By the age of four, a child in a low socioeconomic
status (SES) family will be exposed to thirty million fewer words than a child
from a higher SES family (Hart & Risley, 1995). Research suggests low SES
parents’ conversations with their children is less frequent and of a poorer
quality (Rowe, 2013). Early language development is a strong predictor of academic
and employment trajectories and can lead to the continuance of the poverty
cycle (Nash, Lowe & Leah, 2012). It is important interventions target
parental behaviour that improves language development, which is a strong
predictor of academic and employment trajectories. This essay will argue that
dialogic reading using the Reach Out and Read programme can be used as a community
intervention to change low SES parent behaviour. Dialogic reading interventions
can significantly impact a child’s early language development including
prelinguistic skills, vocabulary, grammatical, phonological, narrative and
literacy development (Mendive, Lissi, Bakeman, & Reyes, 2017). These
impacts have long-term and wider implications for society. Better academic and
employment trajectories stemming from better language development can enable children
born into poverty to break from the poverty cycle. In an increasingly
technological world, this essay also discusses a novel idea of using DR
interventions with electronic books.

A large body of evidence has been conducted on
the way parents from different SES talk with their children and how this
affects language development (Mendive, Lissi, Bakeman, & Reyes, 2017; Hoff,
Laursen & Tardiff, 2002; Hart & Risley, 1995; Hoff, 2006). A study by
Hart and Risley (1992) compared mothers of higher and lower SES and found that children
from low SES families were exposed to 153,000 fewer words per week. Also, when low
SES parents did talk to their children they used less variety of vocabulary,
asked fewer questions and used more direct instructions rather than
conversational type language (Hart & Risley, 1995). Therefore, low SES
parents not only provide less child-directed speech but also speech of a lower
quality (Rowe, 2013; Cartmill et al., 2013; Goldin-Meadow et al., 2014). Low
SES children also received 84,000 more instances of prohibitions and 144,000 fewer
encouragements by the age of four compared to high SES children. These parental
behaviours have been found to significantly impact a child’s early language development
including prelinguistic skills, vocabulary, grammatical, phonological,
narrative and literacy development (Mendive, Lissi, Bakeman, & Reyes, 2017).
This research has led to what Hart and Risley (2003) have labelled the
30-million-word gap. Whereas children from higher SES families have accumulated
experience with almost forty-five million words by age four, low SES families
have had experience with only thirteen million words. Thus, there is a significant
link between how parents talk to their child early in development, and the
number of words in their vocabulary. This suggests that child-directed speech has
a large influence on language development.

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The observed disparities between high and low
SES parents may be due to differences in knowledge about language development.
Evidence suggests higher SES parents are more aware of how child-directed
speech can lead to increased vocabulary and more efficient language acquisition
(Rowe, 2008). In contrast, lower SES mothers have weaker self-efficacy,
believing their actions are unlikely to influence their child’s language
development (Rowe, 2008). However, it is important to note that as well as
differences observed between socioeconomic groups, large differences have also
been found within socioeconomic
groups (Zauche, Thul, Mahoney & Stapel-Wax, 2016). How parents talk with
their child is more important than their SES (Pilinger & Wood, 2014).

            Although this research illustrates
the short-term impacts of parental behaviour on language development, in order
to fully address the extent of the problem it is useful to address the long-term
and wider implications of this
word gap. Poor language development can lead to the continuation of the
poverty cycle (Douck, 2013). This is because language development is predictive
of educational trajectories in primary and secondary school (Burchinal,
Peisner-Feinberg, Pianta & Howes, 2002). For example, vocabulary at five years old is one of
the best predictors of how many GCSEs a child will obtain at sixteen years old (Nash, Lowe
& Leah, 2012). Poor academic qualifications lead to reduced employment
opportunities, as well as lower cognitive and social competence in later life
(Engle et al., 2007). With poor employment opportunities, this makes it more
difficult for the individual to break from the poverty cycle, and thus their future
family continues in this cycle. This has wider implications for society, as
poor employment opportunities are associated with crime and health problems
leading to a social and economic burden (Nash, Low & Leah, 2012). Indeed,
sixty-five percent of youth offenders have significant speech, language and
communication difficulties (Nash, Lowe & Leah, 2012).

In order to break the poverty cycle, it is
imperative that interventions target parental behaviour to encourage more child-directed
speech, and speech of a higher quality. One intervention that does this is
called dialogic reading (DR), also known as book sharing or carer child reading,
initially developed by Whitehurst and colleagues (1988). DR is based on
Vygotsky’s (1978) theories, in which child language development occurs within
the context of a social interaction with a knowledgeable other, usually a
parent. During DR, parents jointly read a book with their child and scaffold
the child’s language learning by initiating, supporting and encouraging the
acquisition of new words and concepts (Ganotice, Downing, Mak, Chan, & Lee,
2017). They do this by using evocative or interactive behaviours, including
following the child’s interest, asking open-ended questions, expanding on the
child’s responses (recasting) and providing encouragement. Parents also use
‘decontextualized talk’, which refers to speaking about concepts removed from
here and now (Rowe, 2013). This includes pretend, narrative and explanatory
talk with their child. DR interventions often use two strategies so that
parents can implement DR with their child: CROWD (Completion prompts, Recall
prompts, Open-ended prompts, Wh-prompts and Distance); and PEER (Prompt,
Evaluate, Expand and Repeat) (Zevenbergen, Worth, Dretto & Travers, 2016).

An example of a DR community intervention is Reach
Out and Read (ROR; 2018a) which is a non-profit organisation in the US. ROR
provides free books to low SES families at regular paediatric six-month
check-ups from six months to five years. A total of ten free books can be
received. ROR also provide training to doctors who encourage parents to read to
their children using effective techniques. The cost per child for the
organisation is $20 a year; $100 for the full five years. Research on ROR has
shown that it can effectively change parental behaviour and improves a child’s
language outcomes (ROR, 2018b). For example, parents are more likely to read
with their children, at least three days a week (Golova, Alario, Vivier,
Rodriguez & High, 1999) and parents report that reading is their favourite
activity (High, LaGasse, Becker, Ahlgren & Gardner, 2000). These have led
to positive impacts for the child such as increased vocabulary (Sharif, Rieber,
Ozuah & Reiber, 2002), improved literacy skills (Diener, Hobson-Rohrer
& Byington, 2012) and a “dose effect” of ROR and higher expressive and
receptive language score (Theriot et al., 2003).

Indeed, there is a huge body of evidence that shows DR interventions benefit
children’s language development and they are significantly better than typical adult-child
picture-book reading (Zevenbergen, Worth, Dretto & Travers, 2016). DR has been
shown to benefit children’s receptive and expressive vocabulary (Sénéchal, 1997), abstract
language (van Kleeck, Gillam, Hamilton & McGrath, 1997), syntactic quality
and complexity of sentence construction (Bus & Van IJzendoorn, 1992),
emergent literacy skills (Lonigan, Anthony, Bloomfield, Dyer & Samwell, 1999),
and oral narrative skills (Lever & Sénéchal, 2011). Furthermore, research has shown
that these benefits are maintained in the long-term (Ergül, Ako?lu, Karaman
& Sarica, 2017), for example at six months (Whithurst et al., 1994) and one
year (Dickinson & Smith, 1994). Indeed, DR has been called a ‘vocabulary
acquisition device’ (Ninio, 1983). Moreover, research shows that low SES
mothers can be effectively trained to engage in high-quality DR (WWC, 2007; Morgan
& Goldstein, 2004; Lonigan, Purpura, Wilson, Walker & Clancy-Menchetti,
2013; Whitehurst et al., 1994). The benefits of DR have also been found in a
range of settings such as libraries, day care, community centres, homes and
schools (Fung, Chow & McBride-Chang, 2005; Huebner, 2000;
Vadlez-Menchaca & Whitehurst, 1992; Whitehurst et al., 1994), as
well as cross-culturally in the US, Canada, Turkey, Bangladesh, Mexico and Hong
Kong (Chow, McBride-Chang & Cheung,
2010; Elias, Hay, Homel & Freiberg, 2006; Fielding-Barnsley & Purdie,
2003; Kotaman, 2013; Opel, Ameer & Aboud, 2009; Vadlez-Menchaca & Whitehurst,
1992). Recently, DR interventions have also been effectively adapted for
children with disabilities such as autistic children (Fleury & Schwartz,
2017). Therefore, DR is not context dependent and can be successfully applied
to a diverse low SES community to change parent behaviour in order to improve
early language development.

The impacts of these benefits are also long-term
and relate back to the poverty cycle discussed earlier. DR interventions
improve language development, leading to better educational and employment trajectories,
allowing the child to break from the poverty cycle. It is also likely that
these children will partake in child-directed speech of a higher quality and
quantity to their own children, as a result of improved knowledge or simply
because that is what their parent did with them. Therefore, DR community
interventions not only have a positive impact on one generation but continue to
have a positive impact for generations to come.

However, there are issues with the evaluations
of DR. Firstly, improvements to children’s language ability are most commonly
measured through parent report.
This may simply reflect an increased parent awareness of the child’s language
ability, rather than a true improvement. In low SES families, this effect may
be greater as mothers are likely to have a much lower baseline awareness of the
importance of child language development (Vallay, Murray, Tomlinson &
Cooper, 2015). Another limitation is the cumulative cost of books required for
DR can be expensive after the intervention has ended. A survey by Childwise
(2016) found parents spent on average £96 a year on books. This may be unsustainable
for low SES families. Further, during ROR children can obtain up to ten free
books, however it is likely that parents will want to buy more books for their
child in this time, as well as after the intervention has ended. A more
sustainable platform for a DR community intervention could be eBooks.

EBooks are electronic versions of printed
books and can be read on smartphones, tablets and other electronic devices.
EBooks are becoming more cheaply available in the digital age. On Amazon (2018a)
there are sixty-thousand eBooks for children below two years old, which cost as
little as fifty pence each, and ready for immediate download. The device that
eBooks can be read on are also becoming less costly too, with a Kindle e-Reader
costing £59 (Amazon, 2018b). This amounts to less than the £96 parents spend on
paper books each year (Childwise, 2016) and less than the $100 dollars spent
for each child over the five years in the ROR intervention (Reach Out and Read,
2018). Moreover, as well as being more cost-effective, downloading eBooks is
also more accessible than multiple paper books for many low SES communities
that are often in hard to reach and rural areas. Further, half of the
population already owns a portable electronic device to download and read
eBooks on (Shuler, 2009) and Shuler (2009) predicts that mobile technologies
will soon reach all children of the world due to their relatively low cost and
accessibility. Hanna (2016) argues that in low SES communities, technological
advancements are steadily changing children’s ways of learning because they are
growing up in a world with electronic technologies from birth. These effects
are likely to continue and therefore the potential of using DR interventions with
eBooks should be explored. Further, there are currently eBooks marketed to facilitate
language development in children from as young as one month old (Christakis
& Garrison, 2005).  

A recent study into the effects of a DR
intervention for young children compared eBooks to paper books (Parish-Morris,
Mahajan, Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff & Collins, 2013). They found that the outcomes of DR were
negatively affected by the presence of electronic features in the eBooks. Firstly,
children found understanding the deeper story structure more challenging when
using eBooks. Indeed, eBooks have found to foster more non-content related
interactions and parents use less decontextualized talk (Chiong, Ree, Takeuchi
& Eriskon 2012). Personalisation such as this is consistent with the idea
that young children require contingent verbal responses to be able to
comprehend a story, which is important for language development (Towson,
Fettig, Fleury & Abarca, 2017). Secondly, eBooks were distracting for the
children, perhaps due to sounds or images. This again may detract from dialogic
interactions with the parent such as expansion, recasting and parent questions.
This interference effect is consistent with findings on other electronic
learning tasks, such as music during an infant television learning task (Barr,
Shuck, Salerno, Atkinson & Linebarger, 2010). Thirdly, distancing prompts
from parents were heard less when using eBooks. Prompts from parents are
important, as this leads to increased verbalisation by the child and improved
vocabulary. Finally, children are inflexible learners (Courage & Troseth,
2016) and may find it difficult to apply learning from the screen to the real
world.

However, the parents in this study were not
trained in DR using eBooks. According to Connell, Lauricella and Wartella
(2015), the effectiveness of electronic devices like eBooks may still rely on
parent scaffolding. Researchers, therefore, argue that if interventions teach
parents to use eBooks to facilitate language development and if eBooks are
well-designed they can be effective (Hanna, 2016). Indeed, well-designed
electronic platforms have been found to facilitate word learning and emergent literacy
(Korat & Shamir, 2012; Myers, LeWitt, Gallo & Maselli, 2017). Further
adaptions must be made for children from low SES families as these children
have found to be more distracted by eBook features compared to higher SES
families (Takacs, Swart & Bus, 2015). This may be because low SES children
have less stimulating family environments which mean that interactive features
in the eBook have a greater detrimental effect on their language development (Takacs,
Swart & Bus, 2015). Therefore, the potential benefits of using eBooks in a
community DR intervention may be greater if publishers and designers apply
research to eBooks. 

In conclusion, DR effectively changes
parental behaviour to improve children’s early language development in low SES
communities. Through changing parenting behaviour, DR benefits children’s
prelinguistic skills, vocabulary, grammatical, phonological, narrative and
literacy development. These positively impact a child’s education, psychosocial
and employment success in later life, and help a child break from the poverty
cycle with benefits to wider society. Although eBooks potentially provide a
more accessible and sustainable platform than paper books, in their current
format they are not beneficial to early language development. In order to be
effective in the future, writers, publishers, and manufacturers must incorporate research to design
eBooks that can effectively support a child’s language development.