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Volume 13 Number 2
©The Author(s) 2011
Hispanic Families’ Perspectives on Using a Bilingual Vocabulary Kit to Enhance Their Prekindergarten Children’s Vocabulary Development

Rebecca Robinson Query
Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools

Deborah Ceglowski & Patricia Clark
Ball State University

Yongmei Li
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Abstract

The purpose of this study was to examine Hispanic families’ perspectives on using a prepared kit to enhance their preschoolers’ vocabulary development at home. Families enrolled in a public prekindergarten program were provided with a bilingual (English/Spanish) home literacy kit that included ways in which to engage their children in activities related to environmental print and conversations. Three Hispanic families participated in two interviews about home literacy activities—one before they received the home literacy kit and the other 2 weeks after the families received the kit. Results from the interviews indicated that (1) parents felt that their use of the activities in the kit promoted their young children’s vocabulary development and (2) providing bilingual literacy kits positively affected families’ home literacy experiences. These findings may inform future research on early home literacy practices, primarily those focused on vocabulary development, for Hispanic families.

Introduction

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Research suggests that, of the many reasons to provide young children with early literacy experiences, among the most important is that such experiences can predict later academic success. It is generally recognized that young children who understand the purpose of print, specific sounds of words, and the letters that represent those sounds often become successful readers in later years of school (Bennett-Armistead, Duke, & Moses, 2005).

Vocabulary Development

Vocabulary development is a crucial part of developing oral language skills and one of the most important components of early literacy. A strong connection has been identified between children’s preliteracy and language development and children’s success in both reading and school in general (Wasik, Bond, & Hindman, 2006). Additionally, researchers have found that children’s vocabulary knowledge is predictive of later reading comprehension (Nagy, 1988; Roth, Speece, & Cooper, 2002). Often, experiences with books and other forms of print may be the only exposure that children have to certain words (Bennett-Armistead et al., 2005).

Environmental Print, Conversations, and Vocabulary Development

Both environmental print (that is, print found in a child’s environment such as signs, labels, or logos) and conversations with other children and adults have been found to be effective components of young children’s vocabulary development. The National Reading Panel found oral language fluency to be a predictor of children’s reading readiness; oral language fluency can be developed through the use of environmental print (Kirkland, Aldridge, & Kuby, 2007). According to a study by Prior and Gerard (as cited in Kirkland et al., 2007), environmental print is useful in the areas of alphabetic knowledge, oral language, print awareness, and phonological awareness, all of which the U.S. Department of Education considers important components of preschool literacy experiences (Kirkland et al., 2007). Some professional literature advocates providing children with visual clues to the meaning of words to promote vocabulary development (see, e.g., Bennett-Armistead et al., 2005). Some professional literature also reflects the idea that a child’s ability to read environmental print may lead to positive feedback from adults in the child’s environment such that as children are exposed to this type of print it becomes a part of their vocabulary (Morrow, 2007).  

The importance of conversation in young children’s vocabulary development has been investigated. For example, one study found that both narrative and explanatory talk were more common during families’ mealtime conversations; connections were also noted between the use of explanatory talk and word learning and between the use of rare words in narrative talk and children’s increased vocabularies (Snow & Beals, 2006). Children’s vocabulary acquisition may be enhanced simply by increasing their exposure to extended conversations during meals at home (Snow & Beals, 2006).

Research indicates that for students whose first language is not English, using their knowledge of their first language can be very effective in helping them develop vocabulary in English, if that language shares cognates (that is, words that are derived from the same root) with English. Spanish is one of the languages that shares cognates with English (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005; Bialystok, Luk, & Kwan, 2005).

The Role of Families

Vygotsky’s (1978) sociocultural theory emphasizes the importance of the interaction of the social and cultural aspects of individuals’ environments—including the family—in their development, learning, and decision making. A growing body of research has found links between children’s early literacy and language and factors in the home environment (Weigel, Martin, & Bennett, 2006); families have considerable potential to positively affect their children’s language development. For example, significant connections have been found between parent-child activities and children’s print knowledge and between children’s receptive language and their parents’ beliefs about the importance of environmental print and book reading (Weigel et al., 2006).

Hispanic families can make substantial contributions to their children’s literacy development at home (Garcia & Jensen, 2010). For example, early home literacy practices such as pointing out and using environmental print can also lead to higher literacy skills among school-age Hispanic children (Saracho, 2007). Researchers have found a relatively low rate of book reading and other forms of talk such as storytelling among Hispanic Spanish-speaking families (López, Barrueco, & Miles, 2006). On the other hand, Reese and Gallimore (2000) found that, while many Latino families have a culturally specific model of literacy as something that develops over time, Latino parents show willingness and flexibility to adapt to some preliteracy practices that are common in the United States, such as starting preliteracy activities before children enter school (Reese & Gallimore, 2000).

In a study by Hammer and colleagues (2003), bilingual children’s literacy development was found to benefit when their families were provided with support and materials to promote literacy at home in both Spanish and English. The authors posit that, while parental modeling of literacy activities is important, children’s language and literacy development may benefit more through the use of a direct approach (Hammer, Miccio, & Wagstaff, 2003). Environmental print has been identified in some of the professional literature as an inexpensive and effective tool for families who speak English as a second language because it can provide context for the meanings of words and letters (see, e.g., Kirkland et al., 2007).

Taken together, findings from research suggest a need for home literacy activities for Hispanic families that encourage young children’s vocabulary development. It is reasonable to assume that environmental print and conversation in the home can enhance the vocabulary development of prekindergarten children from Spanish-speaking homes, as research indicates is the case for children whose home language is English. However, it is important to view the effectiveness of these tools for vocabulary learning from a sociocultural standpoint that considers bilingual parents’ perspectives on literacy development. Evidence indicates that a strong foundation in the first language supports learning in the second language (Cummins, 1981; Bahia & Ritchie, 1999). When the parents understand that environmental print and conversation in the home, whether in Spanish or English, have the potential for improving children’s vocabulary development, they may wish to interact with their children during related activities in either language.

The purpose of this study was to examine Hispanic parents’ perspectives regarding use of bilingual literacy kits with their prekindergarten children at home to promote conversation and environmental print awareness.

We use the term Hispanic families in this report because that is the term used at the site where the research was conducted. However, other authors may use the term Latino/Latina; we use these terms when discussing their work relevant to our study. It is important to acknowledge that families labeled as Hispanic may differ greatly in their demographic characteristics. For example, Hispanic families may include only one parent whose ethnicity is considered to be Hispanic or two parents who are from different countries but speak primarily Spanish in the home.

Methods

Setting

The study was conducted in a preschool classroom in an urban area in the southeastern United States. The classroom was part of a large publicly funded preschool program in a school district that did not support bilingual instruction in the preschool classrooms. The first author, the classroom teacher who conducted the study, provided a lending library that included bilingual children’s books and children’s books written in Spanish.

The preschool program utilized the Opening the World of Learning (OWL) curriculum (Schickedanz & Dickinson, 2005; Pearson Education, Inc., n.d.). OWL is a scripted curriculum with a primary emphasis on literacy. One aspect of the curriculum is a vocabulary component that includes introducing and repeating vocabulary words throughout a specific unit and theme. OWL was published only in English at the time of the study and did not provide materials in other languages; suggestions for working with young English language learners included saying words slowly and repeating words for the students. (Note: the 2011 version of OWL does include a Spanish-language option.)

Participants

The first author was the lead teacher in the classroom where this study was conducted. The author’s bilingual classroom aide served as interpreter during the study.

Participants in this study were three families whose preschool children were enrolled in the first author’s classroom in a public prekindergarten. All families in the first author’s classroom received a letter describing her study and an invitation to participate. The author selected the Lopez, Hernandez, and Santiago families from among the volunteers because members of these families spoke primarily Spanish at home. Each family signed a consent form in Spanish. The sponsoring university’s Institutional Review Board approved the study.

The participating families reflected varying demographics in relation to socioeconomic status, number of family members living in the home, and length of time in the United States. The families are briefly described below. Family members have been given pseudonyms.

Lopez Family. Martha Lopez is the stay-at-home mother of 2-year-old Luis and 5-year-old Christian, who attends a public prekindergarten program. Mrs. Lopez is 35 years old and is married to Christian’s father, Mario. The family emigrated from Mexico 10 years ago. Luis and Christian are U.S. citizens; Mr. and Mrs. Lopez are not. The family has an annual income of $32,000 and owns a single-family home. The Lopez family speaks predominantly Spanish in the home, using English 0%-10% of the time.

Hernandez Family. Raul Hernandez is the father of Liliana Hernandez, a 5-year-old girl who attends a public prekindergarten program. Mr. Hernandez is a 28-year-old single father from Colombia. He has lived in the United States for 7 years; his daughter is a U.S. citizen, but he is not. He has a high school education and earns between $15,000 and $25,000 a year. Mr. Hernandez and Liliana reside in a rented apartment. They speak Spanish at home most of the time; however, English is spoken in their home about 25%-50% of the time.

Santiago Family. Maria Santiago is the mother of Angel Santiago, a 5-year-old girl who attends a public prekindergarten program. She is married to Angel’s biological father. Mrs. Santiago and her husband both work full time and own a home where they reside with Angel and her older brother. The Santiago family speaks primarily Spanish in the home; English is spoken 25%-50% of the time.

Data Collection

The parents participated in two separate interviews. The first interview focused on families’ current home literacy practices. Interview questions addressed participation in conversations, reading environmental print, and attitudes about the importance of vocabulary development (see interview questions in Appendix A). The participants then each received a literacy kit with instructions in English and Spanish. They used the literacy kits for 2 weeks and were then interviewed about their use of the kits (see interview questions in Appendix B).

Because the first author was not conversationally fluent in Spanish, the bilingual aide was present and served as interpreter during the interviews, translating the interview questions into Spanish for the participants. Each interview took less than one hour to complete. All interviews were recorded, translated, and transcribed. Participants were also asked to complete an optional demographics form in order to compare and identify additional factors that may have affected the study. Questions on the form included queries about family income, home ownership, and home language (see Appendix C).

Literacy Kits

Each of the three participating families received two literacy kits with instructions (Appendix D). Each kit included 15 vocabulary word cards, created by the first author, related to the OWL unit being used in the classroom. The cards in the first kit included pictures of everyday objects likely to be found in the families’ homes, labeled in Spanish and English. Families were provided with definitions of these words, along with strategies for using the words in everyday talk. The second set of cards included definitions of each vocabulary word and a list of related conversation prompts. In both sets, the definitions and prompts were presented in both English and Spanish. The first author met with each of the participating families to explain the kits and how families could use the materials.

Data Analysis

The first author coded and analyzed interview transcriptions by grouping similar responses into themes (Graue & Walsh, 1998). Each theme was divided into sub-themes, resulting in an emerging coding map. The coding map was used to code the transcripts and compare responses among the families. In collaboration with the second author, the first author devised charts with themes and sub-themes listed on one side and corresponding responses from the three families listed in columns to the right of the themes. The first and second authors collaborated to identify dissimilar responses. Themes that emerged from the parent interviews were (1) conversations with children, (2) use of environmental print, (3) additional ways to support children’s oral language development, (4) freedom of language choice, and the (5) effectiveness of the literacy kits.

Preliminary Summary

Findings from Initial Interviews

The initial interviews provided insights into the families’ home literacy practices and their beliefs about specific home literacy practices.

Conversations were seen as a significant home literacy practice by the participating parents. During the first interview, all of the parents indicated that they spoke with their children for at least an hour every evening. Mr. Hernandez and Mrs. Santiago both reported that on days when their children were not at school, they spoke with their children frequently. Common topics of discussion were activities at school, behavior, and things they were planning to do. When asked whether he believed that the child’s vocabulary would benefit more from seeing pictures labeled with the vocabulary words or from conversations using the words, Mr. Hernandez responded, “Use the word in conversation.” Both Mr. Hernandez and Mrs. Santiago expressed the belief that conversations were more beneficial to their children’s vocabulary development than environmental print would be.

The participants also viewed environmental print as an important aspect of home literacy activities. All of the participants said during the initial interviews that they pointed out environmental print to their children. All three indicated that they believed that it is important to talk with their children about daily events and experiences (e.g., going to the grocery store, riding the bus, etc.). Mrs. Lopez and Mrs. Santiago felt that such talks would help their children to know what those things were in the future. Mr. Hernandez provided a more detailed perspective: “I think that, so that they learn about good things and bad things. So that they are more careful and don’t do something wrong, that an accident doesn’t happen, or something. That things that shouldn’t happen, don’t.”

Mrs. Lopez and Mrs. Santiago both reported that they read the newspaper with their children, while Mr. Hernandez said that he read a children’s magazine with his daughter. Mrs. Lopez said that she believed environmental print to be more useful than conversation in promoting her child’s vocabulary development. Environmental print, she explained, would help her son recognize more things and that, “…because he learns, and later he sees maybe this…another time he’ll see what he had seen, and know what it is.”

The three participants all expressed the belief that facilitating vocabulary development even when their children were very young would benefit the children later. When asked if it was important to promote vocabulary development with her young children, Mrs. Santiago’s response was “Definitely! Of course!” For Mrs. Lopez, promoting her son’s vocabulary development at an early age seemed good for his future. From Mr. Hernandez’s perspective, early vocabulary development would be of value “to improve their ability to communicate with other people…. We can be more confident in her, more than anything, for the language (ability); so that she develops her language (skills) at an early age. I like it that she’ll be able to communicate with grown-ups.”

The participants voiced a variety of perspectives regarding activities that would be most likely to help improve their children’s vocabulary. Mrs. Lopez explained that she felt that in addition to learning to write and spell words, it was important for her son to follow activities modeled by his father. She provided the following example: “Since his dad works in construction, he wants to do the same. Sometimes he gets blocks and puts them in his little cart and says, ‘I’m gonna work,’ and I like this because he is developing.” Mr. Hernandez expressed the belief that interactive videos and CDs helped teach his daughter literacy skills, including vocabulary. Mrs. Lopez explained that she found a combination of reading, watching television, visiting the library, and listening to music to be most helpful in her children’s vocabulary development.

Findings from Final Interviews

Upon completion of the 2-week home literacy interventions, the participants were interviewed again regarding their use of the two home literacy kits. Several common perspectives emerged, including an overall positive response to their recently completed experience with the kits.

When asked which of the two literacy kits they considered to be more beneficial to their child’s vocabulary development, all three participants indicated that both the environmental print kit and conversation kit were beneficial. Mrs. Santiago replied, “Everything; it was all good. I found it all to be useful.” Mrs. Lopez stated that she preferred the environmental print literacy kit because the photos provided her child with something to see and connect with; she felt that sometimes the conversations were too long for her son. Mr. Hernandez responded that while it was easier for him to understand and use the vocabulary cards that also contained pictures, engaging in the conversations with his daughter allowed him to discuss specific examples of vocabulary and to provide her with deeper meanings for the words.

All three participants expressed a positive attitude about having the opportunity to choose the language (Spanish or English) in which they conducted the literacy kit activities. They found that this option made the activities easier for them to use and helped both them and the children with their English vocabularies. Mrs. Lopez stated, “Well, for me, not knowing English, it’s good because…I understand Spanish well, Spanish yes, English less, but I’m learning, too.” Mr. Hernandez commented that it was using both languages during the activities made the experience easier; when using the kits, he would begin with English and end with Spanish. Comments from these three participants, who were at varying levels of English fluency, indicated appreciation for the option of using a combination of English and Spanish when utilizing the literacy kits.

Although the participants all indicated that the literacy kits were effective in promoting their children’s vocabulary development, the degree of perceived usefulness varied. Explaining that she found both literacy kits to be useful, Mrs. Santiago commented that both of her children used all of the words in the kits, often repeating them and asking her questions about them. Mr. Hernandez said, “It (the literacy kit) helps children develop their language. It helps them understand more difficult words between PreK and kindergarten.” Mrs. Lopez’s perception of the experience was somewhat different; she said that although her son used and remembered the words in the literacy kits, he was already familiar with many of the words. She noted that the experience did improve her son’s vocabulary “a little” but would have done more if the words had been more difficult ones with which he was not already familiar. She mentioned that he was very interested in one particular word that he had not known prior to the intervention.

Another finding that emerged from the participants’ interview responses was the co-learner relationship that developed between parents and children as they used the home literacy kits. The parents reported that they improved their own English vocabularies along with their children’s; at the same time, the children benefited from the parents’ positive modeling and from witnessing their parents in the role of learners. Mr. Hernandez commented, “I like it because now my child knows many words that I didn’t even know. And to go to kindergarten, she will be well prepared and show some teachers and know things.”

Participants’ Perspectives on the Overall Experience

The participants all perceived the experience of using the literacy kits as a positive one and indicated that they would use the kits again in the future. Mrs. Santiago, who worked outside the home, stated that she found the kits easy to fit into her daily schedule and that “for me it was great…. Yeah, because (for this) I don’t need special time with kids.” She reported that she found all aspects of the kits easy to use and equally helpful because her child “understood everything.” Mrs. Lopez indicated that she would prefer to use the environmental print kit again, with the use of the conversation prompts together with the same vocabulary words; that is, she would prefer that all vocabulary words were accompanied by photo cards. Mrs. Lopez also said that in the future she would keep a summary or daily journal to record what her son was learning, an option that she had not chosen during this study. She was the only parent who expressed interest in extending the activities and adding to the complexity of the kits; she was also the only participant who did not work outside of the home. Mr. Hernandez said that he would continue to use the literacy kits and similar materials in the future and would not change anything in them. “No, I think that it’s quite easy, this activity,” he said. “…I haven’t seen anything like it, and this activity was a very good idea. Because sometimes I didn’t know how to explain things to her, and this helped me a lot, and I consider it very useful and easy.” As a single parent with a relatively low income, he appreciated being provided with inexpensive materials to use with his daughter at home; otherwise he relied heavily on materials available at the public library.

When asked if they were aware of more effective strategies for building children’s vocabularies, the participants’ responses varied. Mr. Hernandez indicated that he thought didactic games or a theater-like game would be effective. Mrs. Lopez explained that she liked when the children did something more hands-on, such as coloring, “because they work on something; their minds are working and they develop…in another way.” Mrs. Santiago stated that she did not know many other activities, but she thought the literacy kits “are good.”

Preliminary Discussion

Although some limitations of using the bilingual home literacy kits became apparent in the final interviews, the overall result was a generally positive home literacy experience for the families participating in the study. Viewing the effectiveness of specific literacy practices in the homes of primarily Spanish-speaking families from their own perspectives may provide insights that can inform creation of future early literacy interventions for such families. Many of the findings from this study correspond with previous research on the effectiveness of early literacy experiences using environmental print and conversations to promote vocabulary development.

Early Vocabulary Development

All of the participants in this study agreed that promoting children’s vocabulary development is very important, even at an early age. Previous research on home literacy and preschool language skills has found that children’s receptive vocabulary is positively related to magazine and newspaper subscriptions, library use, television viewing, and book reading at home (Weigel et al., 2006). The findings from this study showed that the three participating Hispanic parents believed that these same resources benefit their prekindergarten children’s vocabulary development. Prior to receiving the home literacy kits, all of the parents in this study were using a variety of such resources to promote their children’s vocabulary development.

Environmental Print

Research on Hispanic families and literacy development has found that “families who provide children with literacy experiences that relate to their environment help them to understand their world” (Saracho, 2007). This study found that all of the participants noted a positive response by their children to environmental print and agreed that using materials related to environmental print at home did promote their children’s vocabulary development.

Even though all of the participating families spoke primarily Spanish and none of the interviewees were fluent in English, they all reported that the environmental literacy kits were easy to use and helpful. This finding is consistent with evidence that environmental print can be an effective tool for parents who have some difficulty reading, writing, or speaking English (Kirkland et al., 2007).

Conversations

Initial findings of this study show that two of the three participating parents believed that conversations were more beneficial to their children’s vocabulary development than environmental print. Later findings show that their personal experience with the literacy kits confirmed parents’ beliefs about the benefits of conversations to their children’s vocabularies. This finding is consistent with evidence from other studies of benefits of engaging in interesting conversations (Snow & Beals, 2006). All participants in this study indicated that they would choose to use conversations in the future to enhance their children’s vocabulary development.

Parent and Child as Co-Learners

All participants in this study claimed that in the process of teaching their children new vocabulary they learned some English vocabulary as well. This finding is consistent with other evidence that parents and children undergo a mutually rewarding transformation when they engage in shared literacy practices (Ortiz & Ordoñez-Jasis, 2005). Participants in the study noted that the shared experiences with their children were positive and beneficial for parent and child, who participated together as co-learners. Children could see their parents learning as they did, which served as a valuable model, consistent with evidence that children learn language in familiar environments through social interactions involving language and by following adult models of language use (Morrow, 2007).

Participants in this study also reported appreciation for having the option to use their native language in addition to, or in place of, English when using the home literacy kits. This finding is consistent with evidence that a strong foundation in the first language benefits the person learning a second language (Cummins, 1981; Bhatia & Ritchie, 1999).

Limitations

Some limitations of this study should be acknowledged. The literacy materials provided in this study were identical for all families. Some children have more extensive vocabularies than others, as was the case for participants in this study. The vocabulary words used in the home literacy kits, randomly selected from the OWL curriculum, were not differentiated for individual families. As a result, one participant reported that the kits were less effective in promoting the vocabulary of a child who was familiar with many of the words in the kits, although the participant also explained that she felt confident that the activities would have been helpful to her child if less familiar words had been provided.

This was a qualitative study; the small scale in no way limits the great value of the responses or the participants who represent many of the families served in public prekindergarten programs in the United States. At the same time, it is important to recognize that outcomes might be very different for families whose home language has few cognates in common with English. Additional research is needed in this area.

Concluding Comments

This study sought the perspectives of Hispanic families on early home literacy practices, especially practices that promote vocabulary development. The study also focused on parent responses to home literacy kits that allowed them to choose the language they wished to use in activities with their children and thus valued their primary language. While findings from this study are not statistically generalizable, they are theoretically generalizable; that is, the home literacy experiences of the three participating Hispanic families may help us to understand some of the systems, activities, and procedures related to other Hispanic families’ home literacy experiences.

Researchers have found a strong connection between early home literacy practices that promote language and later school success. We must consider, however, how to make those early home literacy practices positive and effective for all families. When planning early home literacy interventions for families who are primarily Spanish speaking, it is crucial to place value on their native language. One way to do this is to provide experiences that allow families the freedom to choose the language that they use with the materials. Further research is needed on the role of freedom of language choice in early home literacy practices in comparison to practices that limit language choice.

The perspectives of participants in our study also suggest that continued research on the use of environmental print and conversations to promote the vocabulary development of young English language learners compared to other literacy activities is vital.

The most important factor when planning home literacy activities that promote vocabulary development for young children in Hispanic families is that the entire experience be both effective and positive for the children and the parents.

References

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Author Information

Rebecca Query is in her fifth year as lead teacher in a prekindergarten classroom at Piney Grove Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina. She enjoys working closely with the large number of Hispanic families at her school, encouraging parents and staff to communicate with each other in both Spanish and English. Rebecca completed her master's degree at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

Deborah Ceglowski is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Ball State University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in early literacy and qualitative research. Deb is active in the American Educational Research Association Qualitative Research Special Interest Group, where she currently serves as chair.

Patricia Clark is an associate professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Ball State University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate classes in early childhood curriculum and diversity. As a former bilingual teacher, she has a special interest in linguistic diversity and in meeting the needs of young English language learners.

Dr. Patricia Clark
Associate Professor
Early Childhood Education
Department of Elementary Education
Ball State University
Muncie, IN  47306

Yongmei Li is currently a graduate student and research assistant in Educational Psychology, Measurement, and Evaluation at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She has a Ph.D. in Early Childhood, Families, and Literacy, with a specialization in Literacy Education. She has worked on a number of research projects.

Appendix A
First Interview Questions

English

Spanish

Appendix B
Second Interview Questions

English

Spanish

Appendix C
Demographic Form

Appendix D
Instructions for Literacy Kits