Preschool settings promote children’s language development and have the potential to reduce achievement gaps, especially for children from low-income backgrounds. These benefits are driven by the interactions children have with their teachers and peers, but recent evidence suggests there is variability in the quality and quantity of individual children’s classroom language interactions. Using a sample of Spanish-English dual language learner and monolingual English-speaking children (n = 117) enrolled in 21 Head Start preschool classrooms, this study investigated whether variation in individual children’s classroom language use and exposure was related to their characteristics. Direct assessments of children’s English and Spanish language proficiency and parent and teacher ratings of shyness and inhibitory control were used as predictors, along with gender, age, and disability status. Classroom observations using the Language Interaction Snapshot (LISn) examined each child’s teacher-child and peer interactions.
Multilevel regression analyses identified several important child-level differences in the frequency and type of language used by children and teachers in the classroom. In classrooms with lower instructional support, as measured by the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), shy children talked less to their teachers than their more extroverted peers did; however, in classrooms with more instructional support, there was no effect of shyness on children’s language use. Children with higher inhibitory control talked less to their teachers than did children with lower inhibitory control, but they experienced more teacher elaboration. Teachers used contextualized language more often with children who demonstrated lower English proficiency than with children who demonstrated higher English proficiency. Girls had more than twice as many sustained conversations with their peers than boys. Children with disabilities had conversations with their teachers at half the rate of their peers. There were positive associations among three indicators of high-quality teaching: the frequency of children’s talk to teachers, teachers reading aloud to children, and ratings of classroom instructional support. This study’s findings have implications for professional development and measurement of preschool teachers’ instructional practices with individual children, especially dual language learners.