Sunday, 29 December 2013

Let's build a (language) house

NB: I have updated the image of the "Language House" shown in this post. 

You can see the more recent version at my post on Tuesday, 11 November 2014.

 Some of my most enjoyable professional experiences in recent years have been the opportunities to share my research findings (and those of other academics) with audiences of primary school teachers at professional development days all around Australia. In the early days, these presentations had a relatively narrow focus on findings derived from research carried out by me and Martine Powell (Deakin University) on the oral language skills of young offenders.  

I guess this work, which we commenced back in 1999, was relatively novel at the time, and we were pleased with the level of interest shown in the findings, by both education and welfare sectors. It won’t surprise too many readers of this Blog that our studies have shown that some 50% of male young offenders have a clinically significant, yet previously undiagnosed language impairment (compared to around 7-10% in the population as a whole). These language difficulties can’t be “explained away” on the basis of low IQ, and exist across a wide spectrum of expressive and receptive verbal skills. In many cases, our data showed that young people who end up in the youth justice system had in fact been identified in the early years of school as needing some extra assistance with language and learning tasks. Sadly, such extra support was not sufficient to ensure early academic success – in itself a significant protective factor that works against the association with antisocial peers and early school disengagement. Young people in our studies overwhelming parted company from school around Year 8 – but certainly not with mastery of the Year 8 curriculum under the belts – more on this in future posts.

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before the focus of these presentations shifted from talking about young people who had “fallen off the cliff”, to ways of building better fences at the top of the cliff. Clearly, the fence builders need to be our early years educators. So I started to talk about what “oral language competence” is and why it is important. Initially I felt a little self-conscious about going down this path – I was talking to early-years teachers after all, and surely they had traversed this territory in some depth in their pre-service training? The clear engagement with the topic and evidence of “ah ha!” moments in these audiences suggested otherwise, and I found myself searching for metaphors to capture the importance of oral language competence in the early years of life (and school).

I wanted to convey two important “take home” messages: firstly, that oral language competence is critical in its own right, because it underpins the ability to engage with the world around us, to form and maintain relationships, and to negotiate the business of everyday life, across personal, educational, social, vocational and commercial realms.  Secondly, oral language competence underpins the transition to literacy in the first three years of school. I’ll come back to this issue in later Blog posts, but we should never underestimate the extent to which learning how to read is a biologically “unnatural” act, and in order to succeed, children need both prerequisite oral language skills and appropriate and sustained instruction.

These two key points formed metaphorical “pillars” in my mind, so I posed a rhetorical scenario one day –

Suppose you were going to build a house. You wouldn’t start with the walls, and you most certainly wouldn’t start with the roof. When you build a house, you know that you have to start with foundations, and it pays to make your foundations as strong as you can. When we think about children’s academic and social success then, we can position oral language (talking and listening) skills as the granite-like foundations, and then we can construct the walls – on one side, the development of prosocial interpersonal skills, and on the other, the transition to literacy.
Note that these walls are embedded into the foundations, not just sitting lightly on top. Once the walls are in place, we can think about the roof of our metaphorical “house” – the academic outcomes, social and economic engagement and marketable employment skills that we want our young people to achieve in order to be part of the mainstream.


© Pamela Snow 2013

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