Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Peeling onions. Language competence as a protective factor.


 As you may have gathered from my last post on building a “language house”, I’m rather fond of metaphors as tools for exploring and teasing out concepts. Referring to the peeling of the humble onion is hardly a sophisticated literary device, but go with me on this one, so we can have a closer look at how language competence might be a protective factor in early life (and indeed, across the lifespan). 

But first, some context. I am sometimes asked about the journey that led me to be interested in studying the language skills of young people who experience vulnerability and adversity in early life. The answer lies in part, in my restlessness after the completion of my PhD (in the field of traumatic brain injury) in 1998, and my urge to broaden my intellectual and professional horizons. Some of my peers and mentors at the time described this urge as “courageous” (code for “foolhardy”), while others, I suspect, were just plain perplexed. However, to my delight (and, I’ll admit, trepidation), I was appointed in 1999 as a Research Fellow in a conjoint appointment between the Australian Drug Foundation and the School of Psychology at Deakin University. Looking back, I think the saying “Leap and the net shall appear” might be apt as a description for the next three years – a fasten-your-seatbelt-and-hold-on-tight journey into what often felt like a foreign country. I’ll come back to this in a later post, but have hopefully provided some context for my onion analogy.

Some time in 2000, I found myself immersed in the literature on risk and protective factors pertaining to substance use, mental health, and overall adjustment in adolescence. Much of this work stems from the Communities that Care research carried out by Hawkins and Catalano in the USA and can be roughly summed up this way: risk factors promote the likelihood of all kinds of personal, social, and health  adversities, while protective factors buffer against adverse outcomes. Risk and protective factors exist at the level of the community (e.g. level of socio-economic advantage), the school (e.g. presence of whole school policies and practices that promote a sense of safety and well-being as precursors to learning), the family (e.g. cohesion, warmth, parenting style), and the individual (e.g. social skills, coping styles). Risk and protective factors are cumulative on both sides of the ledger – so, as you might expect, a young person in a poor community, attending an under-performing school, coming from a chaotic family, and possessing limited social and coping skills, is going to face greater risk of adverse outcomes than a peer who can count some protective factors instead of these risks. 

However, what struck me about these lists was something else altogether: the fact that “academic success” was invariably either at the top, or very close to it, of the list of protective factors, and its inverse, academic failure, was frequently ranked high on the list of risk factors. This in itself is perhaps not terribly surprising, but what was surprising to me that no-one seemed to have  “peeled the onion” on this self-evident truism. Think of each question below as a layer of the onion (and try not to cry)

Q1. Who are the children who succeed academically?
A1. Overwhelmingly, those who succeed academically have successfully (and often quite seamlessly) made the transition to literacy in the first three years of school. Most education systems are highly reliant on the ability to process (and produce) written text as a means of knowledge transfer, critical analysis, reflection, and synthesis of ideas. That’s just how things are. 

Q2. So – Which children successfully make the transition to literacy?
A2. In order to “cross the bridge” from oral language (talking and listening of many varieties)  in the pre-school years, to reading and writing in the first three years of school, children require certain skills in their language toolkit. Learning how to read has been recognised in recent years as being a linguistic task i.e. one that draws heavily on the child’s expressive and receptive vocabulary, narrative skills, grasp of syntactic rules for embedding ever more complex meaning, and of course, phonological and phonemic awareness skills. The latter two (knowledge of sounds and of sound units in words) are particularly relevant to the transition to literacy because of their foundational role in establishing phoneme-grapheme links as a basis for decoding skills. 

Q3. Given the above, why isn’t oral language competence talked about more in public health circles as a protective factor that's important for all children?

Well this really is the “bottom line” for me and has been at the heart of much of my research and proselytising  in recent years. Perhaps my migration from another paradigm made this easier for me to see, in much the same way that when we visit foreign countries, we make observations about everyday phenomena to which the locals have become habituated. 

So, if policy makers in education, health, and welfare want to address some of the inequalities associated with early socio-economic disadvantage (they are many and long-lasting) then perhaps part of the answer might be (almost literally), right under their noses – a focus on children’s early verbal skills as a means of increasing the benefit that all children can receive from that most widespread of public health interventions - an education.  

© Pamela Snow 2013

Picture source: http://stkelsiej.wordpress.com/category/stkelsiejcom/devotions/