Empowering Parents to Support Child Language Development

Empowering Parents

Many preschool children learn language incidentally—that is, children learn vocabulary, grammar and social patterns of language through listening to parents, siblings and teachers who talk around them.

Not so for children with language impairments. They struggle to learn new words, make conversation or be understood.

"We know that children with language impairments are at significant risk to not have optimal achievement in school," says Brook Sawyer, assistant professor of teaching, learning and technology. "Language impairments are often linked to reading disabilities." But, she says, "If we focus on children at a very young age and support their language development, we optimize their success in school."

To help parents of preschool children with learning impairments learn techniques to improve their children's language skills, Sawyer and fellow researchers are developing Parents Plus: Language Coach, an online resource that will have video and coaching components. Assisted by a speech-language pathologist, parents will learn to use focus stimulation strategies to help their children acquire language.

The three-year project is funded with a $1.5 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences. Sawyer is working with researchers from Teachers College, Temple University and the Oregon Research Institute to develop the web-based training tool.

"We really want parents to see themselves as having a critical role in their child's language development," says Sawyer. "There's literature that suggests that parents of children with learning impairments may actually start to decrease their language interactions with their children because they don't see those interactions as being effective. They're talking to their children, but they're not getting anything back. It gets discouraging. But if that happens, the child is getting even less language exposure.

"So it's really important to support parents so they know what they can do to help their child. The normal way they might be interacting with their child might not work. You have to be really targeted with what you do, and that's not going to be natural. So we want to give parents some simple tools that they can feel good about using with their child."

Focus stimulation strategies allow parents to interact with their preschoolers in a way that would increase the likelihood they would reach vocabulary or grammar goals. For example, if a child needs to learn the word "green," parents might color with the child and frequently use the word. "I see you're coloring with the green crayon," and "Wow, green makes the grass pretty." Rather than forcing a response, parents pause to give the child an opportunity to respond, whether verbally or another way.

Two advisory boards are assisting with the project—a professional board of teachers and speech/language pathologists; and another of parents. The project is based in the Berks County Intermediate Unit, in Reading, Pennsylvania.

The team plans to begin testing Parents Plus as a feasible option for parents beginning in September 2017. The following year, the project will expand from 16 parents to 30 parents in a randomized control trial, with half using Parents Plus and half not.

"I just see it as so imperative that we give parents some support," Sawyer says.

This story appears as "Empowering Parents" in the 2017 Lehigh Research Review


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