Small Talk

Techniques as simple as encouraging conversation in preschool promote long-term academic success.

Barbara Wasik, a researcher in the College of Education, sharpens the vocabulary of a student enrolled in the North Philadelphia Head Start program.

Story by Kim Fischer

Photography by Ryan S. Brandenberg and Joseph V. Labolito

“Does anyone know what a ‘herd’ is?” Trinette Ingram, a teacher at the St. Paul Community Head Start center in Baltimore, asks a group of 3– and 4–year–olds as she points to a picture on the cover of a book.

“A group!” Rashon shouts proudly.

“Yes, it’s a group of animals,” Ingram explains.

The lively conversation continues as she reads the book aloud. “What is a ‘flamingo?’ What is a ‘flock?’ Who knows what ‘investigate’ means?”

The children respond quickly.

“And when a baby elephant gets separated from its mother and herd,” Ingram asks, “what do you think the elephant feels?”

She points to the book’s illustrations, defines words and concepts, and asks open–ended and follow–up questions to extend conversations with her students. Such seemingly simple techniques could be the key to improving young children’s reading comprehension, a foundation for later academic excellence. They also are the direct results of research by Barbara Wasik, literacy expert and Temple professor of early education.


Wasik has discovered that exposure to rich language early in life sets children up for academic success or failure long before they enter a classroom. There is sound evidence that a strong vocabulary is linked to higher reading scores and therefore, better comprehension and long–term success in school.

For example, a 2010 study followed public school students from third grade through high school. The study found that students who exceeded their reading grade level in third grade were more likely to enter college, and that third–grade reading levels correlated with reading skills in eighth grade.*

But most students are not reading at levels that would predict sufficient academic progress as they grow. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, on average, 25 percent of the nation’s children cannot read at basic levels of proficiency by fourth grade. But among children living in poverty—based on an annual income below $22,000 for a family of four—that number jumps to 50 percent. The U.S. Department of Education also has found that children from low–income households enter kindergarten with foundational reading skills that are a full standard deviation below their middle–income peers.

Gaining vocabulary is particularly challenging for children living in poverty: Research shows that those children have fewer conversations with linguistically skilled adults, restricting their opportunities to use and hear language.

“Children learn new words by being exposed to language in meaningful contexts, and by having to use language in purposeful and functional ways,” says Wasik, PNC Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Education at Temple. When children do not have context for the words they learn, they have a lower capacity for comprehension and vocabulary skills.

School does not necessarily compensate for the limited vocabulary such children might encounter at home. A recent study concluded that 4–year–olds enrolled in Head Start—comprehensive services for children living below the poverty threshold—spend a startling 59 percent of free–play activity in silence.

Further, the high school dropout rate for low–income students is double that of youth from middle–income families, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.**

So Wasik focuses on early language development in Head Start programs. Active student–teacher exchanges are at the core of her work, designed to enrich preschoolers´ vocabulary and improve their ability to read and comprehend in elementary school and beyond. Wasik´s early–intervention approach helps level the playing field for children from low–income families, providing them with more early opportunities to build a better vocabulary and increasing their chances to progress through elementary school and high school successfully.

“I have seen my kids blossom, not only in terms of literacy skills, but also in terms of self–esteem.”
-- Sherette Jacobs, teacher, St. Paul Community Head Start

In the preschool classrooms where Wasik says vocabulary foundation begins, teachers usually talk much more than they converse—a result of the need to retain control of classes that are often overcrowded.

“Imagine you have to manage 30 preschoolers each day—it’s easy to fall into a pattern of giving directions and monitoring behavior,” says Annemarie Hindman, assistant professor of curriculum, instruction and technology in education, and Wasik’s colleague. “You may not be thinking about how to get the kids talking.”


Before joining Temple in 2006, Wasik conducted research at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Initially, she was interested in tutoring first through third graders who were having difficulty reading at grade level. But she soon realized that even in first grade, those students lacked the vocabulary and basic language skills they needed to begin reading.

She determined that intervention would be more effective if it started earlier, so she connected with a Baltimore preschool center, where she examined its instructors’ teaching styles.

She remembers one preschool student in particular. “When I asked him what he was eating, he was able to answer ‘sandwich,’ but when I asked him what was in the sandwich, it became clear that he didn’t know the words for ‘ham’ or ‘cheese.’”

That is when Wasik had an epiphany. “The teachers were not using specific vocabulary words with their kids,” she continues. “They were saying, ‘Please bring this over there,’ rather than saying, ‘Please put the crayons back in the art center.’ If a teacher assumes a child knows the name of a common object, that misconception can affect his or her comprehension skills down the road.”

Since classroom conversations that promote language development are often a part of the natural rhythm in class, Wasik and her colleagues developed a training model for teachers that weaves language support into a wide range of daily activities. The intensive professional development program, called Exceptional Coaching for Early Language and Literacy (ExCELL), is extremely successful—and its results are inspiring.

When a teacher enters training, he or she attends three–hour group training sessions to learn to support conversations in the classroom, encourage vocabulary development and listen actively. When the teacher returns to the classroom, he or she begins implementing the strategies learned in the group training sessions. A coach then observes and critiques his or her success at adapting Wasik’s techniques. The teacher returns to training to learn new information and strategies, and the cycle begins again.

To train as many teachers as they can, the researchers have turned to web–based technology. In addition, they are adding an ESL component to improve language and reading skills among students for whom English is a second language.

“There is an assumption that kids are adept at learning new languages on their own,” says Carol Scheffner–Hammer, professor of communication science and ExCELL collaborator. “The reality is, it takes non–English–speaking preschoolers in Head Start programs about two or three years to catch up to their English–speaking peers.”

To expand the program’s reach, Wasik and her team recently received a prestigious four–year, $3 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Development grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant supports relatively untested, promising and innovative projects. Of the nearly 600 i3 grant applications received this year, only 23 projects were funded.


Teachers who have learned and implemented Wasik’s techniques have witnessed dramatic changes in student behavior.

“My kids are actually walking around, rhyming playfully to themselves and creating alliterative phrases at 3 years old,” Trinette Ingram says. “That is huge.”

Sherette Jacobs, another Head Start teacher, noticed the results when she took her students and their families to the National Aquarium in Baltimore after the class studied ocean life. Not only were the students able to identify the aquatic animals for their parents; they also could converse about the animals’ appearances and behaviors.

“I have seen my kids blossom, not only in terms of literacy skills, but also in terms of self–esteem,” Jacobs says.

In one case, note Ingram and Mary Alice Bond, Wasik’s research partner at Johns Hopkins University, a child named Unique struggled with delayed speech development. When Bond and Unique read a book called Feast For 10, the child was only able to point to the illustrations for the vocabulary words. But when the two began acting out the book, Unique was more engaged. Bond asked her what she would need to make pancakes and narrated her actions for her. From time to time, Unique would say, “I’m cooking pancakes.” A complete sentence was a big breakthrough, for both Unique and Bond. Within a few weeks, she was able to retell the story from Feast For 10. Ingram and her assistant then became devoted to having one–on–one conversations with students.


In 2011, Wasik and Hindman found that teachers who had participated in the ExCELL program created higher–quality classroom environments than those who did not receive training, and that the children in those classrooms performed significantly better in receptive vocabulary and phonological sensitivity.

The results support the idea that intensive, ongoing professional teacher development can begin to bridge the pre-literacy gap between young children in poverty and their more affluent peers.

“If a child knows what a ‘herd’ or a ‘flock’ is, then when it’s time to decode the word, knowing the concept is half the battle,” Wasik says. “The word will have meaning to the child within the context of what he or she is trying to read.”

Under the current ExCELL model, one coach meets with about 20 teachers per year. Wasik hopes to triple that number using the new web–based format. The program will be piloted this fall in Baltimore and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at sites that target both urban and ESL populations. But in the future, Wasik says, she expects to be able to reach Head Start teachers located at greater distances—even those in rural communities.

“We are excited to give even more preschoolers a head start on success in school.”

Kim Fischer, CLA ’94, is assistant director of news communications at Temple.


* Lesnick, J., Goerge, R.M., Smithgall, C. and Gwyne, J. Reading on Grade Level in Third Grade: How Is it Related to High School Performance and College Enrollment? Chicago: Chapin Hall at University of Chicago. 2010.

** Chapman, C., Laird, J., Ifill, N. and Kewalramani, A. Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972–2009 (NCES 2012–006). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics. 2011.