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This qualitative study done by Sénéchal and Cornell (1993) was designed to assess whether preschool children learn new vocabulary from a single reading of a storybook and whether conversational devices used by parents during joint book reading facilitate vocabulary growth. Eighty 4-year-old and eighty 5-year-old children listened to a story. The narrative was constructed to introduce 10 target words not typically known to young children. Children were pretested for their knowledge of the words, were posttested immediately after the reading, and were posttested again one week later. Dependent measures included tests of expressive and receptive vocabulary. The two age groups were able to recognize approximately the same number of words on the immediate posttest. After one week however, 5 year-old children remembered more words than 4 year-old children. Although receptive vocabulary learning was robust, there was no evidence of differential learning of vocabulary under different conditions, including active participation. A single reading of the storybook was not sufficient to enhance children's expressive vocabulary.
The Critical Review
According to Ratner, Gleason & Narasimhan, psycholinguistic is a field of linguistic that studies the mental process of how humans acquire and use language (1998). One of the three major concerns in psycholinguistic is acquisition to which its main focus is how children acquire language (Clark & Clark, 1997). Language acquisition in children has long been an interest of many linguists that it has also become one of the many famous areas of study in the field. Among these studies, one particular study entitled "Vocabulary Acquisition through Shared Reading Experiences" written by Monique Sénéchal and Edward H. Cornell (1993) has managed to grab our attention and to which we have collectively chosen as the article that we are going to write a critical review on.
In the introduction part, Sénéchal and Cornell quote the remarkable ability of a typical 6 year old in learning new words based on findings of several researchers. It seems that special attention has been given to the studies of the relationship between book-reading and vocabulary acquisition where many believed that book-reading helps children learn new words effectively since illustrations help them to narrow down word meaning. Apparently, interactions between parents and children during book-reading facilitate the learning process of the children (Holdaway, 1979; Heath, 1980; Snow, 1983). Despite this seemingly obvious statement, the positive effects of these interactions have yet to be proven correct because clear-cut reading style still enables children to learn something from the reading (Sénéchal & Cornell, 1993).
As a justification of their study, the authors mentioned the shortcoming in Whitehurst et al. (1988) study where the main issue was whether discrepancies in parental behavior during book-reading influence children's language progress. The focus was too broad making it impossible to determine which parental behaviors contributed to children's learning. The authors also decided to pursue the suggestion proposed by earlier studies on whether certain conversational devices used during joint book-reading could facilitate children's learning. These became the foundation in formulating their research questions which are:
Do children learn new vocabulary from a single reading of a storybook?
What is the relative contribution of specific teaching behaviors that parents use when they read to their children?
Their hypotheses are:
Older children were expected to learn more vocabulary items than younger children because the effectiveness of adult reading practices was expected to interact with the age of the children.
Reading the text verbatim was expected to be the least effective reading practice for both age groups because children were not encouraged to verbalize during the reading.
In our opinion, this study is relevant because the area of vocabulary acquisition has long been an interest of many linguists. To be more specific, storybook reading is one of the most frequently recommended practices for building preschool children's early language and literacy competencies (Teale, 1984). Despite the large amount of literature published on the relationship between reading and vocabulary acquisition, linguists have yet to reach a consensus whether certain reading styles like recasts, questionings or reading word-for-word exert some control on children's vocabulary acquisition.
Sénéchal and Cornell has decided to select four types of parental behavior to be studied which are the use of what and where questions, the use of recasts, reading the text as presented but emphasizing certain words by repeating them, and reading the text as presented in the author's own words. The selected parental behaviors were studied previously in different reports. From the way we see it, the combination of these variables is a fairly good approach considering it tested more possibilities and narrows down the exact parental behavior which was believed to have some bearing on children's language development than previous research.
The subjects who completed this experiment were eighty 4- and eighty 5-year-olds recruited from local daycares, nursery schools and kindergartens. We believe that the authors chose children within this age group is because in addition to being eager learners, children aged 4 and 5 can comprehend speech reasonably than that of children aged 3 or less. According to Steinberg and Sciarini (2006), children within this age group have high level of induction (learning by self discovery), motor skills (the use of muscle in performing certain skills), and memory. They can learn and pick up information easily because of these intellectual factors as compared to children aged 3 or less.
Sénéchal and Cornell also interviewed the parents and selected middle-class or upper-class families who use English at home to reduce the discrepancy in home book-reading experiences. However, the authors did not go into details on why are there discrepancies in book-reading experiences between middle or upper-class families with those of lower-class families. Based from our readings, we believe that children from lower income families heard a paucity of vocabulary that included rich content. This is because; parents of lower socioeconomic status tend to have difficulties in providing children with responsive interactions because of life stresses, psychological distress, and poor parental role models (Conger, McCarty, Yang, Lahey, & Kropp, 1984).
Just in Passing (Bonners, 1989) was selected as the storybook to be used in reading because it contained a repetition of an episode: A person saw someone yawn, and, in turn, yawned while being observed still by another person (Sénéchal & Cornell, 1993). Since the picture book did not have a text, the authors constructed their own text to be fitted in the book and introduce about ten words which are thought to be unfamiliar among 4- and 5-year-old children. This is quite beneficial because under these circumstances, the authors get to insert 10 target words of their choice which they intend for the children to acquire. The repetition of the episode also means that the target words are introduced repeatedly. Sénéchal and Cornell then evaluated the frequency of occurrence of the ten words in adult reading materials to make certain that these words were probably not known to children. Unfortunately, they did not discuss further how exactly they did the evaluation and whether they mean adult written materials comprehensible by children or adult written materials in general.
Quoting Sénéchal and Cornell, "the experiment was a 2 (Age: 4 vs. 5) x 4 (Reading practice: questioning vs. recasting vs. word repetition vs. verbatim reading) factorial design" (1993, p. 364). A pretest for the children's knowledge of the synonyms of target words was carried out before the reading. After the reading, an immediate posttest was executed and another posttest one week later. The authors measured learning by posttest of both receptive and expressive vocabulary. According to Just & Carpenter, children can comprehend receptive vocabulary but not necessarily produce it while expressive vocabulary are words produced by children in speech (as cited in Sénéchal & Cornell, 1993, p. 364).
In the discussion section, the authors found that:
Older children remembered more words than the younger children.
Active participation did not somehow enhance children's vocabulary learning during book-reading sessions.
Reading verbatim was just as effective as asking questions or recasting in the children's vocabulary development.
We agree with the authors when they claim that this study has made a contribution to the investigation of vocabulary acquisition. This is so because this study has:
Supported the findings of Whitehurst and DeBaryshe (1989) where the process of acquiring receptive vocabulary differs from expressive vocabulary.
Showed contrasting result with the study done by Leung and Pikulski (1990) where Sénéchal and Cornell found that a single reading of a storybook indeed boosted children's receptive vocabulary.
Replicated an earlier study done by Elley (1989) but with different sample (children aged 4 to 5 instead of 7 year-olds like those in Elley (1989)) thus, yielding a different result because giving explanations to younger children is pointless than with older children.
The authors then further discussed their findings in terms of "boundary conditions" in what we understand as limits of validity of the common belief where active participating improves learning (Sénéchal & Cornell, 1993). Their five boundary conditions are:
Active participation does not enhance learning when the context is sufficient to produce learning of receptive vocabulary.
A single book-reading might not be sufficient to conclude that there are potential differences of vocabulary acquisition occurring during book-reading.
Receptive vocabulary might not be sensitive to different reading practices used by parents, but other dependent measures might be.
Active participation is effective only when the child initiates the interaction.
Active participation serves other purposes than learning vocabulary.
Basically, we agree to all the five points of boundary conditions proposed by the authors. There is no evidence that a child who participates actively during a book-reading session learns more than a quiet child who sits and listens to the narrative provided by the reader. It is also equally important to remember that children incline to certain type of narratives. Certain genre might capture a child's attention more than the others. The effects of genre on vocabulary acquisition can also be a good future topic of study where the same target words are presented in different storybooks. This hypothesis of genre however, cannot be applied to this study because the authors only used a single storybook.
The fact that they used a single storybook also casts doubts and counts for more arguments whether what took place was really vocabulary acquisition or just the children memorizing the words and assigning them to pictures. This is because; earlier studies had arranged reading sessions of a same storybook more than once. For example, Pemberton and Watkins (1987) found recasts effects on vocabulary acquisition after more than six readings of a storybook, and Elle (1989) found benefits due to elaboration after three readings.
Nevertheless, this study has been useful in contributing to the literature on vocabulary acquisition among children. There is a potential for numerous related studies being derived from this research report. Future researchers can improve the shortcomings of this study and contribute a better research report in the area. Perhaps, it will provide a better understanding on how language acquisition occurs among children.