“There is a lot of emphasis right now on what we call ‘serve and return’, which is back and forth interaction, like a tennis game,” international literacy and language development expert Professor Laura Justice of The Ohio State University says. Visiting University of Canterbury (UC) on an Erskine Fellowship, hosted by the UC Child Well-being Research Institute, Professor Justice shared her expertise with the early childhood sector at UC’s Child Well-Being Research Symposium last week.

“I serve, you return, and so on – you need 10 ‘returns’ to be effective. This serve and return interaction builds the circuitry of the brain through language development,” she says. “So the question is how do we build this serve and return routine into our children’s lives?”

It’s an important question. Early childhood language development, Professor Justice says, is the foundation for everything else; it influences emotional, social and academic development.

“At the symposium I will be speaking about the neuroscience behind brain development, because a lot of people don’t truly understand the plasticity of the young child’s brain and what we call ‘experience-dependent plasticity’. Children need to have experiences and sustained interactions to shape the brain.”

The peak of language acquisition is between birth and five years, which is why early childhood educators need to be resourced with facilities and strategies to optimise children’s development.

However, this is often not how classrooms are set up.

“In a typical classroom situation most children have very few opportunities for long sustained interactions with adults. It is way easier said than done. What we often find is that teachers are in charge of 23 kids and a lot of time teachers focus on structuring a really well managed environment.”

The problem is not unique to Aotearoa New Zealand either.

“In one of our studies of teacher/child conversations in a US classroom, we found that only 1 in 10 conversations was multi-turn.”

Aotearoa New Zealand has significant challenges when it comes to improving literacy success for young learners, and this starts with empowering quality teaching in the classroom. Professor Justice suggests we need to consider “how to build classrooms where each child has opportunities for sustained, high-quality interactions”.

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