Tag 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.)


meals on wheels

Makes me want to be a 5-year-old all over again!

library on wheels FRANCE

And it reminds me of another bus:

‘my preschool years, I vividly remember. I spent them in a red bus with flowers. In Serbia, at that time, one form of the preschool education for rural areas was a bus, equipped with a bus driver and a preschool teacher (it would have been too much for the teacher to also drive the bus). Classes were not compulsory. There were times when I was the only child. This didn’t bother me in the least, although I suspect that both the bus driver and the teacher would have preferred to be at home on such days. The red bus and my parents’ wisdom did the job for where I am now. And where I am now?’

(Gabrijela Reljic is currently Associate Professor at the university of Luxembourg. Her doctoral thesis was awarded Best Thesis of the Year. It was a pleasure helping you to complete it, Gabi. You promised me some more stories. I’m still waiting!)

Between the pointed and the soft, a lollipop and a gold star: re-membering lessons learned

Hands up all of those who remember their earliest years at school? Recollections filled less with the facts learned, than with feelings. Sometimes it felt good. Sometimes, alas, not. Below are two recollections. One of each type. The first, from a colleague of mine, over fifty years after the event. The other, my own recollection, over forty years down the road. Some of you may remember it from a much earlier blog entry but it’s equally fitting here. You may also remember from the last blogpost that French and German preschool have different notions of the competence required for children to enter Year One. French children should be able to write legibly and joined up, using a fountain pen. German children ought to be able to write the letters individually, using a pencil. My colleague, from the States, has to acquire a particular skill before she may ‘graduate’ from Kindergarten. Read on to find out which.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.



Between the Pointed and the Soft, by Lesa Lockford

I want to write this story but I don’t know how to write. I’m not sure it can be written, because I do not know the end and because I do not know how to erase what’s come before.


“I can’t explain it,” she said, sighing with evident exasperation. “Your daughter doesn’t know how to write.” You see, Mrs. Esselinger, my kindergarten teacher, had called my mother in for a parent/teacher conference. Nothing she tried to do, she said, was able to reach me. My mother, who sat opposite my teacher with numerous scribbled pages between them, listened for the words that would rewrite my future.

It was unexplainable. After all, I had come to Mrs. Esselinger a happy, rambunctious child. I had up until then always been, well, best described as “rambunctious.” Not a beautiful child. A child with perpetually scabby knees. A child with tousled hair that was so frequently matted I routinely tested my mother’s patience with a hair brush. So rambunctious that even when I was in the womb the doctor was moved to declare with simple efficiency, “it’s a boy.” Being born before the advent of ultra-sound and amniocentesis the doctor’s simple sentence made sense to my mother, for you see, her pregnancy with me had been nothing like her first. A name was even chosen. I was to be Steven. Her first child, my sister Susanne, who writes her name with two Ss and no Zs, who arrived five years before me, had come into the world easily and beautiful. She’d always been the angel child. By the time I came into the world, my sister, the blond-haired child with eyes so blue and wide you could see the face of god in them, had a line of straight A report cards, a line that continued unbroken right through high school without a B or a C or a D or an F.

So as my mother sat across the table with Mrs. Esselinger, pondering the inexplicability of my inability to write, she had no words ready to hand.

“I can’t explain it,” my teacher said. “Your daughter doesn’t know how to write.”

You see, to “graduate” from kindergarten we had to know how to write our names. I loved Mrs. Esselinger. I loved her as she marched down the schoolroom aisle dispensing onto our desks those pulpy pages for writing. Those pages with the wide lines on them, a line on the top row that guided the size of our capitals and the height of our verticals, and a dashed line below marking the destination of the curves of our As, Os, and Rs and so on. I loved her as she told us to grip our pencils in our hands, the soft end of the eraser up and the pointed end down and to hold them just so. If we made a mistake the eraser was our friend. I loved my pencil. I loved my eraser. I loved Mrs. Esselinger as she gave me the letters of my names, the first name and the last. I took possession of my letters. They were mine. I loved them like I loved Mrs. Esselinger. Except I learned to hate the letter S. My S snaked its way between me and Mrs. Esselinger and hissed its way into her heart. “But that’s a Z,” she said. “That’s not an S. That’s not one of your letters.”

“I can’t explain it. Your daughter doesn’t know how to write.”

“But of course she knows how to write,” said my mother at last.

“No, no she doesn’t. She won’t write. She sits there, pencil in hand, and will not write. I’ve tried and tried with her. She will not.”

“But,” my mother said, “how is it, if she doesn’t know how to write, that she’s written her name all over our furniture and our walls? She’s always writing.”

Caught between the voiced Z and the unvoiced S, I had curled up into that unvoiced phoneme and stopped my hand.


I don’t know this for sure, but they say the person who invented the eraser had “human beings pretty well sized up.” They also say that “the person who invented the pencil also invented the eraser.” This isn’t true, of course. But like so many sayings, their truth lies not in the literal. Soft or pointed? Pointed or soft? Poised between the pointed and the soft I am tense. Tense between humility and hubris. Poised between what can be explained and what cannot. Between contrition and control. Between the hope of redemption written in an apology and the sting of omission in the thank you note that never arrives. The past is making the present tense. The future perfect is conditional on the declarative.

I want to write this story but I don’t know how to write.

I do not know the sentences, the paragraphs, even the text.

I know the punctuation.

In the stop of my hand I know the halting momentum of the curling pauses, the pointed stops, the vertical of the exclamatory, the curve of the interrogatory. I stop my hand lest the controlling indicative and the pride of the imperative refuse redemption in the subjunctive.

I do not know how to write. I do not know how to write this story. The protagonist won’t come.




Lollipop, lollipop, by Joan Barbara Simon

Five years old and picked out by the Headmistress, Mrs Hill, from the mass of children sitting cross-legged on the floor during a typical Monday morning assembly at an East London infant school. Asian, African, British, European, Caribbean, Other (please specify). No uniforms, just specks of coloured cloth and peeps of skin flanked by teachers comfortable on their chairs. We must look like hundreds n fousands, I thought.

All these colourful children. If you look at em from way up, like a bird, we must look like hundreds n fousands, like when they’re stuck on a marshmallow or somefing. Or on these chocolate buttons from the sweetie shop round the corner, you know, in those little white paper bags with a pleat on the side, and you’d always have at least two of these buttons that´d stick together back-to-back. As I scrambled to my feet, flushed by pride, my eyes on that soft, smiling woman who had just called my name, whose pale, perfumed skin always made me think of candy floss, and whose fingers now dipped into a small pouch (lovely, lovely fingers you got, Missis ‘ill…) to produce a lollipop, a hard, round one that you could suck for ages, the magnitude of the moment did not escape me. Mrs Hill, full of praise as she pinned a gold star to my chest. See, I’d been getting nothing but gold stars all last week in my exercise book.

‘For wonderful, clear, joined-up writing like the big children. Well done!’

For the rest of assembly I was allowed to sit at the front, facing the congregated school, all those eyes of all a those hundreds n fousands fixed on my gold star. And on ma lollipop.

When I grow up, I’m gonna be a writer n a teacher.  I love words, writing …  n I love teachers.

For the rest of that morning, I would forget my secret envy of Babita and Rajinder, my best friends who could speak other languages (though they hated speaking them in front of us), and whose shop-fronts were jewelled with a curly writing that looked to me like some kind of music. Why couldn’t I be two people instead of one, too? At home I would play at being one of them, invent a language to imitate them. Put my poncho on my head to emulate Babita’s wondrous black mane tamed into a thick rope of a plait that dangled in a surly fashion beyond the seat of her chair (whereas Rajinder wore his hair in a bun under a hankie with an elastic around it and when I asked him once to take it off so I could have a look he said: ‘snot  allowed). Right now, I didn’t mind my picky-picky hair or the fact that I could only speak English. For the rest of that morning, it was I who would be the source of envy.

I’ll let you ave a lick a my lolly at play time cos we’re friends, innit? I smiled over to them. And they smiled back.

I’m gonna be a writer. And a teacher. One day. I just know I am.





As far as I remember, we used pencils throughout primary school in the UK. Big blank when it comes to secondary school… Pens seem more probable. If you have similar stories you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you and present a few in this blog. A sentence or two will do, too. What’s more, it would be lovely to know what has become of you!

We don’t need no pen and paper!

Summer holidays, hurray!!! School’s over, yipeee!!!!

Whether at home or at school, this little girl still loves to paint, to draw and to practise the movements that, in French nursery schools, are harnessed to pre-writing activities. Who wants to join in? Wendy? Great!

PLAY: A self-help tool that enables children to achieve higher levels of cognitive functioning. (Johnson et al, 1999)

PLAY: Play is the arena in which young children make connections between their immediate personal world and activities that are important in the larger social world of family and community, and play is the context in which many children find ways to make culturally valued activities part of their own personal experience. ( McLane & McNamee, 1990)


IMG_2009 IMG_2010 IMG_2011 IMG_2013


What we are witnessing here is the making of a text in a much larger sense – not simply the painting of a pretty picture –  and it can be said to comprise three levels of construction:

  1. T1: the tangible written, graphical or semiotic text produced during the interaction
  2. T2: the linguistic or conversational text which accompanied the interaction and which can be coded as a transcript (though what each participant says in their head is lost forever!)
  3. T3: the literacy event as a whole and as a multimodal phenomenon comprising not only T1 and T2, but also other non-verbal elements (e.g. gaze, touch) and players (who’s taking the photos?)

Well done! Who needs pen and paper!


Long after the lollipop: an outburst of resistance leaves me questioning the ‘stuff’ learnt at home



The systematic research which culminated in my doctoral thesis was sparked off by an encounter with my eldest daughter, then 6 years old.

Hoping to make her view a piece of  school work from a different perspective, I tried to make a bridge between what she had just learnt at school and a possible parallel in an everyday, non-scholastic context. I was surprised by the extent of her resistance to my suggestions as by the vehemence of her tearful, exasperated outburst:

But Mummy! The one has nothing to do with the other! School is school, and here you are telling me stuff about home! What the teacher says is right, and anyway, what do you know!

A number of things became clear to me as I watched my daughter demonstratively heave her work more to her side of the table. Firstly, that literacy acquisition can be an emotive affair. Secondly, this child evidently makes a clear demarcation between home and school. The third, most perturbing, conclusion was not only my daughter’s unequivocal sense of the incompatibility of the two domains, but also the further strong allusion to the displacement of the validity of learning contributions from the home (relegated to mere stuff) by the infallibility of learning contributions from school. Was all of this only taking place in my daughter’s mind, or also in the minds of other children, parents and teachers, I wondered?  Such reflections engendered a series of questions:

  1. How do the pre-schoolers I investigate encounter literacy at school?
  2. How do the same experience literacy out of school?
  3. Which values are communicated by school literacy practices?
  4. How do these compare to the values communicated by the children’s home literacy practices?
  5. To what extent do homes and schools, as literacy domains, interact?


The major hurdle to be overcome for anyone wishing to see what goes on behind closed doors is access. I knew from the start that my research would not involve large numbers, for I was not looking to follow an entire class of children over a longer period, but wanted, above all, to perform qualitative research on one child. I began to scan my environment. Most of the mothers approached had kept the work their children had done at nursery school not only because they found it cute, but also because none of their own work had ever been valued enough to be kept. Here again we see the bridge between parents’ childhood recollections and their behaviour towards their offspring. Careful probing revealed, however, that almost no-one had systematically kept the work their children produced at home; the drawings, mark-makings, first writings, etc. Whilst this provides insights into the contrasting values placed upon children’s writing and drawing performed at school and at home, the latter of which mysteriously disappeared at a convenient moment, it nonetheless thwarted my research ambitions. The only person I knew who had meticulously guarded every piece of work done at home and at school was:  myself.