How Preschool Teachers Speak to Children with Different Language Backgrounds

Have you ever wondered how teachers communicate with children who start school or nursery unable to understand or speak English? In the UK, nearly one-fifth of young children are learning English as an additional language (EAL). Preschool is one of the first and few environments where some of these children hear and speak English. A challenge that preschool teachers in the UK face is how best to communicate with these EAL children and support them in learning English for a successful school entry.

To overcome this challenge, we need to, firstly, find out how preschool teachers speak to monolingual English and EAL children. In our recently published study, we investigated whether preschool teachers tailor their speech to children according to their linguistic backgrounds – whether a child is monolingual or EAL – and language proficiency levels.

Studying preschool teacher speech

We video-recorded a preschool classroom for 4.5 months, while the preschool teachers and children engaged in their usual routines and activities. We also used a language test to assess the children’s language proficiency.

We first looked at the amount of language that an average preschool child could hear in the preschool classroom. We found that a child spending 20 hours per week at the preschool would have the chance to hear approximately 93,340 words per week! This suggests that the preschool classroom provides a rich source of language input for young children.

We then investigated how preschool teachers speak to children from different linguistic backgrounds and of varying language proficiency levels. We found that the preschool teachers used longer sentences, a more diverse vocabulary, and more complex and diverse sentence structures with the monolingual children and children who were more proficient in English. These findings suggest that the preschool teachers were adapting their language use to the children’s linguistic backgrounds and language proficiency levels.

We also found that the preschool teachers used more complex language, such as more conjunctions, with the children who were more advanced in their language skills. These adaptations that are not seen in our analysis on linguistic backgrounds suggest that the teachers were not simply providing simplified input to the EAL children. Rather, they were tuning in to each and every child’s language ability.

Simplified language - a boon or a bane?

How do EAL children and children who are less proficient in English catch up with their peers if teachers use simplified language to speak to them? Well, this simplified input might be adaptive to the children’s language development. In fact, children at different stages of development benefit from different features in their language input. For example, a child at the age of 7 months benefits from hearing words repeatedly, while a child at the age of 30 months benefits from hearing a greater variety of words. It is likely that the simplified input to the EAL children and children who were less proficient in English was an attempt to provide language input appropriate for their language proficiency levels. More importantly, our analyses showed that these children did not hear less language from their teachers.

Take-home message

The good news is that our study shows that a preschool classroom presents ample opportunities for preschool children to experience language, preschool teachers are sensitive to preschool children’s language ability and linguistic backgrounds and can adapt their language use, including the use of vocabulary and sentence structures, accordingly.

What we need to find out next is whether the preschool teachers’ language adaptation truly drives the children’s language development, or whether it is simply in response to the children’s less complex language use. We will look at the data from our other recording sessions and explore whether and how the language features identified in this study influenced the children’s language skills and development, and whether these differ for the monolingual and EAL children. Stay tuned for part II of this blog about our study.



This project was supported by a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholarship (DS-2014-14) and the International Centre for Language and Communicative Development (LuCiD) at Lancaster University, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (United Kingdom; ES/L008955/1).


Read the full article here:

Chan, K.C.J., Monaghan, P., & Michel, M. (2022). Adapting to children’s individual language proficiency: An observational study of preschool teacher talk addressing monolinguals and children learning English as an additional language. Journal of Child Language.


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