Sunday, 15 June 2014

The first year of school: To succeed or not to succeed, that is the question

Let me open this post by asking you what might seem like an odd question: In what way are young children and avocados alike?
The similarities are probably not leaping at you….. Colour? Shape? Taste??!! Surely not…..
However, there are some important analogies that can be drawn between the ripening of an avocado and the developmental readiness of a child to transition to school and deal with the enormous cognitive, linguistic, social, and physical demands of life in and out of the classroom.
People who are familiar with my work will know that for over a decade, I have been carrying out research on the language and social skills of young people in the youth justice system.  I have blogged about this research previously and copies of relevant papers can be found on my Monash University homepage.
In a nutshell, this research shows that some 50% of young people in the youth justice system (whether on community-based or custodial orders) have clinically significant expressive and receptive language difficulties. I am not keen on using the term “specific language impairment” for this population, because in all likelihood, their difficulties are anything but “specific”, reflecting a broad range of biopsychosocial risks in early life. Regardless of the terminology, however language and learning difficulties are strikingly evident in this population (though often misunderstood by others).
An almost universal feature of the early histories of these young people is their disaffection with school, their histories of suspension and exclusion, their very poor levels of academic achievement, and of course, their early departure from school, invariably with no marketable employment skills.
Early language exposure sits on a social gradient with respect to the quantity and quality of child-focussed talk experienced in the early years. Unfortunately, at a population level, this means that children from different suburbs of the same city will arrive at school with very different levels of expressive and receptive language skills (vocabulary, phonemic awareness, syntactic sophistication, narrative abilities). Readers in Australia may be interested to have a look at how children in their own areas are faring on some key domains relevant to school commencement and can do so by accessing the Australian Early Development Index (AEDI) website. 

Image courtesy of olovedog / Free Digital Photos
Classrooms are very verbal environments, so if you arrive at school with inadequately developed expressive and receptive language skills, chances are you will not only find the auditory-verbal demands of the classroom pretty challenging, but you’ll also struggle to make the transition to literacy – in itself a fundamentally linguistic skill-set.
These inequalities in readiness to meet the demands of school-life have serious and long-reaching implications. In the short-term, they create very wide developmental discrepancies in ability level that must somehow be accommodated and catered to by early years teachers. Like it or not, benchmarking begins in the first year of school, and teachers are charged with the sometimes formidable task of moving a highly variable group of learners towards (and ideally beyond) minimum benchmarks in key curriculum areas such as literacy and numeracy.
Returning then to avocados. Have you ever tried to mash up an unripe one because you wanted to make guacamole? If so, you will know that an unripe avocado, perfect in all as it may well be, is not going to give you guacamole. Not today, not tomorrow and maybe not for quite a few days. If it’s allowed to have those extra days, however, it will get there, and your guacamole will be delicious.
As the diagram below shows, avocados progress through developmental stages, ranging from “1” – not at all ready to use, to “5” – ready for a range of uses. 

Image Source

In reality, children in early years classrooms display the same (or even greater) variability with respect to their readiness to commence formal learning.
While it would be great if we could “even out” the effects of early life experience, (e.g. through community-based programs such as Sure Start and Head Start), in reality this remains an elusive goal and the gulf between the ready-for-school and the not-quite-ready-for-school opens up more and more over the primary school years. With respect to early reading achievement, this has been referred to as the Matthew Effect and is described here by Professor Keith Stanovich.

When an avocado isn’t ready to use, the best thing is probably just to put it to one side for a while, knowing it will mature with time. Here the analogy with children breaks down, because children who are not quite ready for the formal demands of a classroom do of course need a wide range of developmentally appropriate, play-based, language-rich experiences. Such experiences will foster readiness for the cognitive and linguistic demands of more formal learning.

Image courtesy of digitalart / Free Digital Photos

So - instead of thinking about school readiness in terms of children’s readiness for school, perhaps we could re-configure this to be about schools’ readiness for children? I suspect we have more chance of success if we re-think what goes on in early years classrooms, than if we try to socially engineer large-scale change in disadvantaged communities. I’m not saying, of course, that quality pre-school experiences are not valuable, but I am arguing that school is a population-based (i.e. universal) intervention with very high participation rates (at least in the early years). As a universal intervention though, it is not currently conferring equal levels of advantage and opportunity across the community. 

In my fantasy-if-they-made -me-education-minister-for-a-day world, the first year of school would be all about consolidating the early expressive and receptive oral language skills that underpin both social competence and the transition to literacy, to strengthen the tail of the developmental curve and create genuine readiness for the life-changing experience of learning to read and write. 

(c) Pamela Snow 2014

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