Domain 1: Language Development

Domain 1 of the Head Start Child Outcomes Framework identifies developmental milestones for children ages-three-to-five-years old in both expressive and receptive language. Teaching teams realize that language is critical to children’s learning and development in all other areas. They examine effective strategies that help children acquire necessary skills in listening, understanding, speaking, and communicating. Teachers working with children from backgrounds other than English (English Language Learners) encounter many suggestions that support children as they acquire English while maintaining their native language.

The following is an excerpt from the Head Start Leaders Guide to Positive Child Outcomes.

Teacher and children engage in conversation while eating family style meal Introduction to Language Development
Listening and Understanding
Speaking and Communicating
English Language Learners

     Additional Information

Introduction to Language Development

Among the most important tasks of the first five years of life is the development of language. Children's language ability affects learning and development in all areas. Language strongly predicts later success in learning to read and write (Snow, Burns, & Griffin 1998). Children who are skilled communicators are likely to demonstrate better social competence and school readiness.

     Because children seem to learn language naturally, adults often assume that it is simply the product of maturation. But it is not. Children's language development does tend to follow a similar pattern— beginning with cooing and babbling and moving to words and sentences. But like all areas of development, learning to communicate is the result of cumulative experiences from birth on (Weitzman 1992). Children gradually learn language over many years from verbal interaction with adults and other children. And most important, preschool-aged children are already experienced users of language. In fact, during the preschool years, language develops far more rapidly than at any other time. Because the language children use is acquired in the context of their home and cultural communities, it may differ from the language used in the Head Start or child care setting. Finally, language learning is far from complete when children enter kindergarten. Human beings continue to learn language throughout school and life.

     The Head Start learning outcomes in Domain 1 include two kinds of language.

  • Receptive language is understanding what is being said by others.
  • Expressive language is children's use and knowledge of spoken language—in other words, their ability to communicate.

     The desired learning outcome is to increase both the quantity and quality of children's receptive and expressive vocabulary. It is not enough that children speak a lot. We must pay attention to the range of words they understand and use—the vocabulary, which is the number of words a person knows when listening or speaking, and the use of pronouns, prepositions, adverbs, adjectives, and other parts of speech. Another important element of language development is the complexity of sentence structure—in other words, the syntax or grammar that children use. A related learning goal is for children to begin to acquire the "scripts" that people use to communicate in different settings. For example, what the doctor says is different from what the grocery clerk says, and the way one talks during circle time is different from the way one talks outside on the playground.

     Children are developing language and early literacy skills during roughly the same period, and the two are interrelated (Dickinson & Tabors 2001). Reading to children enhances their language development, especially vocabulary, because the structures and words used in books are more varied than those in speech. Knowing more words, in turn, helps children make sense of print and find what they read more meaningful and interesting. And talking with children about what is read, further boosts both vocabulary and comprehension.

Listening and Understanding

Receptive language skills—listening and understanding—tend to develop earlier than the expressive abilities of speaking and communicating. In other words, at any point in time children understand more words and more advanced structures than they use themselves. This is also true for English language learners who understand what is being said in the second language (English) but are not yet speaking it. Research from the Family and Child Experiences Survey (FACES) shows that although Head Start children make more progress than the typical child in acquiring receptive vocabulary, they still fall short of national averages (ACYF 2001). Because of its enormous importance and because it is an area that needs strengthening among many children who grow up in poverty, receptive language development needs to be a major focus of teaching and learning experiences in Head Start programs.

  • * Indicator: Understands an increasingly complex and varied vocabulary.
  • * Indicator: For non-English-speaking children, progresses in listening to and understanding English.

     Receptive Vocabulary—the number of different words that children know and understand —is one of the most powerful predictors of children's success in learning to read and write and in their later comprehension of what they read. The more words a child understands, the more easily she can use contextual clues to help her read new words. Receptive vocabulary may be viewed as the labels for concepts that we are learning, as well as for those we already know and understand. Young children typically think out loud, with interpersonal language coming before internal thought (Vygotsky 1978). So the more limited the vocabulary, the more limited the child's conceptual understanding of the world.

     Not only does vocabulary affect children's learning and achievement, research shows that by the preschool years, there are already dramatic differences in the size and scope of children's vocabularies, especially when children from low-income families are compared with their middle class peers (Hart & Risley 1995). These differences must be addressed and reduced early on to improve children's prospects because verbal language is so critical to learning in and out of school.

Listening and Understanding Indicators

Domain Element
Language Development Listening and Understanding
  • Demonstrates increasing ability to attend to and understand conversations, stories, songs, and poems.
  • Shows progress in understanding and following simple and multiple-step directions.
  • * Understands an increasingly complex and varied vocabulary.
  • * For non-English-speaking children, progresses in listening to and understanding English.

*Legislatively mandated.

Listening and Understanding Strategies

To promote listening to and understanding an increasingly complex vocabulary

  • Model good listening such as maintaining eye contact and expressing interest in the speaker.
  • Play listening games with children. For example, place items in a mystery box for children to identify from clues, and play matching sounds, lotto, and treasure hunt games where children must listen to and follow a series of directions. Games such as "Simon Says" offer opportunities for children to learn specific concepts.
  • Build children's auditory discrimination skills by playing games where the same/different sounds of words are highlighted.
  • Provide new and different experiences that expand receptive vocabulary like field trips, visitors, and objects to explore. Afterward, have children describe their experiences in their own words to see what they understand and what new words they've learned.
  • Provide a rich and varied curriculum incorporating science, mathematics, social studies and other areas of study that expand children's conceptual understanding and listening vocabulary.
  • Read to children every day with the express purpose of enhancing their vocabulary and listening skills. Regularly read in small groups of three to six to ensure children's active participation. During small group reading, children tend to learn more vocabulary and comprehend the story better.
  • Use children's interests, such as trains or trucks, to identify new words—locomotives, caboose, and dining car, or 18 wheeler, tanker, and pick-up.
  • Choose stories or books with rich vocabulary and uncommon words, such as those that preschool children may not hear or use regularly. Take a minute before reading to explain a few of the words that will be new for most children. Point out the new words as they appear in the text.
  • Use the strategies that are identified in the next section under speaking and communicating.

Speaking and Communicating

This Domain Element refers to expressive language—children's ability to express their ideas and feelings in words. Children's growing ability to communicate with other people during the preschool years is directly linked to their learning in general and to their development in other areas, particularly social relationships and emotional development.

  • * Indicator: Develops increasing abilities to understand and use language to communicate information, experiences, ideas, feelings, opinions, needs, and questions; and for other varied purposes.
  • * Indicator: Uses an increasingly complex and varied spoken vocabulary.
  • * Indicator: For non-English-speaking children, progresses in speaking English.

     Beginning in the earliest years of life, children need to engage with adults in extended, responsive conversation about interesting and engaging topics. The first three years of life are especially critical to language development, including the time before children themselves begin talking. For infants and toddlers, teachers adjust their talk to the child's level, responding to and expanding the child's vocalizations and language attempts. During the preschool years, language development explodes, if it is well supported by adults. These are the years when extended, interactive conversation is especially important. Children need to engage in one-to-one conversations with more accomplished speakers of the language, and they need something interesting to talk about (Dickinson & Tabors 2001). The primary sources for such conversation are personal and family events, everyday classroom experiences and routines (such as mealtimes), play, and curriculum content. Preschool children should have curriculum topics of study that provide them with interesting things to think and talk about, including science, social studies, mathematics, literature, creative arts, and other subject areas.

Speaking and Communicating Indicators

Domain Element
Language Development Speaking and Communcating
  • * Develops increasing abilities to understand and use language to communicate information, experiences, ideas, feelings, opinions, needs, questions; and for other varied purposes.
  • Progresses in abilities to initiate and respond appropriately in conversation and discussions with peers and adults.
  • * Uses an increasingly complex and varied spoken vocabulary.
  • Progresses in clarity of pronunciation and towards speaking in sentences of increasing length and grammatical complexity.
  • *For non-English-speaking children, progresses in speaking English.

Speaking and Communicating Strategies

To enhance children’s ability to communicate and to use an increasingly complex and varied vocabulary

  • Engage in one-to-one, extended conversations with individual children about their personal experiences or events in the program.
  • Respond to children's speech with expansions and questions that point out causes and consequences.
  • Introduce new words, including the kinds of multi-syllable words that are not typically part of a preschooler's vocabulary. Use new words numerous times and observe to see if children begin to use them appropriately.
  • Engage children in conversations about events, experiences, or people that are beyond the here and now—events from the past, the future, or children's imaginations (in other words, decontextualized speech). Such interaction requires children and adults to use more complex and varied vocabulary in explanations, descriptions, narratives, dialogue, and pretend talk.
  • Talk about a book you are going to read to children before reading it, asking them to predict from the title or cover what the story will be about or what might happen next.
  • Talk with children after reading a story; ask them to retell the story or act it out. Encourage them to talk about the characters and events, answering their questions and responding to their comments.
  • Write down children's messages to parents or others, dictations for language experience charts, or stories, and read them back.
  • Provide dramatic play areas, props, materials, and themes that encourage talking and listening, such as office, post office, bookstore, restaurant, library, supermarket, medical clinic, and construction site.
  • Participate in play to get it going if children have difficulty or to extend it to include more language interaction. For instance, the teacher may enter the restaurant and pretend to be a customer: “Could I see a menu please. I’d like to order dinner.” In play, children naturally try to imitate adults and their language becomes more complex and sophisticated. They need many opportunities to practice such verbal interaction with other children and occasionally with adults.
  • Get in the habit of giving children plenty of time—five seconds or so—to respond to a question or conversational comment. Adults rarely allow sufficient time for children to respond, rushing ahead to answer for them or going on to a different question. The simple act of providing wait time increases children's verbal responses, especially for children who tend to speak less often.
  • Plan in-depth projects with children to investigate questions or topics of interest that expand vocabulary and provide opportunities for extended discussion and different points of view.
  • Encourage parents to talk with and read or tell stories to their children at home.
  • Invite parents, older siblings, and other family members to talk with the group about special events or home experiences of all kinds.
  • Provide good language models for children. If possible, model standard grammatical speech in the child's home language. Recognize that many of children's errors in English ("I wented there", or "I saw three sheeps") show their efforts to learn a rule, like the ed of the past tense, which they overgeneralize. Instead of correcting the child, pick up on what he says but say it correctly. For example, a child may say, "I gots two foots" and the teacher replies, "Yes, you have two feet so you need two socks."

English Language Learners

  • * Indicator: For non-English-speaking children, progresses in listening to and
       understanding English
  • * Indicator: For non-English-speaking children, progresses in speaking English

     In Domain 1, Language Development, the Child Outcomes Framework includes two legislatively mandated Indicators that relate to children who are English language learners. Defining these learning outcomes is difficult in specific terms. What "progress" looks like varies greatly with individual children, their level of language acquisition and proficiency in their home language, and their prior and current exposure to English.

     Children's "progress" also depends on the context within which they are being served. That is, some Head Start programs are monolingual; others are bilingual and use English and one other dominant language such as Spanish. Some programs may have many languages in one classroom—even as many as 10. These Head Start programs may use some English as a Second Language (ESL) principles where the main language for interactions with children and families is English. These programs may also provide regular contact with other children or adults in the classroom who speak the home languages.

     Whatever the situation, the multicultural principles embodied in the Head Start Program Performance Standards (2002) require that programs support children's home language and culture as they acquire English. This helps provide a sense of continuity between home and the classroom for the children served and allows them to feel connected to their family and culture so the process of ongoing communication in their home language is not interrupted or lost. A strong foundation in children's home language can transfer over to their capacity to learn English with less difficulty. To achieve bilingualism, the process of second language acquisition—in this case, English—must be "additive." That is, learning a second language should not mean losing the first. The goal is to create learning environments in Head Start programs that are "additive, not subtractive."

     All children in our society need to acquire English for success in school and in life. But they can become proficient without losing their home language (Cummins 1979; Wong Filmore 1991; Tabors 1997). What is key is for teachers to communicate with parents about this issue. Head Start teachers can help parents make informed decisions about language usage in the home. They need to be aware that focusing exclusively on English acquisition at a very early age might mean that children will give up their home language. If parents do not speak English well and their children lose the home language, serious communication and relationship problems are likely to occur (Wong Filmore 1991). Teachers should especially encourage parents to speak to children and read or tell stories to them in whatever language the parent is most comfortable, as an important means of helping to achieve the other desired language and literacy outcomes. Strengthening children's home language experiences may be considered a short-term goal that will help them progress toward the long-term goal of understanding and communicating in English.

     Assessing English language learners’ language development requires special tools and expertise. Perhaps the most effective strategy for assessing second language learning is for teachers to observe carefully and interact regularly with English language learners. No assumptions about children's competence or intellect should be based on measures in a language in which children are not fluent. Assessing children in the language they know best is most effective.

     Too many English language learners are judged to be language delayed when they are actually demonstrating typical stages of second language development. Children often experience a silent period of several months during which they speak neither language. Parents and teachers might be concerned at such times that children are not progressing, or even that they are losing ground. In fact, this silent period—the length varies—may be followed by experimentation in the new language.

     There is a relatively predictable sequence of second language acquisition, but we need to bear in mind that English language learners are individual children who differ just as English-speaking children do. They vary in temperament, ability, interests, and many other dimensions. Some of these differences affect their second language learning. Children who are risk-takers, for instance, are likely to make better progress in learning a new language. Any child who feels confident, comfortable, and accepted is likely to be more motivated to learn to communicate with others in a new environment.

English Language Learners' Indicators

Domain Element
Language Development Listening and Understanding
  • * For non-English-speaking children, progresses in listening to and understanding English.
Speaking and Communicating
  • *For non-English-speaking children, progresses in speaking English.

English Language Learners' Strategies

To help English language learning children progress in understanding and speaking both English and their home language

  • Build positive, warm, nurturing relationships with English language learners so that they feel safe and less anxious. Not being able to communicate creates considerable anxiety for young children who cannot learn anything well if they are stressed.
  • Speak English in ways that help English language learners understand: For example, use simple sentences, repeat what is said, use gestures and facial expressions, point to objects, use everyday vocabulary.
  • Speak in English clearly and slowly but not loudly, simplifying language when needed as you would for younger children who are just learning their first language. Gradually expand your vocabulary so English language learners continue to make progress in vocabulary development and are challenged.
  • Help children link English vocabulary to firsthand experiences with pictures, concrete objects, and real-life events. At the beginning, talk about the here and now, until children become more proficient in English.
  • Respect and value children's home language and cultural identity.
  • Encourage children's attempts to express themselves in English. Let them know how much you appreciate their efforts.
  • Use songs to help children learn new phrases and sentences, such as, "Hello, hello, hello and how are you? I’m fine, I’m fine, and I hope that you are too."
  • Write children's own stories or audiotape them in their home language, involving volunteers, parents, and older children who speak the language.
  • Provide social support for English language learners—regular contact with other children or adults who speak their language to help support their identity and help them make sense of what is happening around them.
  • Provide lots of time and opportunities for children to talk among themselves. Pair English language learners with dominant English speakers for some activities.
  • Stick to predictable, comfortable classroom routines so English language learners know what to expect.
  • Provide small group reading times using concept books or predictable texts, such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, books in the Spot series, or the bilingual collection of Alma Flor Ada, with simplified vocabulary where children can clearly see the pictures and follow along.
  • Read often in small groups in order to support children who seem confused or uncertain about the story.
  • Read a book not once but many times, as long as children are enjoying it, so they become familiar with the story and text.
  • Provide interesting topics of study that give children something to talk about and help them make connections among concepts and make sense of the new words they are learning.
  • Offer opportunities and support for play because children's natural interest in playing and communicating with other children provides motivation for their language development.
  • Help children acquire book knowledge and appreciation, print awareness, and phonological awareness in their home language, drawing on family and community members as resources. Once acquired, these skills will transfer as children become proficient in English.
  • Include environmental print, such as signs and labels, in English and the children's home language.
  • Provide books, magazines, newspapers and other text in English and the children's home language.
  • Encourage parents to talk with and read to children in their home language and English, where possible.
  • Invite families to engage children in cultural experiences and oral traditions such as storytelling and puppetry in their home language and English.
  • Provide a listening center with stories and songs on tape in children's home languages and in English.
  • Involve children in dramatizing a story or event, encouraging children to repeat dialogue, actions and phrases together.
  • Consider using sign language in conjunction with spoken words to provide multisensory learning.

English Language Learners' Additional Information

   The essential features that make up a quality Head Start classroom or home-based program can support both first and second language acquisition. Implementing the above strategies to enhance language and literacy development will help to establish an environment in which children can strengthen and expand their home language while learning English.

     As children become more proficient users of language, their abilities in other areas grow too. But differences in children's language abilities continue to persist between socioeconomic groups at entrance to school. Unfortunately, these differences become greater over time and contribute to the persistent achievement gap in our country. Head Start programs must take on the challenge of accelerating children's language progress. Think about it—Does teacher talk dominate the classroom? When teachers talk, are they mostly issuing directives like "do this" or "don’t do that"? OR are children and teachers engaged in extended conversations? Are teachers talking with children in cognitively stimulating ways?

     Home visitors and family service workers have an important role to play in children's language development too. They can help parents understand the importance of a rich language environment at home. Think about it—Do they help parents understand the importance of children’s vocabulary development? Do they encourage parents to read or tell stories to their children? Do they talk about or model ways to extend children’s vocabulary and to ask engaging questions when reading or telling stories? Do they help parents learn to use everyday routines as opportunities for conversations with their children? The language environment in the Head Start program, reinforced by the language environment of the home, has important implications for learning across all Domains of the Child Outcomes Framework.

"Domain 1: Language Development."  The Head Start Leaders Guide to Positive Child Outcomes. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2003. English.

Last Reviewed: October 2009

Last Updated: September 5, 2014