Why You Should Focus on Preschool Language Skills for Later Academic Success

Preschoolers need to learn to use language for three broad purposes – to communicate with others in daily living situations (casual talk), to think critically and learn about the world (academic talk), and to control their own goal-directed behavior (executive functions).1,2,3 In language intervention, speech-language pathologists have long focused on casual talk, but research now shows that the second two broad functions of language, academic talk and executive functions, are essential to introduce during the preschool years to help ensure that children reach their future academic potential.

To begin adding academic talk and executive functions to preschool language intervention, we need to know why these skills are important. In order to accurately focus our assessments and interventions, we need to know what the specific sub-skills are that make up academic language and executive functions. We also need to know how to most effectively teach these skills. Once armed with this knowledge, we can seamlessly integrate these skills into the many things we are already doing with the preschoolers we work with. For a closer look at the why, what, and how of preschool oral language foundations for later academic success, start my five part MedBridge series.

Understand the Research

We’ve known for a long time that language skills are the most important part of the school readiness skills, but recent research reveals the specific skills needed in order to help lay critical preschool language foundations for later academic success. Learn more about what we mean by academic talk and executive functions, and the importance of adding these areas to preschool language intervention with part one in my preschool language series, Academic Talk and Executive Functions.

Take Sub-skills into Account

When approaching assessment and intervention for academic talk and executive functions, it’s important to understand the details of what is involved in each of these umbrella terms. Academic talk has two dimensions with several subareas that are differentiated from everyday casual talk. The two dimensions are social and cognitive:

Social

  • More autonomy
  • Verbal display
  • Group topic participation
  • Formality

Cognition

  • More information about categories of things
  • Precise concepts/related vocabulary
  • Logical/inferential reasoning
  • Meta-linguistic and meta-cognitive skills
  • Expressions of confidence in information
  • Talking about abstract ideas (not supported by physical or social context)

Executive function skills also have two dimensions, those that are considered more emotional such as emotional self-regulation, and theory of mind. Other executive function skills are considered more cognitive, like cognitive flexibility, inhibition, and working memory. Understanding the definition of each of the subareas provides a direct window for easily informally assessing them.

Take your understanding a step further with part two of my series, Preschool Language Part Two: Assessment and Intervention.

School-based-v1Rethink Language Assessment

The good news is that we already have many assessments that are widely used and can be reinterpreted for their ability to distinguish between a child’s abilities with casual talk versus academic talk. Research supports the conclusion that language sample analyses of conversation tap preschoolers’ skill with casual talk, whereas formal tests and story retells tap skill with academic talk.4 Indeed, formal language tests often over-identify language impairment in culturally and linguistically diverse preschoolers because they often have weak academic talk skills, but they are not language-impaired because their casual talk skills are just fine.

Continue to refine your thinking about language assessment as it relates to the casual talk and academic talk registers with my third course, Preschool Language Part Three: Rethinking Language Assessment Tools.

Incorporate Language Teaching Principles

Beyond teaching executive functions and academic talk, there are useful general language teaching principles and procedures for addressing a variety of language and learning targets. We can split these up into macro and micro variable strategies. Macro variables include organizational level structures, context, location, activities and materials, which person provides the intervention, and topics of talk. Micro variables include those related to positive emotional support, contextual support, interactional support, and adult language use.

See these language teaching principles come alive with many concrete examples in part four of my preschool language series, Language Teaching Procedures.

Connect the Dots

Effective interventions incorporating academic talk and executive function can connect regular and special education services with the language pathologist. In this position, SLPs can support preschool teachers in the classroom and in small-group pull-out programs for children who are struggling in the classroom but may not need special education services (these are often called Tier 2 interventions). We have developed just such a language and literacy preschool curriculum using published storybooks for preschoolers that has now been used in 35 classrooms.

In the fifth course of my preschool language series, you can explore how this intervention was created, what the components of it are, and examples of the kinds of lessons it employs.

References
  1. DeBruin, A., van Kleeck, A. & Gear, S. (Redaktörer) (2016). Utveckla förståelse i förskolan: En grund för god läsutveckling. Lund, Sweden: Studentlitteratur. (Originally published in the United States by Paul H. Brookes).
  2. van Kleeck, A. (2014). Distinguishing between casual talk and academic talk beginning in the preschool years: An important consideration for speech-language pathologists. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 23, 724-741. Recipient of 2014 Editor’s Award for Best Article of the Year in this journal. Free Online at: http://ajslp.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=1901925
  3. van Kleeck, A. (2015a). The academic talk register: A critical preschool oral language foundation for later reading comprehension. In A. DeBruin-Parecki A. van Kleeck, & S. B. Gear (Eds.), Developing early comprehension: Laying the foundation for reading success. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes (pp. 52 – 76).
  4. van Kleeck, A. (2015b, November). Determining academic language deficits in preschoolers without language impairments: A new role for the SLP? Two-hour Seminar presented at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Annual Convention, Denver, Colorado.