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Interview with Professor Dorthe Bleses

Professor Dorthe Bleses has received 16.237 million DKK from The Danish Council for Strategic Research to implement the project SPELL – Language acquisition via play-based reading. The aim is to support children's language development and early reading. Dorthe Bleses is the project manager of the project, which is carried out in collaboration between the University of Southern Denmark’s Center for Child Language, Ramboll Management and Technological Institute. Moreover, internationally recognized researchers from the U.S. and Germany are also participating. The project’s duration is four years, from 1 January 2012 to 31 December 2015 and counts both senior researchers and PhD students.

International research has in recent decades showed a correlation between language skills in daycare and later literacy- and writing skills in school are crucial for success in future job- and life opportunities. This has also led to an increased focus on children's early language acquisition in Denmark. Thus, from 2007 language assessment has been introduced in daycares with the aim of identifying those children who have language delays or problems to subsequently take focused action. However, there is a lack of effective and proven tools that educators can use to support the language acquisition, particularly among children whose language learning is not progressing as expected.

The SPELL project aims to remedy this. The project will develop an intervention program that educators can use to systematically and focused, support language- and reading conditions, especially among vulnerable monolingual and bilingual children from the age 3-6 years. The project is based on a successful American learning program, Read It Again!, where reading aloud is supplemented by various play based activities before, during and after the reading related to the content of the books. During the intervention, educators use specific techniques to involve the children as described in a specially developed SPELL material. A survey of research literature shows that it is this type of language intervention at an international level that gives the best results for language support.

The effect of the intervention is measured in an efficacy study. Here the effects of SPELL are compared in four different conditions: 1) a group of children where educators use SPELL, 2) a group of children where educators in addition to use SPELL also are taught to provide more focused language stimulation, 3) a group of children where SPELL is used both in daycare and at home via a special parent-SPELL program, and 4) a control group where the educator continues its educational work as before.

SPELL will be tested on 7680 Danish daycare children, and in total 128 daycare centers will participate in the testing of the material. After completion of the project, the material shall be freely available on the Internet.

In connection with the start of SPELL, The Newsletter of Center for Child Language has interviewed Dorthe Bleses about the project.

What conditions does the Center for Children Language have in order for adapting and implementing the publicized intervention program in Danish daycares? 

 

Over the years at CfB there has been made much research into the factors that affect language acquisition. In connection with the development of various language assessment materials at CfB (Language Assessment Materials for 3-year-olds and Language Assessment of children in the age of three, before schooling and preschool), which aims to identify children with language delays or problems, we have set ourselves thoroughly in the literature describing the relationship between early language acquisition and later literacy skills - both decoding and reading comprehension. In addition, we have looked at what kind of special skills that make it easier for children learning to read.

International research shows that not just language skills as early vocabulary and narrative skills (the ability to tell stories), but also skills in aural awareness and written language concepts (Ex. in Danish – you write from left to right and top to bottom) are important predictors of later reading and writing skills. The research also shows that early milestones in these areas acquired naturally in daycare period, and therefore SPELL supports both speech language skills, and also what we call early literacy- and writing conditions that comprises aural awareness and writing language concepts.

The other part that has qualified us to develop SPELL, is our work with the Language Package (Sprogpakken) – National Social Board’s (Socialstyrelsen) major training focus where approx. 6000 educators are upgraded based on the latest research. Here we have compiled the research base - a survey of the needs for language assessment, effective language interventions and educational training based on the international literature. The survey shows that dialogic reading is the method that is best studied, and which also has a documented effect on children's language. The dialogic reading is most effective in relation to children with special needs when reading is supported by more systematic and focused methods such as specially focused activities before, during and after reading that support language acquisition and learning of early reading and writing conditions, and this knowledge is incorporated in SPELL.

It is also a very strong team we have assembled, in addition to scientists from CfB counter international researchers (especially Professor Laura Justice who is highly recognized for her efforts in this area), Ramboll and Technological Institute are each contributing unique competencies to implement the project. 

What kinds of new knowledge will the SPELL project contribute?

In addition to developing the specific language effort the SPELL project will provide new and valuable information on how to concretely work with language stimulation in daycare. Since the project is based on an American material adapted to a Danish context, you will be able to compare the effects of American and Danish trials, and it may provide new knowledge about how support for language acquisition works across languages ​​and learning cultures.

In addition, it is the first time the effects of training educators, is measured. The project will also help with basic scientific knowledge about the importance of teachers’ knowledge and attitude have on the quality of educational interventions in daycare, and how parents’ knowledge of how the child is supported in language can affect the language acquisition. At last but not least, the project will provide basic scientific knowledge about individual differences in early language acquisition.

Basically, it will be interesting to investigate whether the positive results from the American research can be repeated in a Danish educational context which is very different from the American. Partly, you do not work as focused with language skills in Danish daycares, and there has been a tendency to think that working with children writing prerequisites do not belong in Danish daycares. Conversely, Danish daycare has a very high quality compared to American daycares, which provides unique opportunities to reach all children.

The last thing you mention will lead us to the next question: how do you think the systematic and explicit approach will be received by Danish educators who are used to more emphasis on children's social development than on skills that prepare children for school?

In general, we see that there has been an opening just because of the increased knowledge about the close relationship between language and reading as educators have achieved through their participation in Language Package’s (Sprogpakken) training courses. In SPELL, we take up the thread of the Language Package, and offer educators materials they can use to keep their knowledge into practice. In addition, already today we are working systematically in daycares, though in other areas. 

It is important to emphasize that there is no contradiction between being and learning - children learn from the moment of birth, and it is important to exploit the natural window for learning processes that are available in daycare, and the fact that the brain is particularly geared to receive learning particularly here. In research we talk about "Window of opportunity" that you should use. Children like to learn. Here comes a material that educators can use in their work to promote children's language development, and we hope they will welcome it. We have in our annual conference experienced a high demand for specific instructions on how the language ​​work can be organized. But it must of course be seen as a supplement to and not a substitute for the good work already carried out in Danish daycare.

Part of the intervention in SPELL project involves parents. What expectations do you have for the role parents can play?

The research survey in the Language Package shows that language interventions that actively involve parents, are more effective than programs that do not have a parent’s involvement. Parents are already very interested and involved in their children's lives, and they will do what they are capable of in order to support their children’s language acquisition. The SPELL project can give the parents some practical techniques on how they can optimize their children’s learning.

We have extensive experience with parents’ active participation in relation to reporting on their children’s language development from some of the Center for Children Language’s other large projects. For example, we have made ​​use of parents’ incoming implicit knowledge about their children’s language acquisition for large CDI parental report studies (the internationally recognized American parents report MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories (CDI) - which researchers at CfB has made ​​a Danish adaptation of), and language assessment materials where parents are asked whether they have heard or not heard their child say those words.

How can SPELL particularly help vulnerable children?

A group of vulnerable monolingual and bilingual children with special needs do not achieve enough out of the ordinary teaching practices in daycare, where particular emphasis is on children’s social development. Based on the American research there is something pointing towards that these vulnerable children benefit more from a systematic focused language ​​effort in order to utilize their potential. SPELL introduce educators to systematic and focus to support the language development of particularly vulnerable monolingual and bilingual children, it means that the material systematically follows the way children learn language, and the child’s awareness is directed toward the goal of a particular activity to support the child’s engagement in the learning process. We also evaluate whether more focused training of educators with a particular focus on supporting and adapt teaching practices to vulnerable monolingual and bilingual children have a beneficial effect. 

Can SPELL be used more widely in future?

The SPELL program is developed in a way that it can be implemented in Danish daycare afterwards if it turns out to have an effect. It will actually be a cheap and easily accessible intervention. The SPELL intervention will be available for free on the Internet, and the material is developed so it is easily accessible and does not require much additional training by the educators. 

What are the first tasks you will start with in the SPELL project?

To recruit municipalities to participate in the project. We hope there are many who will participate. We are also looking forward to be able to cooperate with municipalities about the development of the SPELL-intervention and on the development of tools to measure the effect. We know how good it is to involve municipalities, and we have good experience in working closely with municipalities in such development processes. In this way we ensure that SPELL is applicable to municipalities while we have shortlisted the many unnecessary mistakes which people out in practice is good to see.

It will also be beneficial for municipalities to participate in the project because they for free will get the opportunity to train educators in relation to organize language efforts for vulnerable groups of children. Municipalities will also have an influence on the development of the material.

All municipalities in the country will receive an invitation to participate in the project in the coming days. 

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