I was invited to take part in this forum to share some of our* research findings concerning the oral language skills of young people in the youth justice system. In a nutshell, our studies show that some 50% of young male offenders have expressive and receptive oral language skills that place them in a clinical range on standardised measures. Difficulties are present across the spectrum of language skills, and cannot be accounted for on the basis of low IQ, identified neurodisability, low socio-economic status, or anxiety and depression.
Of course such findings need to be viewed alongside the fact that young people in the youth justice system also have significant literacy difficulties and have typically exited school early, with very patchy reading and writing skills, many years behind their chronological age.
The critical link here is the fact that literacy skills ride on the back of oral language skills, right from the time of school commencement. The histories of young males in the youth justice system are characterised by both academic struggles and behaviour difficulties. In this context, it's relevant to consider the words of the former Chair of the UK Youth Justice Board, Rod Morgan, who said in 2007:
“It may be too much to say that if we reformed our schools, we would have no need of prisons. But if we better engaged our children and young people in education we would almost certainly have less need of prisons.
Effective crime prevention has arguably more to do with education than sentencing policy”.
At the conclusion of the forum earlier this week, participants (senior education and youth justice practitioners and policy-makers as well as academics) were asked to consider what a world-class youth justice system might look like. This led to some interesting discussion, that very soon focussed on the challenges of engaging vulnerable young people in mainstream education.
For me, it raised some key questions concerning the growth of alternative ("flexible") school settings in Australia. While I have great admiration for the energy and commitment of the staff leading and working in such settings, it is a matter of concern that our response to the challenges of engaging at-risk youth is to exclude them from the mainstream and aggregate them together in alternative settings. In a recent study by my group** 87% of incarcerated young offenders had experienced school exclusion. The safety issues created by some forms of behaviour disturbance are non-trivial. However, the evidence on school exclusion as a response does not give rise to optimism with respect to keeping at-risk young people in touch with education and making meaningful academic gains.
While I don't have longitudinal data on this, I am often struck by the observation made by primary school teachers that so-called "problem boys" really begin to make their presence felt around Grade 3 (which in Victoria is the 4th year of formal schooling). How much does this reflect the well-known shift from learning to read to reading to learn that occurs at this time? We should also bear in mind the well-described "Grade 4 slump" that is most marked for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.The fact that this slump is most marked for low-SES children resonates with the fact that young offenders come overwhelmingly from low-SES backgrounds.
So this leads me to wonder then, if we might take Rod Morgan's wise words on the role of education and crime prevention, and translate them into effective early literacy instruction (i.e., that which draws on systematic synthetic phonics, as well as developing comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency), for all children, but most notably those who are starting from behind?
The Phonics of Crime Prevention perhaps?
Readers who are interested in the nexus between literacy and behaviour might also be interested in this excellent 2012 piece by Dr Kerry Hempenstall, drawn to my attention by UK educator, Susan Godsland (thanks Susan!).
*My collaborator on this research is Professor Martine Powell of Deakin University
**Snow, P.C., Woodward, M., Mathis, M., Powell, M.B. (in press). Language functioning, mental health and alexithymia in incarcerated young offenders. International Journal of Speech Language Pathology.
(C) Pamela Snow 2015