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Dr. Roberta Golinkoff

Dr. Roberta Golinkoff

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff holds the H. Rodney Sharp Chair in the School of Education at the University of Delaware and is also a member of the Departments of Psychology and Linguistics. An author of twelve books and numerous professional articles, she founded and directs the Child's Play, Learning and Development Lab (formerly the Infant Language Project), whose goal it is to understand how children tackle the amazing feat of learning language. The recipient of a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, and a James McKeen Cattell Sabbatical award, she is frequently quoted in newspapers and magazines and has appeared on Good Morning America and many regional morning shows. Dr. Golinkoff also speaks at conferences and for organizations around the world about children’s development.

Posted by on in What If?

teacher and children

Those of us with children have all been there: standing in a queue as long as the river Nile at the supermarket with a slowly unraveling toddler in the cart. You could hand her your iPhone with a colorful app that bings and boings to forestall that tantrum. Or, you could talk to her – where are those apples in the cart? Can she find the picture of the little girl on the cereal box, or find the letter “G” that her name starts with on the big sign over head?

In fact, researcher Julia Ma and her colleagues suggest that you just might want to have that conversation. At a recent Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, they reported their findings from a study of over 1000 children under the age of 2. They had asked parents to report how often their children used handheld digital devices in an average day. These same parents then responded to a questionnaire about their children’s language abilities. What did they find? Children with more screen time were more likely to be delayed in their language expression! Moreover, these researchers were careful and took many other factors into account when they did their analyses: maternal education, family income, infant temperament, and parent - child overall screen time on other than handheld devices. These precautions suggest that their finding was really about children’s handheld screen time.

Handheld devices are pervasive – found in every crevice of our lives. We check them before we go to bed and they are the first point of contact with the world when we awaken in the morning. Recent data shows high uptake by even the youngest children. Reports suggest that the 2-4 crowd goes digital for almost 2 hours a day. But the widespread use of these devices is a relatively new phenomenon. We just sang "Happy Birthday" to the 10-year-old iPhone and the tablet is just 7 years of age. Not surprisingly, research has lagged behind the rapidly changing technology. But that means that we are putting devices into the hands of our toddlers when we know very little about their possible effects.

But we do know what helps our children learn language. Decades of research tell us that language learning depends on human interaction and on what researchers call ‘contingency’ – responding to our children soon after they speak and building on what they say. Digital devices can interrupt the conversation that is so vital to language success. Research from our labs shows that children will not learn new words when their conversation with a parent is interrupted by a cell phone call.

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Posted by on in What If?

Cute baby reading stock photo

Leher Singh is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the National University of Singapore. She conducts research on early phonological development in the infant and preschool years. In view of a growing trend towards early reading instruction, she co-wrote this blog with Dr. Roberta Golinkoff to share the science behind this movement.

Winning the battle but losing the war? Behind the science of early reading instruction.

As parents, we can find ourselves drowning in advice about how to position our children well for their future. One example of this is the increasing pressure to teach children to read earlier and earlier. Is this pressure justified? Are early readers better readers? Should we be pushing our kindergarteners to learn to read or should we wait until elementary school?

Reading in today’s kindergartens

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Posted by on in What If?


The regional rail station was the first stop on my 2-hour journey to Washington where I would deliver a talk on the art of conversation. Twelve people sat spaced on various benches, wrapped in warm winter garb that would shield them from the impending 2 feet of snow due to visit the Northeastern corridor of the U.S.. My rail station sits behind a little shopping village in a small town outside of Philadelphia —in a town that considers itself a tight knit neighborhood. But in this place on this day, 8 of the 12 present were fairly aloof — looking down at their phones, engaging in no eye contact with one another, with no words to fill the silence. No one even kvetched about the weather.

I gave the speech I was about to deliver the somewhat provocative title, “Talk Back” to demonstrate, in a punnish kind of way, that talking back and forth is a basic human trait that is critical if we are to help children develop a strong foundation for literacy and formal schooling. Language is central to our narrowing the 30-million word gap between middle and low-income children, is important for early reading success and is a cornerstone for high quality preschool interactions. Science tells us that having conversations with children will help them build rich vocabularies that are nested in meaningful narratives. Our challenge is to nurture more conversations in our homes and schools as we build foundational language skills.

I was mentally rehearsing my message from my new perch in the Ardmore train station and it suddenly occurred to me that this was not merely a problem of mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, but of everyday people who are living their lives in 2015 glued to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds. My talk was centered on young kids, but perhaps one answer to the questions raised in my talk was blatantly evident at the train station. Parents are not talking to kids because no one is talking to anyone! We have lost the art of conversation between real people who occupy a common space.

I had certainly noted this phenomenon before. My 20-something son intermittently gazes down during our dinner conversations when he hears the faint “ding” of a text message. Always alert to the digital heartbeat, he can promptly respond to “friends” even if a life-sized waiter is standing patiently expecting his order. Our email addictions compel us to sneak a peek several times as we wait in line to pay for our groceries. Eyes gaze down when we are crossing busy streets, traveling to never before seen sights, or walking quickly through crowded corridors. We literally bump into people and see right past them. It’s as if living, breathing, sentient humans in our orbit are invisible. What are the consequences of being social online, when we are not social offline?

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Posted by on in What If?

This blog post was written by our wonderful postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Rebecca Dore.

“It’s a twain,” almost 3-year-old Amanda said when I asked her to name the picture. But Amanda thought that trains were magical and only existed in Thomas the Tank Engine videos. How was she supposed to know? She’d never been on a train or seen a train in real life, so it makes perfect sense for her to assume these smiling, talking, autonomous creatures had no analogue outside of the fictional island of Sodor.

But sometimes we do want children to expect new information from their media to also be true in the outside world. Take Dora the Explorer for example: Dora is a wealth of information! She teaches kids about problem solving, friendship, and even how to speak Spanish!

But wait, Dora also has a backpack that can talk and a monkey friend who wears bright red boots. She has to solve a riddle for a troll in order to cross a bridge and in another episode saves a trapped mermaid. So how are kids supposed to know that they should expect Dora’s problem solving skills to apply to real life, but not expect a troll to come out to play a game every time you drive over the interstate?

This question of what information children take from fictional worlds to the real world is one that child development researchers have been grappling with for years. A 2014 study highlights the issue. The researchers showed preschoolers an episode of Dora and then asked them whether they thought the new information in the show was real or “just pretend.” More than 75% of 3-year-olds said that the Spanish words in the show weren’t real, or that they weren’t sure if they were real. Not surprisingly, children who said the Spanish words weren’t real were less likely to learn them! A quote in the article’s title reflects the problem: “Vámonos means go, but that’s made up for the show.” Fortunately, older preschoolers were better able to recognize that the educational content in the show would apply to the real world and learned the Spanish words better, but even 5-year-olds sometimes doubted the reality of the information, obstructing their learning.

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Posted by on in Social Emotional Learning

photodune 7911776 behavior concept xs

Co-written with Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Vinaya Rajan. 

During story time, Emily had trouble paying attention to the teacher and squirmed and wiggled in her seat. She noticed a blue jay sitting on a nearby tree branch and spent most of her time looking out the window. During a group activity, Emily spoke out of turn many times and barely allowed the other children in her group a chance to share their work with the class. Later in the day, when her teacher asked all the students to help clean up after art class, Emily put away some of the painting supplies but then quickly moved on to play with a puzzle and never finished cleaning the rest of her work station. When the teacher asked Emily to stop playing with the puzzle, she immediately started crying and fell to the floor in frustration. Emily's story is one that many kindergarten teachers (and parents!) across the country can certainly relate to.

When it comes to success in the school environment, what are the important skills children need to master? Most adults think the focus should be on academic skills, such as counting or knowing the letters of the alphabet. However, it is just as important to teach children to regulate their emotions, thoughts and behavior. Self-regulation is an important skill for children to develop. Kids with good self-regulation can pay attention to classroom activities and ignore distractions, remember the teacher's directions long enough to carry out a task and resist impulses. All of these skills may give them an advantage to succeed in school. In fact, kindergarten teachers rank self-regulation as one of the most important skills for school readiness. Unfortunately, these teachers also report that many of their students struggle with low levels of self-regulation once they enter school. The more kids a teacher has like Emily, the harder it is to manage.

Self-regulation comes in different forms. Emotional self-regulation is important for helping children manage how they express and experience emotions. In Emily's example, the problems she experiences managing her frustration may make it hard for her to concentrate on school-related activities. The next time Emily is placed in a frustrating situation, it may be useful to teach her how to walk away and cool down rather than having an emotional outburst. Behavioral self-regulation helps children demonstrate control over their actions. Simple games, like Simon Says, have been shown to help children control their impulses. Behavioral self-regulation will help Emily learn to resist the desire to shout out the answer to a problem when it is someone else's turn to speak. Cognitive self-regulation helps children follow rules and plan out the appropriate response (such as listening during story time). For some kids, school may be the first time they practice these skills and learn to regulate themselves.

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