Preschool Teacher Talk

Potentially, preschool classrooms offer a rich learning environment that can promote language skills necessary for literacy. Preschool teachers can play a critical role in providing language input and models for their students. Much of the language emphasis in preschool classrooms is on vocabulary (e.g., what teachers say and books read to children). Language competence encompasses much more than vocabulary; it also involves syntax. It is argued that syntax, specifically complex syntax, may be just as important as vocabulary (Fisher & Schuele, 2010).

Proficiency in complex syntax allows children to engage in verbal dialogue and to comprehend high-level text that is critical to learning (Jackson & Roberts, 2001). Complex sentences contain two or more clauses. Clauses are joined within a single sentence through coordinate (e.g., and) or subordinate (e.g., because) conjunctions or through embedding (e.g., I know what you did; Bloom, Tackeff, & Lahey, 1984; Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, &  Svartvik, 1985).

Huttenlocher and colleagues (2002, 2008) reported that children from low socioeconomic status (SES) families are less proficient in complex syntax production than peers from families of higher SES. They attributed this difference to variations in parental complex syntax input. However, many children receive a substantial amount of input in classrooms.  Given these findings, it is important to uncover the complex syntax input children from lower and higher SES families receive in their preschool classrooms to investigate if complex syntax production differences of children can also be attributed to input received in the classroom.

Past Projects

Head Start Teachers’ Complex Syntax Production

Jamie D. Fisher and C. Melanie Schuele

The purpose of this study was to describe complex syntax production of Head Start Teachers during classroom activities. Thirty Head Start teachers from two urban cities participated in the study. Teachers varied in education level and years of experience. Teacher utterances from video-recorded teacher-children interactions involving an art, dramatic play, or multiple centers activity were orthographically transcribed and coded for 11 types of complex syntax for data analysis. The mean proportion of teachers’ utterances that included complex syntax was .19 (SD = .08). Proportional distribution across complex syntax categories of infinitive, embedding, and combining categories was comparable. There was no significant difference in the proportion of utterances that included complex syntax based on education level, nor was there a relation based on years of experience. Overall, Head Start teachers appear to be limited in their complex syntax production. However, there was substantial individual variation across teachers. Further studies examining preschool teachers serving children from various SES backgrounds are needed to better understand complex syntax input provided in preschool classrooms.