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Professor Earns Award for Study on Preschoolers’ Language Skills

Anne van-Kleeck on left

Dr. Anne van Kleeck (left) receives the best article of the year award from Dr. Mabel Rice, chairwoman of publications for the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Van Kleeck discusses her research in this ASHA video.

A research paper by Dr. Anne van Kleeck has been honored by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) as the best article of the year.

The article, which appeared in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, presented a new conceptual construct designed to encourage the speech, hearing and language community to think differently about preschool children’s oral language skills.

Van Kleeck, a professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, received the editor’s award late last year at ASHA’s annual convention.

“Bringing together a wide range of interdisciplinary knowledge, Dr. van Kleeck wrote an article that has broad impact for clinicians and researchers in our field,” said Dr. Krista Wilkinson, editor of the journal and a professor at Pennsylvania State University.

Van Kleeck’s research showed that preschool children actually possess two different language registers: casual talk and academic talk. She said academic talk is the most important register for success in school.

“A lot of children whose parents have higher education levels become quite proficient at the academic talk oral language register before they ever get to school. In fact they start being socialized to use it, believe it or not, before they can even talk themselves,” van Kleeck said. “Children whose parents have lower education levels often don’t get exposed to it very much at all at home.”

According to van Kleeck, who is based at the Callier Center for Communication Disorders, academic talk is the “currency of the classroom.” She said it is the language that provides the underpinnings for later reading comprehension and academic success more generally.

“It is part of what often is called the ‘hidden curriculum’ — things that are very important for success in school but are not directly taught. You either pick up on it through exposure at home, or in early school years, or you’re kind of out of luck,” van Kleeck said. “When children come to school less familiar with this register, they’re going to be behind the eight ball. And, unfortunately, we have lots of evidence showing that children who start behind academically are very likely to stay behind throughout their school careers.”

A lot of children whose parents have higher education levels become quite proficient at the academic talk oral language register before they ever get to school.

Dr. Anne van Kleeck,
professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Van Kleeck’s article indicated that waiting until at-risk children are in elementary school to focus explicitly on academic language can put many of them substantially behind. That’s because preschoolers whose parents have higher levels of education are often proficient at understanding and using developmentally appropriate levels of academic language before they ever enter formal schooling.

The article goes on to say that speech-language pathologists involved in children’s education, as well as parents, need to provide this same advantage to all children by focusing on academic talk beginning in the preschool years.

“The ideas also are very important for children who do not have language disorders, but are weak in their academic talk skills because their parents haven’t exposed them to much of it,” van Kleeck said.

“I don’t think it’s rocket science,” van Kleeck said. “Families could do this if we showed them how, and explained to them why it was important — because it’s really going to help their children in school.

“I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want the best for their child, in terms of success in school and elsewhere. I really think parents would be capable of using this register as they interact with their young children without having years and years and years of education.”

Such family interventions are among the areas on which Van Kleeck wants to focus as her research continues. She also wants to assess how families are already interacting with their children in the daily routines in the home and with the other activities in which they engage, and also assess children’s skills related to academic and casual talk.

Although aimed at a speech-language pathology audience, van Kleeck said the topic is relevant to anyone interested in providing a strong foundation for preschoolers as they launch into their academic careers, including preschool teachers.

Van Kleeck’s research was partially supported by the Callier Research Scholar fund.

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