Throwback (2010): Supporting preschool vocabulary growth with “talking buddies”


We know that it’s important to support breadth and depth of vocabulary development in our school-aged kids.

(We’ve talked about this before here and here.)

But, did you know that it might be even more important if you work with preschoolers, specifically? There’s actually evidence that typical preschool classrooms lack quantity and quality of talk (Wells & Wells, 1984; Wilcox-Herzog & Kontos, 1998). And, kids who have lower verbal abilities are talked to less in the preschool setting (!!!!) (Kontos & Wilcox-Herzog, 1997). So, obviously if you’re a preschool-based SLP, vocabulary development definitely should be on your radar!

This study provides a simple, yet effective, way to embed word learning in everyday conversation. If you’re looking for a low stress, low prep, naturalistic method of teaching kids new words, this is it.

For the intervention, the researchers trained undergrads to be “talking buddies”. The buddies worked with 3- and 4-year-olds in pairs to…

use recasts to expose them to rare words,

Child: Look, that one’s really small!

Adult: Small! What’s another word for small?....How about tiny?

expand and restate their utterances,

Child: Red car go.

Adult: The red car is going fast!

and ask open-ended questions to encourage further conversation.

Child: See this?

Adult: I do see that! Can you tell me more about it?

After talking with the buddies for 25 minutes a week for 10 weeks, the kids who received the intervention (even those with initially low vocabulary skills!) improved in the number and variety of words that they used.

And, possibly the best part? The talking buddies only received 4 hours of training in general techniques to stimulate conversation as well as the specific strategies that were used to introduce new vocabulary. For this study, undergrads worked with the kids, but it would likely be just as easy to train day care providers, classroom aides, or preschool teachers. Any of these professionals could include these focused conversations in their interactions with small groups of kids during snack time, on the playground, or during center activities. This type of easy-to-implement, inter-professional collaboration is exactly what we need to make sure that the preschoolers on our caseloads are achieving their vocabulary goals!


Ruston, H. & Schwanenflugel, P. (2010). Effects of a conversation intervention on the expressive vocabulary development of prekindergarten children. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. doi: 10.1044/0161-1461(2009/08-0100).

Dual language narrative intervention for Spanish-speaking preschoolers

To succeed in school, students have to be able to read English text, and to do so, they have to know the vocabulary and understand narrative language. This may seem simple for us proficient English readers, but for children who are learning English as a second language, reading can be a significant obstacle to academic success. These students are often not equipped with the vocabulary and narrative language to understand the text necessary to succeed in school.

So how do we combat this? Past researchers have found that dual language instruction (i.e., instruction in both languages) can lead to positive outcomes in students’ second language. The authors of this study aimed to add to this research and investigated a Spanish–English narrative intervention on the vocabulary and narrative skills of Spanish-speaking preschoolers who were learning English. 

Eight preschoolers who participated in Head Start programs received the intervention in small groups. Half the lessons were provided in Spanish and half in English, with each lesson following the same instructional format with seven activities. The activities included listening to stories and looking at illustrations, learning new vocabulary words and referencing them throughout the stories, naming the parts of stories, playing games related to the stories and vocabulary words, and re-telling stories.  

After 24 lessons, all children improved their English narrative retell performances—that is, they were able to better retell a story that the instructor just told in English. No changes were seen in their Spanish re-tells since all of the children were already at a developmentally appropriate level. Most of the children also improved their knowledge of the English target vocabulary words, with only a few of the children learning the target Spanish words.

Despite the overall positive findings, the authors did point out that, “it is unknown whether the Spanish lessons facilitated or accelerated children’s gain in English.” It is important to consider that English-only instruction may have had a similar or larger impact on English language outcomes compared to dual language intervention. From this study, we cannot say that one is better than the other. What can we take-away? Dual language intervention can have a positive impact on the English language skills of Spanish-speaking preschoolers, while maintaining or possibly improving their Spanish language skills.  


Spencer, T. D., Petersen, D. B., Restrepo, M. A., Thompson, M., & Gutierrez Arvizu, M. N. (2018). The effect of Spanish and English narrative intervention on the language skills of young dual language learners. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 1-16. doi:10.1177/0271121418779439

Throwback (2014): Narrative intervention supports language skills

We review research on narratives a lot—probably because narrative skills are: (1) needed in both academic and everyday social interactions, (2) featured in common core standards, and (3) supported by evidence for both assessment and treatment of language skills. If you’re not convinced yet, here’s one more treatment study supporting their use—in an open access (WOO!) article from 2014.


Adlof et al. tested their “Structured Narrative Retell Instruction” (SNRI) in a small feasibility study. A small group of preschool–1st grade children (ages 3–6) were recruited from a center serving low-income families. Children received either the SNRI or a control treatment of “code-focused literacy instruction” (identifying sounds and letters, pointing out rhymes, etc.) in small group sessions lasting 40 min, 2 times per week for 6 weeks. Both conditions used published children’s storybooks, and the children got to take them home.

In SNRI sessions, clinicians read the books and: (1) led children in think-alouds, (2) pointed out story grammar elements (setting, characters, problem, etc.), and (3) defined and discussed challenging vocabulary words. Then, clinicians led the group in answering comprehension questions and assisted children in retelling the story. See the article’s supplemental materials for an example lesson.

After the intervention, children in the SNRI group showed large gains on measures of vocabulary, narrative skill, and grammar, while children in the control group showed gains on fewer measures. This is a small, initial study, so we have to interpret the results with caution. However, the results were promising and add to the evidence showing narrative intervention improves children’s language skills.


Adlof, S. M., McLeod, A., & Leftwich, B. (2014). Structured narrative retell instruction for young children from low socioeconomic backgrounds: A preliminary study of feasibility. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 391. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00391

Language of school and SES matter in standardized testing of bilinguals

Assessing children from diverse language backgrounds can be a challenge, but at least for Spanish speakers, SLPs have a decent array of resources available—including a growing number of standardized tests. The CELF–4S is one of these, designed to diagnose language disorders in Spanish speakers (mono- or bilingual) from 5–21 years old. It’s not just a Spanish translation of the English CELF, but is written specifically for speakers of Spanish. Great, right?


The problem is that the norming sample for this test was somewhat smaller than what’s recommended, and so the norms in the test manual may not be valid for all groups. Previously, there have been disagreements between the test creators and other researchers about whether you need separate norms for monolingual and bilingual speakers (in the test manual, they’re together).

This study focused on children from 5–7 years old with multiple risk factors for underperformance on standardized language tests. These included low SES (low-income family and parents with lower levels of education) and attending an English-only school, which favors English to the detriment of the home language. The researchers gave the CELF–4S to a huge group (656) of these kids, a lot more per age bracket than the test was originally normed on. The average Core Language Score was 83.57—more than one standard deviation below the mean, which is given in the manual as the cut-off score for identifying a language disorder. In Table 3, you can see how the results break down by subtest and age group. And, yes. You read that right. Given the published test norms, over half of these kids would appear to have DLD.

Wow. This is clearly not okay. So what do we do?

It looks like we need separate test norms for low-SES children in English schools. The authors used a subset of the original sample (still large at 299, 28 of whom had been found to have a language disorder via multiple methods of assessment) to look into the test’s diagnostic accuracy. That cut-off score of 85? Yeah, it resulted in so many false positives (specificity of only 65%) that it wasn’t clinically useful. The researchers computed an adjusted cut-off score of 78 for this group, which has acceptable diagnostic sensitivity and specificity (85% and 80%, respectively).

The big takeaway is this: Use the CELF–4S very cautiously. Understand the limitations of the normative sample used to standardize the test. If you are working with kids matching the profile of this paper’s sample (5-7 years old, low-SES/maternal education, and in English-only schools), keep that adjusted cut-off score of 78 in mind. And above all, remember that standardized testing alone is not a good way to assess young English learners.


Barragan, B., Castilla-Earls, A., Martinez-Nieto, L., Restrepo, M. A., & Gray, S. (2018). Performance of Low-Income Dual Language Learners Attending English-Only Schools on the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals–Fourth Edition, Spanish. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1044/2017_LSHSS-17-0013.

Early predictors of literacy—what are they, and where do they lead?

Two large studies this month address early predictors of reading achievement.

In a study of 251 preschoolers, Puglisi et al. examined the impact of home literacy environment on child literacy outcomes. They found that the amount of storybook exposure at home in the early childhood years, alone, was not a major predictor of literacy outcomes at age 5 ½—important, because previous studies have led us to predict that it may be. Instead maternal language skill was the strongest predictor. Direct literacy instruction provided by the parents (that is, parents’ report of “…how often they taught their children to recognize letters, read words, and write words…”) was found to be a very small predictor as well. So this may mean that simply telling parents to “read more” may not be adequate to improve child literacy outcomes. Importantly, the authors note that, “…the measures of storybook exposure used in this study do not reflect the quality of parent–child interactions around storybooks,” and suggest that if quality were measured, results may differ. They posit that, “…much of what has traditionally been attributed to the home literacy environment may be a proxy for parental skills.”

In a study that extends to older children, Northrup pulls data from a large longitudinal study to examine, “…the differences between struggling readers who overcome their early difficulties and struggling readers who continue to have difficulties,” (n = 7746; kids followed from Kindergarten entry through 8th grade). Of the thousands of students who had low literacy performance at school entry, just over half of them caught up with peers in literacy achievement by 8th grade. They found that in Kindergarten in 1st grade, the “…students who begin with high-level skills continue to outpace and out-achieve their peers,” during that time, building their literacy skills faster than their lower-performing peers. However, by 3rd through 8th grade, there was a different pattern—low-performing students continued to steadily build their literacy skills, with some fully catching up to peers, but others never quite matching the skill level of the peers that started Kindergarten with good early literacy skills.

Factors associated with reading achievement across age groups included: “…household SES, a child’s approaches to learning, prior reading achievement… time spent reading at home and parental expectations of the child’s eventual educational attainment.” (Note that approaches to learning refers to, “… a student’s ability to pay attention, complete tasks, work independently, and follow classroom rules.”) Instructional practices that impacted achievement varied per grade level, with phonics and whole-language instruction mattering in Kindergarten, comprehension instruction mattering in 5th grade, and academic demand mattering in 8th grade.

Overall, this study provides evidence that, given the right instruction, “…struggling students continue to develop their reading skills…”. The authors state, “Although the majority of programs and policies target early readers… this suggests that even if students continue to struggle in reading in upper elementary and middle school, it is still worth the schools’ time and effort to invest in remedial instruction…” and that “…although child and home factors are important to the recovery of struggling readers, with appropriate intervention, schools and teachers can aid in the recovery and possibly even overcome social disadvantages that struggling readers often have.”

Northrop, L. (2017). Breaking the Cycle: Cumulative Disadvantage in Literacy. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1002/rrq.195

Puglisi, M.L., Hulme, C., Hamilton, L.G., & Snowling, M.J. (2017). The Home Literacy Environment Is a Correlate, but Perhaps Not a Cause, of Variations in Children’s Language and Literacy Development. Scientific Studies of Reading. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/10888438.2017.1346660