C. Japel1, D. Vuattoux1, E. Dion2

1Université du Québec à Montréal (CANADA)
2Université de Montréal à Québec (CANADA)
The level of literacy individuals will reach is linked to the language skills they possess when entering the school system. However, children’s language skills upon school entry vary significantly and we observe an alarming disparity between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds with respect to the richness of their vocabulary. As the breadth of a child’s vocabulary facilitates the acquisition of reading skills, effective remediation efforts to decrease this early disadvantage must aim at fostering optimal vocabulary growth during the preschool years.

Given the limitations of previous research, we developed a research-based approach to enhancing at-risk preschoolers’ vocabulary which is innovative for the following reasons: (1) it is aimed at four-year-olds in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Montreal to address language disparities before entering kindergarten; (2) target words for explicit vocabulary instruction were identified based on the vocabulary gap found between low-risk and high-risk children in the population; (3) thirty storybooks were developed from this identified corpus of vocabulary, and storybooks systematically introduced and revised target vocabulary; (4) educators received training and specific instructions; (5) children’s learning of targeted word meanings was regularly assessed; and (6) a control group allowed for testing the effect of the intervention.

Participants. Twenty child care centres located in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas were recruited in 2008. Twenty-two educators and their groups of 4-year-old children participated in the research project from September 2008 to February 2009. Educators were randomly assigned to a control group (n = 99) or an intervention group (n = 100). Educators in the intervention group received a detailed pedagogical manual and training on how to present the storybooks and carry out the activities.

Instruments. Pre-test - children’s receptive vocabulary was assessed with a validated French version of the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (Dunn et al., 1993). Knowledge of the meaning of a sample of the 174 target words was tested at pre- and post-test using Biemiller and Slomin’s (2001) procedure. During the intervention, two tests were administerd to assess children’s capacity to provide accurate definitions of a sample of the words presented in stories 1 to 10 and in stories 11 to 20.
Children’s level of behavioral regulation were assessed via a validated French version of the Head-Toe-Shoulder-Knee Test (Cameron et al., 2007).
Parents provided information on sociodemographic characteristics such as language spoken at home, maternal education, income and family status.

Results show that the intervention and control groups differ significantly at the end of the intervention with respect to correct word definitions. However, interventions are not equally effective for all young children. Child characteristics such as behavioural regulations skills and initial language acquisition are significant predictors of the response to the intervention. This shows that explicit vocabulary instruction is a powerful way to enhance at-risk preschoolers’ vocabulary but this exercise is only effective if the child has the capacity to be engaged. Differential interventions are therefore necessary to better respond to children’s individual needs and challenges such as being a second language learner or having low self regulation skills.