Language acquisition is not just a question of developing language skills: The role of behaviour regulation skills in acquiring language

In current approaches to supporting children’s language acquisition in childcare settings, there is a lot of focus on developing things like vocabulary and phonological awareness, and this makes perfect sense, because vocabulary size and phonological awareness are predictors of both later language and literacy skills (Storch & Whitehurst, 2002). Therefore, if we observe a child, for example, with atypically low receptive vocabulary (the words he or she understands), it is usually very helpful to make extra efforts to support the child's vocabulary learning. This includes increasing number and quality of typical interactions such as shared-book readings, and linguistically rich conversations throughout the day.

But focussing on language skills is not the only way to support language learning.

Another important predictor of a child’s language skills – yet a little less obvious – is a child’s ability to control his or her own behaviour. Researchers refer to the skills and processes involved in controlling own behaviour by a few different names, but in this blog post, I’ll use the terminology behaviour regulation (McClelland et al., 2007).

What is exactly involved in behaviour regulation? Researchers don’t completely agree regarding what components it consists of, but in general, we can say that a human being needs adequate skills in attention, working memory and inhibitory control to get about his or her business in an orderly fashion. We use our behaviour regulation skills constantly. Take, for example, the task of waiting in line to pay at the grocery store. Sometimes, we are met with a long line of people in front of us. Why not just push to the front? We would surely finish our shopping faster if we did so! Well, most people have learned via similar previous experiences (usually acquired in early childhood) that doing so is counter-productive to completing the task. If we did push to the front of the line, other people would start yelling, maybe someone would call us something you can’t say on TV, and very likely the store manager would get involved, possibly refuse to serve us, and maybe even ask us never to return. So, did pushing to the front of the line help us to complete our task more expediently? Nope. On the other hand, if we understand that waiting in line, although seemingly slower, in fact helps us to complete our task faster, then we control our behaviour accordingly, wait in line, and complete the task in a few minutes without getting kicked out of the grocery store.

Watch a video demonstrating a classic test of behaviour regulation: The Marshmallow Test!

In the daily life of any human being, there are countless examples of behaviour regulation calculations going on in the brain that allow us to complete our tasks. Sometimes, controlling our behaviour also means waiting a very long time for the benefits. Such is the case with education. Having been a student and teacher at universities for many years, I can say with 100% certainty that nearly no students actually enjoy going to classes (especially before 11 am). But, in general, the students do it because they know that in some years, they will experience the benefits of education, such as when they get a job, gain more prestige, or whatever it may be that is their personal driving force. No matter what the task though, attention, working memory and inhibitory control are the cognitive skills that allow control of behaviour to occur. One must be able to pay attention to what is going on, remember tasks and other cues, and in the end exercise control over emotional impulses and so on.

In children, these cognitive skills are immature and must develop over childhood. At the same time, developing them quickly has obvious benefits for getting along with others, not to mention succeeding in school. In school, a child needs to be able to receive instruction from a teacher. This requires a lot of behaviour regulation! During classes, the child needs to be able to direct attention towards the teacher, remember the instructions the teacher gave, and suppress or postpone certain urges (such as the urge to throw things at another child or jump out the window and go play).

Research on behaviour regulation and language

So, behaviour regulation skills have clear benefits for success in our school system, but interestingly, scientific research indicates that these same skills correlate with children’s language development. For example, Vallotton & Ayoub (2011) found that toddlers with larger vocabularies tended to have better behaviour regulation skills. This means that if a toddler knows more words, he or she is better at attending to adults, remembering what they say, and controlling own behaviour accordingly. In another study, McClelland et al. (2007) studied four-year-old preschoolers and found that the children with the best behaviour regulation skills also had larger vocabularies, better phonological awareness, and better early mathematics skills. Interestingly, they also found that improvements in behaviour regulation skills predicted improvements in language skills, which suggests that improving behaviour regulation may go hand-in-hand with improving language skills for some children. In a study of slightly older children, Matthews, Ponitz, & Morrison (2009) also found that behaviour management skills in five-year-olds correlated with phonological awareness and mathematics skills. Note that all of these studies found that girls tended to develop behaviour regulation skills faster than boys (but note as well, that we boys do eventually catch up).

Why do we see a relation between behaviour regulation skills and language acquisition? The short answer appears to be that behaviour regulation skills are really just a grouping of underlying cognitive processes that are also active in facilitating language acquisition. For example, during a typical shared-book reading session between a mother and her toddler, in which the mother talks to the child about the things in the book (a very stimulating interaction for language), the child has to use attention skills, working memory and inhibitory control in order to attend and learn from what the mother is doing and saying. Like with language, the more the child uses these skills, the stronger they become.

Note that the relationship between behaviour regulation and language acquisition is likely reciprocal: better behaviour regulation skills allow a child to improve language skills, while better language skills allow the child to improve behaviour regulation skills. For example, when a three-year-old has a larger vocabulary, the child is better able to understand when the adult explains a concept such as why taking turns is important during playtime. These very same underlying cognitive skills that help a child to develop turn-taking skills appear to aid the child in learning from the language environment in return.

Behaviour management skills can protect against the effects of low quality in childcare

One last study that I would like to mention in this blog post is work from Schmitt, Pentimonti, & Justice, (2012). In this study, the researchers investigated the relationship between the quality of educator-child relations and children’s behaviour regulation and language skills. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that nurturing educator-child relationships benefited language and behaviour regulation. However, the researchers also found that in cases in which the adults were not adequately nurturing, children with stronger behaviour regulation skills still managed to show gains in grammar. In short, it appears that behaviour regulation skills act like a protective coating on children experiencing less than ideal emotional environments. Research has documented that many children growing up in poverty benefit from extra language support in childcare settings (Justice, Mashburn, Hamre, & Pianta, 2008), but helping children to develop behaviour regulation skills may be important too.

A more holistic approach to supporting language acquisition

To summarize, language support in early childhood education often revolves around supporting early language skills (such as phonological awareness, vocabulary, pragmatic language use, grammar skills and narrative skills), and this is of course a very good thing. However, we can further support children’s language acquisition by supporting their development of basic behaviour regulation. In doing so, however, we should be mindful not to let the one approach replace the other, but rather strive towards a holistic approach that integrates both.


Justice, L. M., Mashburn, A. J., Hamre, B. K., & Pianta, R. C. (2008). Quality of language and literacy instruction in preschool classrooms serving at-risk pupils. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(1), 51–68.

Matthews, J. S., Ponitz, C. C., & Morrison, F. J. (2009). Early gender differences in self-regulation and academic achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 101(3), 689–   704.

McClelland, M. M., Cameron, C. E., Connor, C. M., Farris, C. L., Jewkes, A. M., & Morrison, F. J. (2007). Links between behavioral regulation and preschoolers’ literacy, vocabulary, and math skills. Developmental Psychology, 43(4), 947–959.

Schmitt, M. B., Pentimonti, J. M., & Justice, L. M. (2012). Teacher–child relationships, behavior regulation, and language gain among at-risk preschoolers. Journal of School Psychology, 50(5), 681–699.

Storch, S. A., & Whitehurst, G. J. (2002). Oral language and code-related precursors to reading: Evidence from a longitudinal structural model. Developmental Psychology, 38(6), 934–947.

Vallotton, C., & Ayoub, C. (2011). Use Your Words: The Role of Language in the Development of Toddlers’ Self-Regulation. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 26(2), 169–181.

Shared-book reading for toddlers and preschoolers

Recently, I was interviewed by a journalist for the magazine LFS Nyt, the members’ magazine for the Danish Union of Social Pedagogues. The interview was regarding the importance of books within the early education context – how they can be used to support language development in toddlers and preschoolers, and what best practices are recommended.

Since this is a topic I actually get asked about a lot by educators and parents alike, I thought I would make it the topic of today’s blog.

How do books influence language development?

Children learn oral language by interacting with and listening to other people, and therefore we can’t say that books (solely by themselves) actively affect language development. However, when an adult reads a book to a child, the book becomes a valuable tool that increases the quality of the adult’s language input to the child. Books tend to contain rich vocabulary and complex sentence structures in high dosages, whereas an adult’s more everyday speech tends to contain fewer of these elements. So essentially, books are like tools that help the adult give language to the child.

The action of reading a book to a child is often referred to as “shared-book reading.” The reading is “shared” because the child is an active participant. Although the parent is the one that actually reads aloud, the child follows along looking at the pictures, and may ask a number of questions or make comments. The adult may further facilitate the child’s involvement by asking questions as they progress through the story, or by relating the book’s content to the child’s life. All of these actions encourage the child to use and listen to language, which is very beneficial for language development.

Shared-book reading supports narrative skills

Books also help strengthen the child’s narrative skills. Narrative skills are the language skills that help us say things in a coherent and understandable way. We adults use our narrative skills constantly when we interact with each other, and we are pretty good at it. We go through our days explaining this and that to each other without any major issues in comprehensibility. Small children’s narratives, however, are far less understandable. Children’s narratives of what they did on the weekend and so on are often very hard to understand. This can be because they tell parts of the story in the wrong order, or they forget to give important background details that would help the listener understand.

When children listen to storybooks, they learn the framework of narratives. Storybooks contain all the ingredients of a good narrative. They have a beginning where all background information is described, then they explain what happened in a coherent, chronological manner, and finally they end with some sort of resolution or conclusion.

Shared-book reading also benefits pre-literacy development

Children learn a lot about written language in addition to oral language through shared-book reading. This is a very good thing because written language is a complex thing. Written language is a code, where symbols – such as letters of the alphabet – correspond to speech sounds in the oral language so that the reader can “replay” the message in his/her head. Although children normally first receive formal reading and writing instruction in school, toddlers and preschoolers learn a great deal of “pre-literacy” knowledge that helps them later when they start school. For example, when reading to the child, the adult can point out the difference between script and pictures, the direction one reads in (English: left to right, top to down), which way you turn the pages, the difference between letters and words, and so on.

Books that play with rhyming and other aspects of a language’s sound structure also help children develop their “phonological awareness” – their awareness of the sound structure of words. Does cat rhyme with bat or ban? And why? If I say the word “stop” and then take the s-sound away, what word do I then have? Being able to hear these sorts of things helps children immensely later in school when they will learn to “sound out” (or decode) words. Some books are written specially to increase children’s phonological awareness and are an excellent tool for educators and parents.

Some best practices

Here are suggestions for best practices with books in the early childhood context.

Educators & adults

  • Start early. Books make fine early toys for children. If buying for babies and toddlers, make sure to buy books with thick pages that can’t give a paper cut.
  • Books without words are great! You can talk about all the things going on in the pictures, which exposes children to lots of rich vocabulary and sentence structure.
  • Make books available at child-reach. Research shows that children incorporate books in their play if they are available to them.
  • Read every day.
  • Reread books. This benefits children’s memories and allows you to go deeper into the story.
  • When you read, discuss what’s happening in the book, and relate it to the child’s life. Ask questions. Why do you think…? What do you think he will do?
  • Buy books related to the child’s interests.
  • Don’t replace reading with iPad games and activities. New research shows that iPad games reduce the number of linguistic interactions between the adult and the child (see one of my previous blog posts). The child should be interacting with the adult, not the iPad.
  • Show children how books work, and gradually tell them about the written language.


  • Create a library of books that parents can borrow and read at home to their children. Make sure that there are books in the languages of the parents who don’t speak the majority language very well.
  • Tell parents of the importance of reading and encourage them to do it often.
  • Invite parents to sit with their child in his or her lap while you (the educator) read a book to the children. This helps parents pick up the style of shared-book reading, which is helpful for parents who don’t usually read to their kids.
  • Schedule shared-book reading for every day. Schedules are old-school tools that help us develop good professional habits.
  • Choose books based on an ongoing theme to establish continuity.
  • As an activity, ask children to draw and retell a known story.
  • There are many more ideas for best practices, but you’ll get far on these!

A note on dual-language learners

Children learning Danish as a second-language benefit from being read to by their parents in their heritage language. So, if I’m a Turkish speaking three-year-old learning Danish during the day in preschool, it is good for both my Danish and my Turkish that my parents read to me at home in Turkish, especially if my parents don’t speak very good Danish. The Turkish writing system works exactly like the Danish one, and therefore all that preliteracy knowledge is completely transferable from Turkish to Danish. Furthermore, having a strong mother tongue is known to benefit children’s learning of their second language, not to mention that it helps the child connect better with his or her parents.

Participation in Ph.D Cup 201

Talk about coming out of one's comfort zone! Last month, I stood on stage at Danmarks Radio, and tried to explain my research in a three minute pitch. It was a competition called the Ph.D. Cup, in which doctoral students who graduated in 2015, compete to communicate their research clearly and concisely before a panel of judges à la X-factor. The program was broadcasted nationally on DR2 on April 18th, and Dr. Lars Boesen won with his talk about his prostate cancer research!

This year's winner, Lars Boesen! Photo from

In connection with the competition, us finalists received media training, and were interviewed by a number of journalists. I'm very appreciative for having had the opportunity to profile the research I have been involved in! It was an honour to be chosen as a finalist, and I can only encourage all other Ph.D. students to consider applying, when they complete their dissertations.

Here are links to some of the interviews and other media, that were made in connection with the competition:



Report from the National Reading Conference in Norway!

Norwegians aren't just good readers... they also have nice fjords.

Norwegians aren't just good readers... they also have nice fjords.

The last few days, I have been at the National Conference for Reading Research in Stavanger, Norway. I was invited to give a talk on the quality of language environments in Danish preschools. It has been a great conference, and it was interesting to see that Norwegian researchers and early childhood educators are preoccupied with the exact same topics that we are in Denmark. These included how to improve the educational odds of socially disadvantaged children, and the importance of building a more evidence-based approach to language and pre-literacy instruction.

The main theme of this year’s conference was reading development from the perspective of early childhood education, which is a very important topic in educational research. Language and pre-literacy skills determine, to a large degree, children’s success in learning to read when they start school. Therefore, I’m dedicating this blog article to this topic.

All parents want to know how they can give their children a good start in life, and preparing kids for developing literacy, is surely one of the most important.

What is literacy?

First of all, what is literacy? The ability to read can roughly be boiled down to two connected skills: (1) The ability to decode one’s writing system, and (2) the ability to understand the words that one decodes. Let’s start with decoding, and use our Roman alphabet as an example.

The alphabet is a code. Each letter represents phonetic sounds, and you need to know which sounds each letter represents in order to use the code. Furthermore, the correspondence of letters to sounds changes depending on the language. For example, the letter K in English usually refers to the sound you hear in the words car or task (In English, both the letters C and K can refer to this sound). However, in Swedish, K can refer to a sort of SH sound. In any case, alphabetic writing systems are codes, and children need to know the code in order to read.

When children start developing their decoding skills, they can start “sounding out words” as we call it in English. That is to say, that they can look at a word, and try to break it up into its individual speech sounds. For example, a child can look at the word ‘bookworm’ and break it up into its sounds: b-o-o-k-w-o-r-m. Using this method, the child will make an approximation of the word that will help him or her say it out loud, and hopefully identify which word he or she is decoding.

Once children start decoding words, the other important part of reading comes into play: comprehension. If the child has the word bookworm in his or her vocabulary, then the child will recognize the word, assuming his or her decoding approximation is close enough to the true phonetic structure (the alphabet is not perfect in English, and spellings seldom exactly represent how the words actually are pronounced).

So to sum up, children need to be able to both decode and comprehend in order to truly read. Interestingly, the foundations for decoding and reading comprehension are laid in early childhood.

The Connection with Early Childhood Education

Children vary in their knowledge of the written word and language skills when they start school. This is not necessarily a problem, as long as the variation is not too great. However, some children start school with both very poor language skills, and very little knowledge of what the written word is and how it works. This naturally makes learning to read more difficult, and facilitates the so-called “learning gap” that develops between children who succeed in learning to read, and those that struggle. A major goal in early childhood education is to eliminate these types of learning gaps.

Why do some children have better early literacy skills when they start school than others? Generally, research indicates that some children receive more stimulation at home than others, especially if they come from middle-upper class families, and this explains some of the variation. However, research also indicates that some children go to lower quality child-care centers, where there is a low language-learning environment, and there is little learning about how the written word works. Imagine growing up in a family where there is very little support for language development, and on top of this, you also attend a preschool of low quality. In such a circumstance, it’s hard not to see how some kids have the odds stacked against them.

So what do children need to learn in early childhood to get ready for reading? In high quality child-care facilities, educators work towards developing two skillsets: 1) pre-literacy skills, and 2) language skills. The pre-literacy skills are emergent decoding skills such as knowing the letters of the alphabet, and what sounds they represent, as well as something called phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is a child’s awareness of what sounds a given word consists of, and how these sounds can be manipulated. For example, a typical five-year-old will be able to hear the ‘cat’ and ‘hat’ rhyme, and identify the first and maybe last sounds in each word. The other skillset, language, supports children’s later reading comprehension. In high quality child-care centers, educators will have focus on developing children’s vocabulary and narrative skills.

Early Learning is Essential

To wrap up, learning to read is no easy feat. It builds literally on years of development over the first five years of life. In their early years, children build language and pre-literacy skills, and these facilitate later decoding and reading comprehension. To develop strong language and pre-literacy skills, parents do not need to go overboard. Just keep reading books to your kids and engaging in discussions with them on a daily basis. These early experiences will help ease their path to literacy when they start in school.

Playtime: some toys promote language use more than others

Imagine three different one-year-old children receive three different toys for Christmas. The first child receives a toy-laptop that flashes letters of the alphabet and words, the second child receives a traditional wooden puzzle, and the third child receives a book. Which of these toys will promote the most language use, when parents play with their kids and their new toys?

A new study reported in the prestigious journal JAMA Pediatrics sheds new light on how different kinds of toys influence parents' playtime with their kids. In the study, researchers from Northern Arizona University found that children who played with the electronic toys vocalized less during playtime than children who played with traditional toys or books. Play with electronic toys was further characterized by less turn-taking between the child and parent, fewer uses of complex language, and parents generally spoke less to their children. Whereas playing with books and solving puzzles appeared to promote richer language environments, playing with electronic toys consistently related to poorer language environments. A summary of the study can be read here.

The question is then, why do electronic toys seem to negatively affect parents' linguistic interactions with their children - even when the electronic toys are intended to be educational? The researchers in the study point to the fact that  electronic toys, with exciting lights and sounds, are excellent at obtaining and holding a child's attention, but they also decrease the the parent's involvement in the play.

Children do not learn language on their own. Decades of research have demonstrated that children largely learn language from listening and interacting with their parents and caregivers. In general, children's language development reflects the quantity and quality of the language input that each child receives to a large extent. Therefore, if electronic toys hinder linguistic communication between the child and the parent, then it stands to reason that the child will receive less language stimulation, even though the opposite perhaps was intended. 

It might seem enticing to give children exciting electronic toys that appear to be educational at first glance; however, no toy will ever surpass the linguistic stimulation a  child receives when engaged in high quality play with a parent. This is not to say that parents shouldn't use electronic toys in their shared-play with children. Some electronic toys give parents an important role so that they can engage the child in talk while they play. However, many electronic toys promote isolated play, where the parent has a reduced role. Although these toys may entertain the child, they appear to be less conducive to language development than traditional play objects such as books. 

What is the morale of the story in this blog? Parents, you are the most important factor in your child's language development! Toy-laptops and iPad apps have value for language development if they increase talk and turn-taking during play. If, however, they isolate the child's play, then they serve little value in child development.  Playing with traditional toys and books may seem boring for kids, but these acts appear to promote enriching linguistic interactions. If parents wish to include electronic media in their play with children, then the toys should be used in a way that support talk and interactions.

Nowadays, parents are inundated with many options to buy electronic toys intended to enhance children's learning and play. I would suggest using one's own critical judgement to assess the value these toys hold for your child. If the toys don't bring about more and richer interactions with your child than for example booking-reading would bring, then they are probably not worth their added expense.



Anna V. Sosa, PhD. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play With the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication.JAMA Pediatr., December 2015 DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753

Article in Børn og Unge!

Screenshot from Børn og Unge

Today, the magazine Børn og Unge brings an article about the results of a study I headed up as part of my Ph.D. project. Børn og Unge is the professional magazine for the largest union of early childhood educators in Denmark.

The study investigated the quality of the physical language environment in Danish preschools. You can read the article starting on page 27 here:

The study found that there was generally a rather unsystematic approach to creating quality in the physical learning environment in Danish preschools, but that there was a lot of variation. In all, 293 preschools were investigated.

Thank you very much to Laila Kjærbæk Hansen, the rest of the team at SDU, and the many student assistants who helped with this study! The study was carried out as part of the research projects SPELL and Fart på Sproget, with funding from the Strategic Research Council and the Danish Board of Social Services respectively. Most importantly, my deepest appreciation to all preschools and educators who participated in the study.


Check out my article on

Screenshot from

Screenshot from

I recently published an article on the popular science website The goal of the article was to communicate the details of one of the studies from my Ph.D. dissertation to the general public. The study investigated the quality of the language environment in Danish preschools with regards to teacher-child interactions and the physical materials children had available to them.

The study had already been reported on in various news media, but such articles have limited space, and are not able to go into the details of the studies. If you're interested, do check out the article (but you'll need to google-translate it if you don't speak Danish)! It's available here:



Growing up bilingual appears to have cognitive benefits - especially for children growing up in poverty

Science Direct recently brought an article about the effects of being raised in a multilingual environment. Assistant Professor Yang Hwajn discusses in the article how bilingualism can support executive functions in children. If you are raising bilingual children, this article might be an interesting read for you!

Parents who raise multilingual children are often interested and sometimes concerned about what consequences multilingualism might have on their child's development. This interest can also be impacted by the country one lives in. In Canada, for example, it is considered to be quite positive and even prestigious to have more than one native tongue. In Denmark, on the other hand, the word tosproget ('bilingual') often carries negative associations with poverty or immigrant status. People arguing against a negative stigmatization of multilingualism often point out the fact that speaking multiple languages is a very useful and enriching thing (and I totally agree).

But the article published in Science Direct is interesting, because it focuses on the general cognitive benefits of being multilingual -- such as the ability to concentrate. Professor Yang furthermore makes the point that multilingualism might have special benefits for children growing up in poverty, as these children tend to have lower cognitive skills.

I've linked to the article below. Enjoy!


Talking about my Ph.D. dissertation on Go' Morgen Danmark

On July 27th, I was interviewed on the Danish morning program Go Morgen Danmark about a study in my Ph.D. dissertation that examined the quality of Danish preschools. It's quite exceptional that the general public is so interested in pedagogical research! It was a real honour to be asked to be on the show.

In the interview we talked about the main results of the investigation, namely that the quality of the language environment in Danish preschools is low. I underlined throughout the interview that the likely cause and solution to the low quality lies in pedagogical education and professional development. 

Screenshots taken from TV2.

Screenshots taken from TV2.

Jyllands-Posten writes an article about my research!

The national newspaper Jyllands-Posten published an article about some research from my dissertation on July 24th. You can read the article here:

Screenshot taken from

Screenshot taken from

The article highlights results from a study that examined the quality of Danish preschools. While we found that Danish preschool teachers are exceptionally skilled at supporting children's social development, we also found that there was a general lack of knowledge and skill when it came to stimulating children's language and higher-order thinking. This is a major issue, as some children - especially those growing up socially disadvantaged - may not develop the language and preliteracy skills necessary for learning to read.

It is important to note that this lack of quality is not the fault of the preschool teachers themselves. There is very little focus on language acquisition and stimulation in the preschool teacher education program. This issue should be addressed both by researchers and policy-makers.