Category Archives: pre-school

when the past is never far behind: how preschoolers’ expectations shape how they interpret speech


When we listen to people speak, we aren’t just hearing the sounds they’re making, we’re also actively trying to infer what they’re going to say. Someone might misspeak, forget a word, or be drowned out by background noise, and yet we often get their meaning anyway. This is because we use our past experience with language to hear what we expect them to say. Adults tend to manage this kind of “noisy channel” communication fairly easily, but new findings suggest 4- and 5-year-old children show the same adaptive ability.

The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Children process language in a way that combines both the auditory signal that they hear and their expectations about what they are likely to hear, given what they know about the speaker,” says psychological scientist Daniel Yurovsky of the University of Chicago. “They are sensitive to how reliable the information sources are, and they can combine them in a way that respects this sensitivity.”

The idea that we integrate two sources of information – incoming perceptual data and expectations based on past experience – when we communicate with each other emerges from developments in machine learning.

“This framework–called the noisy-channel model–grew out of some foundational work in information theory, and now makes a big contribution to things like autocorrect and text-to-speech applications,” explains Yurovsky.

Yurovsky and colleagues Sarah Case and Michael C. Frank of Stanford University wanted to find out whether this noisy-channel model might also describe the way that children process language.

The researchers recruited 43 children (between 4 and 6 years old) and 50 adults to complete the same task. The participants saw pairs of pictures: in each pair, one picture showed a plausible scene and the other showed an implausible scene. At the same time, they heard a distorted recording, in which a speaker introduced as “Katie” described one of the pictures. The participants had to select which picture in each pair Katie was most likely describing.

For some participants, Katie described the plausible scene (e.g. “my cat has three little kittens”); for others, Katie described a similar but implausible scene (e.g. “my cat has three little hammers”).

In the second round of the task, the description implied by the two pictures was phonologically very similar, differing only by a single consonant or vowel sound (e.g., “I had carrots and peas for dinner” versus “I had carrots and bees for dinner”). In this round, Katie always referred to the implausible scene (“bees”).

The results showed that the preschoolers were able to incorporate what they had already learned about Katie in the first round when interpreting her description in the second round. If Katie typically described the plausible scene in the first round, they were more likely to think that she said “carrots and peas.”

But if Katie previously tended to describe the implausible scene, they wouldn’t “correct” her description in favor of the more logical picture – they assumed that she was referring to the implausible picture, however nonsensical it was.

“These findings show that children are not confined to trying to learn from the sounds they hear, but can use their expectations to try clean up some of the ambiguity in perceptual information using their expectations,” Yurovsky says.

In a follow-up experiment, the researchers varied the amount of noise in the room when Katie was talking. The noisy channel framework predicts that as speech becomes more difficult to hear–like on a poor cell phone connection–we should rely more on our expectations. And preschool-age children did exactly this: They adapted their responses to Katie’s ambiguous descriptions according to both their previous experience and the noise level in the room.

Overall, the fact that such expectations played such a strong role in the preschoolers’ decision making surprised the researchers:

“It’s pretty common in this kind of work to show that young children have some competence early, but usually if you compare them to adults you find that the effect is much larger in adults,” explains Yurovsky. “Not so here: At least by 5, and at least in this task, children adjust their expectations about what speakers are saying to the same degree as adults do.”

The researchers hope to conduct additional studies to investigate noisy-channel processing in younger children.

“We hope our ongoing research will help us to understand how children become an active part of the acquisition process–not just as perceivers of their input, but as contributors to it,” Yurovsky concludes.


(Originally posted PsyPost.)

when muck means more

What could this be a drawing of? Three guesses:

p68 patricks drawing

Patrick, 4yrs

Ignore the blue arrows for now. They were added to describe various parts of the picture and we’ll find out more about that in a mo. But what do you think this drawing is about? Patrick is 4 years old. He’s gone to a lot of effort. He’s not merely scribbling. Can you recognize anything?

His name, for starters. To the bottom left, we can see ATI from Patrick and an attempt at a P before the other letters. This is encased in green, so it’s a unit in itself.

The yellow elements constitute a single unit. Same goes for the orange units (we’d say they were crosses, at a first glance) and the purple section in the middle.

Any ideas?

Have you noticed how well organized this piece is: the yellow elements are deliberately placed around the purple element at the centre. The orange crosses are not a slip of the pen; they are too controlled. And I’m sure they are precisely where Patrick wants them to be.

There’s a clue in the title of this blog entry. Still no ideas?

Well, hold on to your socks:

p68 patrick sewer works 4yrs

Sewage works: a child’s perspective. source: DECOPRIM Project. University of Luxembourg, 1997.

Patrick has drawn a sewage plant after watching a programme about one on TV.

I’ll start at the top and work clockwize:

i) Ausgang der Leitung, wo das Wasser wieder sauber herauskommt: exit point of the pipes where the water comes out, purified

ii) Hier entsteht Schaum: this is where foam is made

iii) Toiletten, durch die das Abwasser in die Kläranlage gelangt: toilets via which the sewage enters the sewage works

iv) Momentane Darstellung des Names: current depiction of his name

v) Leitung der Klärange: sewage pipes

vi) Krokodil, welches in der Kläranlage wohnt: crocodile who lives at the sewage plant

Admit it, you’re impressed! Here, as on many other occasions, we would be unable to decipher young children’s texts without their aid. What we would be inclined to dismiss as scribble is in fact a young child’s highly elaborate means of assimilating the world around him. A host of skills are on display here, including:

maths: specific number of toilets

science/technology: how the different components of a sewage plant fit together

language: Patrick explains the various aspects of his picture

technical drawing: this is a plan of a sewage plant

writing: Patrick adds his name to his work

culture: we have a depiction of how a specific culture treats water. I didn’t see the programme myself, but I’ll take Patrick’s word for the crocodile and assume the film he watched was of a sewage plant in a tropical country. What’s that dark purple place in the middle of the crocodile, Patrick? I hope he hasn’t gobbled up anyone!


‘If the culture of the teacher is to become part of the consciousness of the child, the culture of the child has to first be in the consciousness of the teacher.’ (Bruner)

‘prendre un enfant au sérieux est aussi une forme élémentaire de respect qu’il faudrait essayer de faire renaître en classe’ : to take the child seriously is also a basic form of respect which we should try to revive in the classroom (Zepp)

‘Effective education is developmental. It builds on the skills, knowledge and experiences that young children acquire in their homes and communities prior to coming to school and while they are in school; it extends and broadens those skills and knowledge in developmentally meaningful ways.’ (Genesee)


What do you want to be when you grow up, Patrick?

Staying alive: mother-tongue maintenance abroad

How can you help your children to keep their native language alive when they are born abroad and spend little time with mum and dad? An English family living in Luxembourg tells me one way they go about it.

When Eleanor was five so she was between the two Spillschoul years
00055 Erm, I got a, I arranged for a teacher to come across from England, who lived with us for a month in the big summer holidays
Erm, we ran an English summer school (laughs)
00056 That is what she was telling me about, Lucy?
That’s right, summer school Lucy! (laughs)
Right, right! And her cousins attended as well, it was in Henley
No, it was here, but she-
Lives, she comes from near Henley
00057 Oh, right, okay okay
So she lives in the vicinity of my family
Right, right
In England
And I think she’s even taught once at the school where her cous- Eleanor’s
00058 Cousins, erm, go to school, which is the Oratory, and, that was a, for Eleanor, that was a fantastic success that month when Lucy was here. I got together
00059 Eleanor plus another five native English speakers attending Luxembourgish schools, who, five of them, I think we within 6 months of age and one as a little bit younger and
00060 She went through, every day, a couple of English phonics with them and really tired to get them enthusiastic about reading and writing in English, and for some reason
00061 Eleanor was just at the exactly it was it came at exactly the right point for her and you could really see how her English blossomed over over that month it was wonderful

ELEANOR JUNE 01 2010 2

ELEANOR JUNE 01 2010 3

Okay. Erm, actually I’m gong to pick your brain because you could give me some
00077 Information that I haven’t yet collected. Can you tell me how, erm, Luxembourgish Spillschoul, how that functions. What do the children do? Do they really mainly play or do they, are they…
00078 Generally introduced into the world of print? Do they have writing activities and so on, erm, or is it
I think I can get you, erm, the folder in a minute
Oh alright
Of her of
00079 That she did. I would say it’s more pencil control
That they do during that time. I think the older ones, they do their letters
00080 As well they I think they do some elements of letters, phonics and sounds, but it’s, it’s quite basic. I would say the, especially of the 5-6 year olds
00081 Erm, that it’s not as fast as you would expect for that age group in the UK. But for me that was fine. It meant that I really felt as if I had this window of opportunity
00082 Especially with Eleanor being so motivated, to focus on establishing her reading English and writing English before she was getting the German so that that
00083 I felt that was and ad- a delay that I could use to our advantage
Right, right, right

from my fieldnotes: language maintenance when living abroad.

If at first you don’t succeed…


09-01-13 III (4)


09-01-13 II (4)

try again

09-01-13 I (4)

Katja’s in the 2nd year of French maternelle (i.e. nursery school/Kindergarten). The teacher explains the objective of the exercise in red:

-learn the gestures of writing

-write one’s forename in capital letters

The worksheets are numbered so that Katja’s progression may be charted (essai 1 / attempt 1, essai 2 / attempt 2). All the worksheets are done on the same day as part of a morning’s writing activity. Attempt 1 starts off well. Katja’s concentrating hard… she wants to get her letters right and we can see the corrective measures she undertakes. After a while she appears to get tired. On the second worksheet, the 4th and 5th attempts to write her name show her frequent editing of the letter A and she writes the letter T twice. She’s probably tired, but she’s still doing her best to get it right.

Take a closer look at her J on the first worksheet. The teacher writes a j in lower case in her model; a j with a dot on the top. The exercise, however, is supposed to be practising writing in upper case (i.e. capital letters). Katja knows what a capital J looks like. It has a line on the top, not a dot. Katja practises her name seven times on the first worksheet.  Take a look at the last two times she writes her name. What do we see? A dot and a line. On the one hand she appears to want to follow the teacher’s example, on the other, she wants to follow the teacher’s instructions (write in capitals). What we are dealing with here is not Katja’s inability, but with intelligence at work. The last three attempts on the first worksheet have been crossed out in pencil. They are wrong. I’d prefer to call them revealing.

Katja’s conflict continues on the second worksheet; there are less dots on the j this time and five of the six samples have a line on the top. Has Katja decided to write capitals, regardless of the teacher’s model? Nor has it gone unnoticed that the teacher’s J is more hooked on this worksheet than on the previous one (as well as considerably less hooked than on the final one).

By the third worksheet, however, Katja’s doing as she’s been told, not doing what she knows would be right. Her Js are dutifully dotted and only slightly hooked. Fifteen minutes of play-time between the second and third activities have clearly helped. Katja is focused once more; she demonstrates a greater control of space and directionality. Her As are lovely. Her Ts are straight, consisting not of one horizontal stroke followed by a vertical stroke, but of a horizontal stroke which bends into a vertical stroke. She then returns to the top of the letter with her pen to add the final part of her T in a penstroke which is visibly weaker than the left part of the horizontal line. And her Ks, well, they are coming along very nicely! I think it helps her enormously to only concentrate on a single letter at a time at this stage.

Well done, Katja!

Two weeks later, Katja’s writing her name on her own on her worksheets:

09-02 (3)

09-02 zigzag (3)

Look at her J: a capital J with a dot on the top. Very telling, in the light of what I have said about Katja’s awareness of upper/lower case.  She’s obviously found a solution. For now. The teacher’s not quite happy with the accuracy of Katja’s work; on the second worksheet and in green, she points out where Katja needs to pay more attention, i.e. to try, try, try again. Such assistance, when additionally framed by positive verbal encouragement, will no doubt bring rewards. Not sure I’d say the same about that grim-looking green face judging the child’s overall performance. What do you think? But I’ll hold back with my comments given that I don’t have a record of the conversation between teacher and child that accompanied this activity. The much coveted smiley will come later. You did your best, Katja. Your best is always good enough. You’ve shown me that you know a thing or two about letters and I’ve discovered something else:  you’re quite a little diplomat, not simply  – or always – obeying instructions, but thinking for yourself and sneaking in what you know. Keep up the good work!

Classroom literacy (1): Grande Section’s daily routine

Over the next few entries, I’d like to make you familiar with the classrooms I conducted  research in. We’re in France. In Alsace, to be precise. And we’re in a bi-lingual French-German nursery-primary school. I’ll provide what I call narrative snapshots: descriptive accounts of typical routines. Today we’ll visit the last year of nursery school; la Grande Section. Does any of this seem familiar to the contexts you know? As always, I’d love to hear from you.




Snapshot #1:

The Grande Section’s daily routine ( 11th February, 2002, 15.15h-15.40h)

Teacher, Isabelle (T) and children (CC).

Isabelle and all the children are seated on a long v-shaped bench in the corner of the classroom, away from their tables and chairs. The interaction takes place in French.


T: Are all the children here?

CC: Yes!

T: Are you sure? We’ll see. Elisa, are you here?

Elisa: I’m here!

(Isabelle notes Elisa’s attendance with a tick in her register)

T: Victor, are you here?

Victor: I’m here!

Isabelle goes through the whole class. Whilst the register is being taken, the children fidget and whisper.

 T: How many are we today?

CC (simultaneously): Fifteen!



T: How many girls? Who would like to count the girls?

Numerous hands shoot up and a few bottoms hover above the bench fervently. A girl is selected. She stands up, points her finger at each girl as she counts. The other children count with her. The procedure is repeated for the boys. Today there are nine boys and eleven girls. Two boys are missing. Isabelle chooses a different child to count how many children are present altogether. Some children join in too, whilst others chatter. Isabelle waits patiently.

T: So, we have more…

CC: Girls!

T: Girls.

The girls cheer. The boys sulk.

T: Which day is it today?

CC: Monday!



T: Today is the first day of the week…

CC: Monday!

T: Monday, right.

Isabelle gets up. She walks over to a wall chart with the heading : Aujourd’hui nous sommes (‘Today we are…’). The heading is followed by the days of the week, each associated with a particular colour and a one-line poem. Handwritten day tags, of the same colour as the days on the chart, are pinned on the wall next to the chart. Isabelle chooses a girl to find the right tag for Monday. This girl finds the tag, takes it off the wall and places it beneath the chart. The other children begin to get restless. The noise level rises.

T: What is the date today?

The children guess various numbers. They seem to have forgotten the date they had on Friday (I hear a few whispered ‘Friday was the …?’) and over the weekend they appear not to have use of knowledge of this type. Still, they work it out in the end. Today is the eleventh.

T: How do we write eleven?

Isabelle holds out a bag of numbers written on square card. She chooses a boy this time to come forward, who finds the correct number before placing it next to the day below the chart.

T: Good. And the month?

CC: February!

T: February. Two thousand…

CC: … and two!

T: Two thousand and two. So today is…

CC: Monday, the 11th February, 2002.

Isabelle crosses the classroom to the blackboard. In the top right hand corner, she writes the date in joined-up letters, pronouncing each word as she does so:

T: Lundi, le… onze… fevrier… deux … mille … deux. Bien!

With a gesture, she signals the end of the activity. The children return to their tables, grouped to seat up to five children.


Activities in the Grande Section consist of a clearly defined blend of play-oriented skills acquisition tasks, with the morning and afternoon sessions consisting of four activity blocks: ritual, language work, worksheet, pre-writing exercises. A typical worksheet is Le trait vertical; the vertical line, which progressively structures the size of the children’s penstrokes in the ‘run up’ to writing:



My observation of this activity is accompanied by the following fieldnotes:

The children sit at group tables, are supposed to work individually, but mix their work with private talk, which, though tolerated, is punctuated by Isabelle’s frequent reminders as she moves from group to group: ‘not so loud! Concentrate on your work!’ At the end of each morning or afternoon session, the children’s work is filed away in their folders, stored in a communal area along one side of the classroom. The children go over to a big chest of drawers and put their pencils and crayons back in one of the drawers bearing their name.

Despite the significant space accorded to promoting the activity of writing, rigorous evaluation criteria are not applied to work in the Grande Section and no use is ever made of the red pen. The children self-correct as they gradually learn to manage the directionality and spacing of script. When required, Isabelle explains, sometimes using a separate sheet of paper, how to improve the writing, after which the child returns to his/her own sheet and attempts to carry out the recommendations.

Notwithstanding the argument that children insist upon the distinction between drawing and writing, writing development is channelled as ‘emerging’ from drawing, it therefore requires the children to ‘redesign’ their knowledge of drawing and we may clearly identify the different steps assisting the child through the activity to achieve a degree of accuracy which brings writing ‘within reach’. Although the child is required to complete such worksheets alone, the activity is nonetheless facilitated, or framed, by others, notably those who design the worksheets in the first place, and by the teacher, who will verbally prepare the child for the activity by explaining what needs to be done, and who will assist the child further in the event of any difficulties. The children, we note, are not yet being taught the sound of the letter, but are drawing, or ‘pre’-writing. The boundary between the illustrative and the semiotic, therefore, appears to be porous, yet the clear intention is to use drawing to ‘stretch’ the children to the higher developmental skill of being able to write. For the moment, reading remains ‘beyond reach’.


Framing learning and practice in La Grande Section

Classroom interactions send a plethora of messages; overt, covert, and even, at times, conflictual:

‘A classroom, for example, where young children spend considerable time copying letters beneath their teacher’s clear handwriting and are expected to get every spelling correct in the first draft runs on assumptions about learning that are very different from those of a classroom where children choose what to write and where children’s invented letter shapes and spellings are accepted and encouraged’. (Czerniewska, 1992:53)


The classroom as a zone of free movement (ZFM):

We may think about the classroom in terms of its functional availability and how adults structure a child’s access to this culturally designed physical environment.

With regard to literacy acquisition, this classroom comprises three main learning spaces:

i. grouped tables: the mechanics and meanings of writing are practised and appropriated with the support of worksheets like ‘the vertical line’.

ii. bench area: here, the registration routine encourages the recognition of key words associated with scholastic discourse. The bench area is also the space where the children may withdraw to discover or read books – but not write – on their own if time permits.

iii. whiteboard: forges a link between the tables and the bench as discrete seating areas. It channels the children visually to a limited space, from which they may take the knowledge the teacher places there.


We see, then, that the physical characteristics of the classroom are not arbitrary, but consciously designed to provide an optimal learning and working zone for teachers and pupils. Classroom design limits specific types of learning to specific spaces for learning in a systematic manner (unlike home). The classroom, however, also offers supplementary learning zones, which promote rather than limit the child. These zones can be considered a Zone of Promoted Activity and will be addressed next.


The classroom as a Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA):

The concept of a Zone of Promoted Activity (ZPA) relates to the interplay of people and materials involved in interactions on offer within the environment which, rather than limiting the child’s development, are geared towards promoting the child’s development with regard to a particular activity. Let’s take a closer look.


Interactional partners:

There are a number of people on offer within the classroom environment. There are the children, the teachers, the auxiliary staff and the parents. These actors may be paired or grouped in a number of ways: children interacting with other children, teachers interacting with auxiliary staff and children, teachers interacting with parents, etc. Children’s talk among themselves, however, is only tolerated to a certain degree. The auxiliary staff are not charged with pedagogical responsibilities in this school, and the parents only pop in and out of class mostly to pick up or bring their children, with whom, as with the teacher, they may only exchange a few brief words before their departure. In practice, therefore, the potential offered by all these interactional partners is not fully exploited, and, as intended, social interactions within the classroom centre around the teacher-pupil dyad. In what follows, I highlight how teacher-pupil interactions are framed at this school in order to promote literacy development.


verbal and affective frames:

Children’s learning to write, along with their emerging identity as a writer, is framed verbally largely via question-answer routines, commonly referred to as ‘initiation-response-feedback’ (IRF), which channel, tease out and confirm the correct or desired reply:

T: Today is the first day of the week…

CC: Monday!

T: Monday, right.

With her statement ‘let us see if all the children are here’, or the question, ‘Elisa, are you here?’, Isabelle also subtly manoeuvres the children at the start of each day away from their private identities into their identity as learners in an institutional context, employing specific learning strategies and discourses that may, or may not, be familiar to the children from their home backgrounds. Getting the children to internalise school discourse prepares the children for the more imperative, analytical linguistic styles or registers later encountered in the course material for Year One.

At another level, feelings are harnessed in order to promote learning. We are talking about affective frames. The feelings solicited often try to evoke a sense of fun to take the sting out of learning. The registration ritual, for example, is designed to feel like a game; the children cheer, play at sulking, laugh. Pre-writing exercises are made to feel like drawing rather than the serious business of learning to write.

Wall work, as an interface between parents, teachers and children, and thus between the home and the school, may also be harnessed emotionally. By talking about their work on display, the children may not only proudly demonstrate their abilities to their parents, but also see the interest of their parents validated by talk with the teachers. Verbal framing, moreover, has additional affective attributes in that the children, once repositioned as pupils, are supposed to feel differently; in particular, they should feel that they are at school to work, yet may look forward to learning via activities and interactional strategies that are intended to be enjoyable, and therefore motivating. Fun and games notwithstanding, the school does not feel like home, so that, even at the emotional level, different zones may be identified.

Not only the teaching materials employed or the potential interactional strategies seek to tap into children’s feelings in order to promote their learning, but the classroom design itself constitutes an emotional frame. The children sit in groups, whose members are rotated so that the children may learn to learn, and make friends, with different people. The physical and social climate of the classroom will feel quite different in Year One, due to frontal, individual, and definitive seating arrangements.


Material frames: the classroom as a Zone of Promoted Activity:

There is a link between the physical and social properties of the classroom and how they promote literacy activity. Unlike the objects referred to in the Zone of Free Movement, designed to limit activities (e.g. activity x is only performed in space x), within the Zone of Promoted Activity, as the name suggests, new spaces are provided that promote development in a non-binding manner. I don’t believe it is essential to remember the terminology. What we can remember is: some areas promote learning by keeping a tighter hold on it, others promote learning in a less controlled manner. The two zones, ZFM and ZPA, may, and do, overlap: objects on offer within the ZPA form an interface with the ZFM in that they are part of the physical equipment of the classroom. But as explained, they are used differently:

coatpegs: bear the children’s names, and to which the children return several times a day as they arrive and leave school and come in from or go out to play.

wall space: wall space showcases samples of the children’s schoolwork at the child’s eye-level, inviting, but not demanding, the children’s attention. The children must, therefore, actively decide to interact with these literacy spaces and ‘opportunities’, and in so doing, they are interacting proactively, even though they are not writing. (Other materials, by contrast, lead to the children interacting reactively. These are the materials such as worksheets, wall charts, cue cards, or indeed classroom rituals as teaching material, which solicit the children’s responses, but do not allow them to instigate.)


On the one hand we have carefully structured, goal-oriented interactions, on the other, we have more holistic opportunities for more child-initiated interaction. The children are, therefore, being sensitized in different ways towards diverse forms and functions of writing.

Notwithstanding clear curricular specifications, in practice, there still seem to be conflicting messages about what really counts as literacy. I note, for example, the inherent discrepancy between minimal correction of classroom work on the one hand, and the selection of conventional, error-free samples of writing for public display, on the other. The teacher does not systematically write according to the official model, although she only selects work which corresponds to the norm for public display. It seems that one aspect of what counts as literacy is accuracy in the display of skills. Moreover, there appear to be two levels of skills display involved. On one level, the worksheets, later filed away in the children’s folders, document the progressive acquisition of writing skills and provide a reference point on display for the children. On another level, the selection of perfected writing for public display document an additional, more official interface between:

  • the children as a community of learners, and the school as an institutional, evaluating and evaluated organ
  • the children and parents, hence the home and school

Thus, the question of what counts must be pursued by for whom? The answer to what counts relates to who is seeing, and judging, different texts.


An image of how the child is being shaped as a writer begins to emerge from all the facets analysed so far. It is of the child as becoming rather than as being a writer. I hope this blogpost has helped you to take a fresh look at the pre-school classroom, above all at the physical, verbal and affective properties and at the shifting perspectives of thought and action for everyone concerned. Has this post made you think of anything you would like to share with me? I’d love to hear from you.