk

Talking the Talk and Walking the Walk: Researching Oral Language in the Classroom by Karen Gallas, et. al. from Language Development: A Reader for Teachers (2002)

This chapter from the Power and Hubbard text was written by Karen Gallas and her teacher-reseacher colleagues tracing their work over the period of several years. (Gallas has also written “Talking Their Way into Science”, 1995.) I included this chapter because it gives us insight into the complexity of “teaching language skills.”

The authors note a number of domains of oral language in the classroom: greeting, salutation, negotiations, instructions, questions, explanations, discussions, small talk, science talk, book talk, discussing writing, talking about a painting reading a poem, telling a story…to mention a few. The examples range from the talk of kindergartners to 7th graders.

Early in the chapter, the authors note:

 “Talk is an inherently social act. In classrooms, however, teachers generally corral language by defining when children talk, what they are supposed to talk about and for how long. We also have implicit rules governing how talk can be used across classroom activities, requiring students to crack these code, as it were, and develop a language kit of discourses to suit the needs of different contexts. But the school is a site of may discourses in contact including both those discourses that come from students’ cultural background—their out-of-school ways of talking, reasoning, and valuing—and the many specialized discourse that are a part of the academic domain.Math, science, social studies, art, gym, music, books studies, and writing workshops all stand as distinct discourse that children must master. But discourses, by definition are complexly situated, socially, culturally, and historically.” (p. 130) (Bold mine)

 It is not clear why we consider “talking” such a natural ability. It seems there is much to learn about “talking” and how to help children develop the oral language skills necessary for school success, even as early as kindergarten. Gallas and her colleagues offer us many aspects of language development to consider:

 Gallas: Talking the Talk; Walking the Walk


*MULTIPLE GENRE (greetings, negotiations, discussions, explanations, story telling, etc.)

*Background: ways of talking, reasoning, valuing. Discourse involves values and viewpoints

*Kids have MULTIPLE INTENTIONS when they talk

*Need to BRIDGE between home and base based ways of talking (different expectations)

*START WHERE KIDS ARE AND HONOR THEIR INTENTIONS. Work to understand what they understand.

*Acknowledge tension/create balance between discourses

*Give kids a “point of entry” in a conversation

*Social dynamics influence learning

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