Is there a gold standard when measuring children’s oral language ability? Expert Dr Jannie van Hees responds to Newsroom’s story ‘Early learning centres failing to foster language

Children’s confidence and fluency in speaking English, or other languages, is a difficult target to pin down and the expectation that all should enter school with ‘good oral language skills’ raises many questions.

From my work in primary schools, especially in low decile communities, ‘really knowing’ the oral language capabilities of on-entry 5-year-olds requires more than simply observing. It takes time and needs a range of contexts to do justice to the child’s capability.

It is clear some children do struggle orally, unable to find the words to say what they mean in more than short, simple utterances. Some struggle to talk in a conversational way, some say little during class sessions but are chatty and confident with friends and family. Others are chatty and assured from the start, keen to talk in most situations; many have considerable gaps in their vocabulary knowledge while others have a wide word scope for their age.

Questions come to mind. What does ‘how well’ mean when focused on children’s oral language? If a child doesn’t speak well, is that to do with the topic, the situation, or is it their own limitation? When a child speaks fluently and confidently, what have been the major contributing factors?

It has to be remembered that all 5 or 6-year-olds have many more words to learn, and much still to learn about speaking in more complex ways to express their ideas – they are on a journey of language development and growth.

So we need clarity about what ‘strong’ oral language looks and sounds like for this age group. Perhaps the ‘gold standard’ is every 5-year-old child on entry to school is a talker who can engage in conversation and laps up new words like a sponge – but what is our measure? Is it really whether they know English nursery rhymes? I didn’t learn these in my Dutch-speaking home as a child. It is really that they can talk about topics that ‘every child should know’. What are they? Had you asked me as a child to speak in English about farm animals or ‘barbies’ at the beach or car trips or my extended family or many other topics not in my realm of experiences, I’d have had little to say. What I could talk about, fluently, was about what I knew – what was in my world of knowing and doing.

And what about other languages? New Zealand’s language landscape is increasingly diverse. Sione grows up in a home with little to no English; in Sarah’s family, English is the only language used; Claudia’s family uses English and several other languages; Mohammed’s family uses English and Hindi; Te Aroha hears and speaks some Te Reo Māori on their whānau’s marae, but speaks almost exclusively in English in her life in the city. 

None of us are surprised at this diversity, but we may puzzle about meeting the challenge of ensuring each child thrives at school using English, while retaining their other languages.

“The major sources of language are the people in a child’s home and community, where talking is freely available – anytime, about anything, anywhere.”

Concern about too many children struggling to express themselves to ‘gold standard’ has been growing among early years’ teachers, principals, ECE personnel, and health and social welfare workers. Speech language therapists are voicing concerns that more and more children have speech language problems. What does this mean?

The Prime Minister, in his pre-budget speech, said: “We will invest in targeted and specialist support for 3 and 4-year-olds with oral language needs to help prevent these children from turning up to school unable to communicate properly.” But what evidence is this based on? Has there been consultation and discussion about how to give ‘best support’ to children before they start school?

One can only presume that English had in mind what Nikki Kaye, Minister of Education, subsequently revealed – $6 million to roll out Canadian-based Hanen Centre programme ABC and Beyond in early learning centres in low socio-economic communities. Implicit here is that children ‘unable to communicate properly’ is directly related to socio-economic status.

National and international research points to a correlation between children with poor language skills and socio-economic status, which then correlates with educational levels of main caregivers, particularly the mother. Low or high levels of education are directly linked to earning power. Earning power is directly linked to easy access, top level early years care and education. It has a compounding effect. 

Worryingly, in the 2017 ERO report, only 19 percent of services are “well-focused” on quality interaction with children with explicit focus on oral language development. Might it be the successful centres are less likely to be found in low-socio economic centres? Surely we can replicate ‘well-focused’ centres across communities, regardless of socio-economic status?

The complex space of growing our young children to be oral language-capable is murky. However, the research is clear. The major factor affecting children’s language development is the quality and quantity of language available in their first three years of life. Between four and six years, there is another growth spurt in thinking, learning, understanding and using language, which builds on foundations laid in previous years.

‘Language in abundance’, which directly involves the child, is the major contributor to how much a child knows and learns and predicts their language for the future.  

Providing ‘language in abundance’ is not complicated – it can be part of every child’s reality. The major sources of language are the people in a child’s home and community, where talking is freely available – anytime, about anything, anywhere. Each ‘to and fro’ exchange with a child is a gifting opportunity, not to be missed. Engaging with a child is a privilege. Parents, grandparents, aunties, cousins, neighbours, family friends and acquaintances, community members, shopkeepers and any trustworthy other, can gift a child knowledge and understanding through talk.

But modern life here in New Zealand puts tensions on this ideal. Working parents, fast pace day-to-day lives, children under the age of 1 in crèches and ECE centres, single-parent families, keeping ‘ourselves to ourselves’, all present challenges. Then there is the increasing availability of digital devices which ‘suck in’ the attention of babies and young children. Digital devices, used prudently, can complement high levels of talk, reading and being read to. Unfortunately, the balance is skewing towards far too much lone digital device viewing and use by some young children.

Challenges also come at school with classrooms dominated by, typically, teachers volleying questions and children following the ‘hands up’ talking rule which flies in the face of ‘to and fro’ talking in context which 5 and 6-year-olds need to flourish.

So where does this leave us? The Auckland campaign, Talking Matters, launched a year ago by COMET Auckland, the NEXT Foundation and Auckland University’s Marie Clay Research Centre, challenges the ‘one size fits all’ approach and the adoption of ‘programmes’. The campaign is currently focusing on the first three years of life, drawing together prime caregivers, whānau/family members, and others involved in the life of the child, to share and learn from each other. The goal? That every child thrives as a thinker, talker and early reader.

It’s early days for Talking Matters, but already there is excitement about this work being in the right zone to ultimately have children arrive at school oral language-capable, appropriate to their age and stage.

Dr Jannie van Hees is a recognised expert in oral language. She works for Auckland UniServices Ltd and is based at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education and Social Work.

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