What is “sheltered subject matter teaching,” and does it work?

Susan Gross has said of T.P.R.S. that “we shelter vocabulary, not grammar.” This means we do not give our students tons of vocab items– we “shelter” them from a downpour of different words– but we do use whatever grammar we need right from the get-go (keeping it all comprehensible). This is what we call “sheltered subject matter teaching.” Today’s question:

Does sheltered subject matter teaching have a research basis?

The answer, it would seem, according to a new study mentioned in the Times, would appear to be “yes.” (I have emailed the author asking for a copy of the paper; forthcoming).

Background: there’s lots of evidence that poorer kids are exposed to– and pick up on– much less language than wealthier kids (Hart and Risley 1995 is the best-known study). So, people have suggested poorer kids need to be exposed to more language. The question, of course, is what “more” should mean.

Researchers studied parent-child language interactions and, long story short, found that

A) the number of words parents use with their kids does not significantly affect how linguistically capable they become in the future. In other words, super-dooper edumacated parents who went to one of them fancy Ivy League schools– and use a greater variety (and quantity) of vocabulary than do the less-educated– do not manage to make most of their vocabulary “rub off” onto their kids. While wealthier, better-educated people do end up with kids who know more words,this acquisition does not happen because the parents know, or say, a greater number or variety of words.

B) The article notes that “the prevalence of one-on-one interactions and frequent use of parentese — the slow, high-pitched voice commonly used for talking to babies — were reliable predictors of language ability at age 2. The total number of words had no correlation with future ability.” In other words, it is the type and quality of communication that matters more than the quantity.

C) Researchers “found that among 2-year-olds from low-income families, quality interactions involving words — the use of shared symbols (“Look, a dog!”); rituals (“Want a bottle after your bath?”); and conversational fluency (“Yes, that is a bus!”) — were a far better predictor of language skills at age 3 than any other factor, including the quantity of words a child heard.”

Sound familiar?

So…if older kids learn anything like their younger siblings, we can maximise language acquisition by

— reducing the variety of vocab we use. We don’t have to stampede through 1,400 words/year– as my Avancemos text demands– to get kids to learn a ton…we just really focus on using our fewer words quite clearly.

— using realia to to support meaning (props, wigs, costumes, actors, etc)

— using rituals– shared, repetitive actions– to support learning by providing context clues/prompts to clarify meaning. E.g. We begin stories with “there was a girl/boy…” Blaine Ray emphasises one specific technique– the teacher turning their shoulder to audience and facing the actor– about which I thought, “why bother?” initially. But now I get it: it’s a ritual signal to the audience that we are switching from narration to questions (and often from one verb tense to another).

— “saying it back” to students (part of the circling technique). If we ask “did the girl forget her giant purple dog at the nightclub?”, and the kids answer “yes,” we repeat back to them “yes, the girl forgot her giant purple dog at the club.”

— using “wacky voices,” baby talk and other prosodic tools to clarify meaning (Michelle Metcalfe is the goddess of this technique). These “other prosodic tools” include changing tone and volume, using accents, exaggerating question and exclamation intonations, etc. The more “shaped” language is, the easier it is to understand. If I exaggerate my question tone, the kids don’t need to devote mental bandwidth to wondering is Señor Stolz asking a question, or is he stating a fact?. Rather, they know that it’s a question, and can focus directly on the meaning.

We want to do everything we can to ensure that the kids understand.


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