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Quality of Childcare Program Affects Language Development

Children in low-quality childcare have less advanced language development that progresses at a slower rate// than the language development of children in high-quality care.

This new research examines how the quality of childcare affects the development of specific language components.

Researchers collected data from three childcare sites and evaluated each on quality indicators known in the field as the “iron triangle” – the number of children per class, the teachers’ education levels and the child-to-caregiver ratio. The lowest quality site had a large class size, less teacher education and a significantly higher child-to-caregiver ratio – one caregiver per eight children; the ratios in the other sites were one to two and one to three.

“Language is a critical aspect of school readiness and pre-literacy skills,” said lead author Lynne Vernon-Feagans, the William C. Friday distinguished professor of Child and Family Studies in UNC’s School of Education and a faculty fellow at FPG. “Research shows that early vocabulary and language skills are related to later standardized reading test scores.”

In every measurement used, children in higher-quality childcare significantly outperformed those receiving the lowest quality care. And the quality made a greater difference over time, as children in higher-quality care acquired key markers more rapidly than the children in lowest quality care. This was especially true for vocabulary; children in higher-quality care used twice as many words by age 3 as those in the lowest quality care.

All of the children came from dual-earner families with economic and educational advantages that would typically put their children at lower risk for language development delays. Children were evaluated from the time they entered care, about 4 months of age, through age 3. Unlike previous studies that relied on teacher rating scales and standardized test, children were observed in their natural environment.

“These results suggest that policymakers and educators should promote smaller teacher/child ratios and teacher classes in child development to promote better language interactions between young children and their caregivers,” Vernon-Feagans said. “Parental income and education were not factors in this research. It was the quality of care that was related to children’s language development.”

Each child was videotaped at ages 18 months, 2 years and 3 years while playing in a separate room with a familiar adult. Children had 15 minutes of free play with a snack break halfway through. The snack was designed to encourage common food-related words from the child.

Researchers transcribed and analyzed the tapes for syntax and semantics. Indicators included number and types of questions asked; number and types of pronouns used; number and types of negative words used; number and types of bound morphemes (prefixes and suffixes such as –s, ing, -ed, -er, and pre-); average number of words used per utterance; and number and variety of words.

Because frequent ear infections might impact language delay, children were examined weekly by a pediatric nurse to rule out infections. All children were tested repeatedly through the three-year study. None were eliminated due to sensori-neural hearing loss and there were no effects of chronic ear infections on the basic language constructs measured in this study.


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