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UMD Researchers Help Children Improve Language Skills With $3.3M Department of Education Grant

August 14, 2017
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin, 301-405-1733

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Researchers at the University of Maryland were recently awarded a $3.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Education Sciences to investigate the efficacy of Toggle Talk—a proprietary curriculum intended to help young children learn to shift between various American English dialects and Academic Classroom English. 

Young children often come to public schools from a diverse range of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, bringing with them a variety of American English dialects that are spoken in their homes. The subtle differences between their spoken dialect and the English taught in the classroom can significantly impact the development of students’ listening, language and foundational skills. 

Toggle Talk, which was developed by Professor Holly Craig (University of Michigan) under a previous grant funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, uses “contrastive analysis” to teach children how to make situationally-appropriate language choices—providing young children with the vocabulary and language structure awareness necessary to switch between their home language and more formal, academic language. Dr. Jan Edwards, professor in UMD's Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and Associate Director of the Language Science Center, is planning a closely monitored local rollout of the Toggle Talk curriculum in collaboration with her co-investigators, Jeff Harring (HDQM), Rebecca Silverman (CHSE) and Ana Taboada Barber (CHSE). 

“The focus here is on spoken language,” said Dr. Edwards. “It’s a preventative program that teaches children about shifting between dialects as soon as they enter a school environment.” 

Part of the reason early exposure to this curriculum is so vital involves how children develop fundamental reading skills, Dr. Edwards said. “We often ask our students to ‘sound it out.’ When the language spoken at home is different than that spoken in the classroom–silent letters or grammatical differences–it can mean real challenges for the students. The earlier we can help students resolve these differences, the better.” 

The Toggle Talk curriculum addresses these challenges by teaching young children about language differentiation and how to flexibly shift between two dialects, without devaluing the language spoken within their homes. 

“About a third of all children cannot make this shift by the end of 2nd grade. These students are at the highest risk to fall behind in literacy acquisition,” said Dr. Edwards. The hope is that this innovative curriculum can help researchers and educators identify opportunities to close the achievement gap for children in public school systems across the nation. 

Dr. Edwards’ team is also interested in learning more about how dialect shifting impacts students’ cognitive bandwidth. This process may offer students similar cognitive benefits to shifting between languages. 

“Bilingual students have what some call the ‘metalinguistic advantage’, because of their ability to think about language and manipulate its components in ways that monolingual speakers are less free to do so,” said Dr. Taboada Barber. “I am especially interested in finding out if the impact of Toggle Talk instruction can render similar benefits for dialect shifting than those afforded to bilingual or multilingual students.”