Overview of article
The research paper selected is “Conversations about Visual Arts: Facilitating Oral language,” authored by Ni Chang and Susan Cress (2014). The authors’ purpose “was to explore how young children’s language skills were facilitated during or after children’s participation in visual arts.” The underlying research questions were “How do adult-child interactions during or after visual arts facilitate oral language development?’’ ‘‘How can adults foster a partnership in the interactions?’’ and ‘‘How do the visual arts serve as a referent for language and conversations?’’ (Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 416). The intention was to contribute to this area of research, filling an apparent void the researchers discovered, using visual arts as a referent for oral language development.
Young children’s oral language skills have long term impact on their later success in school (Medicine & Council, 2015). It is critical to more than just a child’s literacy development and school success: it is the foundation for learning (Anthony, Davis, Williams, & Anthony, 2014; Bradfield et al., 2014; Dickinson, McCabe, Anastasopoulos, Peisner-Feinberg, & Poe, 2003; Munro, 2009) identifying the relevance of this study.
The Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) (DEECD, 2009, p. 12) describes shared, sustained conversations between adults and children, as powerful and important. Developing oral communication skills is closely linked to the interactions and social bonds between adults and children (Medicine & Council, 2015, pp. 4-19). The VEYLD also highlight children’s use of visual representations as tools to communicate their feelings, ideas and observations (DEECD, 2009, pp. 28-29).
This qualitative research study used in-situ audio recordings of conversations that arose during or after each child had painted or drawn, utilising a sample of four children with a parent (three mums and one dad).
Parents were provided with tips on encouraging genuine shared discourse, the recorded conversations were transcribed, and the data was analysed using the constant comparative method (CCM). Coding utilised Otto’s “linguistic scaffolding strategies” (2008) for the parents’ and Halliday’s model of language functions for the children’s words, and these tools were explained.
Throughout the month 14 dialogues, 13 drawings and 4 paintings were collected, and three transcribed and coded conversation occurrences and visual artwork were shared, including referenced analysis of each.
The research concluded that children’s visual art pieces could plausibly be used as referent for attentive, sustained, shared, one-to-one conversations between adults and children, which the researchers asserted is an under-utilised opportunity to develop children’s oral language.
The implication for the research was to contribute and generate further discussion, which according to the authors was achieved, suggesting that their findings would be further validated with larger samples and possibly greater diversity of artwork types.
Critically review research design
Chang and Cress lament that there is limited literature “focusing on talking with young children about visual arts to facilitate their oral language” (2014, p. 416), and that the intention of the study was to fill this void. With this in mind, their choice of a qualitative research study was appropriate, as the narrative form of a qualitative research report is generally clearer to practitioners, and thus there is greater probability that educational practice will be impacted by the research findings (Kervin, 2006, p. 85).
Although the theoretical framework is not stated, the explanation of the approach sits well within the social constructivist theory, which holds “assumptions that individuals seek understanding of the world in which they live and work”, and instead of starting with a theory, the researchers “inductively develop a theory or pattern of meaning” (Creswell, 2009, p. 9).
However, the constant comparative method used to analyse the data is often synonymous with Grounded Theory, with the focus towards the “development of a substantive theory” (Fram, 2013, p. 1), per the authors’ comment about the theory “emerging from the data” (Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 417). Although some aspects of the study align with Grounded Theory, the majority do not. As O’Connor et al. (2008 cited in Fram, 2013, p. 2) explain, constant comparative method “does not in and of itself constitute a grounded theory design”, rather it “assures that all data [is] systematically compared to all other data in the data set”.
Within qualitative research, sample sizes are relatively small as the aim is to focus on collecting data that is rich about a particular phenomenon, with detail and depth. Participants are typically selected purposefully (Tuckett, 2004, p. 3), yet it is curious that Chang and Cress did not include a rationalisation for their participant choice or detail the selection process. There are many logistical and ethical benefits to utilising parent/child pairs, O’Toole & Beckett explain “research of any kind today raises issues of the rights of others” (2013, p. 21) as all parties must give permission prior to any data collection. It is not clear however, whether the authors obtained the children’s permission along with their parents, though it was clearly noted that pseudonyms were used to protect the participants’ confidentiality (Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 417).
Tape-recording was used to ensure rich and complete collection of data from the interactions, which took place in the home environment to be open-ended with “natural behaviours … observed and recorded”. The researchers’ role in the data collection process is not stated, so it is assumed that the researchers were non-participants (Kervin, 2006, p. 85), and they collected and listened to the tapes outside the setting.
Boeije puts forward that “researchers often describe at great length how their studies were carried out, but remain vague when it comes to giving an account of the analysis” (2002, p. 392). CCM was used, with a clear explanation of the analysis tools and the rationale for using them, which was a strong aspect of the study as it highlighted the dialogic nature of the conversations, not only focusing on the child’s responses, but also the effectiveness of the adult’s questions and strategies.
The study did not break new ground with regard to children’s oral language development, but it did achieve its aim to fill a void and “illuminate … the limits and possibilities of what practicing educators might do” (Moss et al., 2009, p. 504) to facilitate children’s oral language through the use of the children’s art.
Knowledge claims and Arguments
Chang and Cress state that “oral language is a powerful precursor to conventional reading and writing,” and that it is an “important developmental process” (2014, p. 416). The authors state Zimmerman et al’s findings that “Adult-child conversations are robustly associated with healthy language development” with one-on-one communication being the most beneficial (cited in Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 416), which is certainly supported by their references and the VEYLDF.
The authors then emphasize the significance of children’s visual arts, as resources to be utilised to gain insight to children’s knowledge, views and understandings through conversations and observation. Again, there is significant support within the literature for this view, well referenced within the article. VEYLDF contains an outcome devoted to the importance of mixed media as a form of expression: “Children express ideas and make meaning using a range of media” (DEECD, 2009, p. 42).
A strong underlying motivation for the research is that while it is known that children’s oral language can benefit from conversations with adults, it is the authors’ opinion that observation and extensive, in-depth conversations seldom take place between adults and children about their artwork (Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 416).
Although the personal experiences of these researchers may imply this fact, it is at odds with the influence of the Reggio Emilia philosophy which has been inspiring early childhood education for over 20 years. Central to the Reggio Emilia philosophy is respect for the child and a pedagogy of listening, which is most widely known through “The Hundred Languages of Children”, an exhibit which travels the world inspiring adults to enter into dialogue with children at all stages of their creative exploration. A child’s artistic endeavour would typically represent an ideal opportunity for an adult to engage in dialogue with the child, as “through action and reflection, learning takes shape in the mind of the subject and, through representation and exchange, becomes knowledge and skill” (Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 2011, p. 235).
The Reggio Emilia philosophy and the literature backs Chang and Cress’s knowledge claim that children’s oral language development will be developed through adult-child interactions during or after visual arts – That through interactions, adults will foster a partnership, and that visual art can be used as referent for conversation and language development. This would seem to imply that dialogue about children’s art is indeed happening.
The authors also claim that all qualitative data was coded and tabulated, which presumably ensured a truly comprehensive analysis and that the authors didn’t fall prey to selection bias. However, as only three conversation episodes were included within the article, representing only three of the four participants, it is not possible to assess the validity of the authors’ claim, which slightly undermines the study’s transparency.
An in-depth referenced discussion elaborated on how the conversation episodes addressed the research questions, such as “The sustained conversation made available opportunities for the child to use language … and to take turns in a conversation” (Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 418) and “not only did the adult facilitate the child’s oral language skills, such as … when and how to pose [the] right questions (Dickinson 1990), but also help deepen his thinking and learn some content knowledge” (Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 420).
The discussion validated this topic as an area worthy of study, providing “the child with a plethora of opportunities to use language and gain content knowledge” and offering “opportunities for the child to think abstractly” (Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 420). Thus the authors were able to not only highlight the questions and scaffolding that ran through the data, but also present the narrative within each dialogue episode to tell the story within the limited word space, ensuring context for readers (Chang & Cress, 2014, p. 420).
The researchers concluded that their study explored “how young children’s language skills were facilitated during or after children’s participation in visual arts” with the affirmation that indeed, art created by children could serve as a provocation for sustained dialogue between adult and child. This conclusion is supported by their data and analysis, and their rigorously referenced supporting literature.
In their recommendations, Chang and Cress highlight that a larger sample size would strengthen findings, also suggesting examining other types of artwork. Another rethink would be to select educators within early learning environments rather than parents, understanding this would add an ethical layer that Chang and Cress didn’t experience.
Rather than the strictly qualitative research approach utilised, further study would benefit from a mixed-method approach, combining aspects of qualitative and quantitative research which could include:
- Surveys to ascertain the educators’ level of responsiveness to children during and after art experiences, informing decisions on which educators should be selected for the study, as their interaction would necessarily increase;
- Base-lining students’ oral language stage prior to intervention to contrast before and after levels – Educators could use TROLL, an instrument with which teachers can assess a child’s oral literacy skills within minutes, and without prior training (Dickinson, McCabe, & Sprague, 2003, p. 4);
- Addition of a control group – students who are base-lined before and after the program, who do not receive any additional engagement or intervention, to control for variables outside the intervention parameters;
- Cross-checked data analysis – have datasets checked by multiple researchers to control for researcher biases;
- Use of computer software to sort and code data from conversation transcripts – Electronic data analysis can reveal trends and patterns not obvious to the researchers due to the volume of data (O’Toole & Beckett, 2013, p. 170);
These modifications to the methodology and approach would extend the research focus from ‘how’ to ‘how much’, providing a clearer picture of the true impact of adult facilitation of children’s oral language during and after art experiences, whilst laying a firm framework for replication by other researchers to test the repeatability of the study outcomes.
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