Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Language Makes a Difference

The more I work with children and the older my daughter gets there are two things I realise more and more. One is that exposure to language and words is one of the key central pillars to how easily or not a child can engage with the demands of the educational curriculum.  The second, is that if children are securely engaged with the written word - this doesn't translate into being a brilliant reader - it just means they have a secure relationship with reading and writing, don't feel overwhelmed and have a trusting relationship with a great instructor, then they are naturally inquisitive about the meaning and use of words.

Research conducted in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd R Risley tells us that children in low resource families are exposed to far less words than children in high resource families.  And their relationship to language is different - this translates into "discipline is different".  How parents guide behaviour with their words influences a child's relationship with language.  Both these things play out in acquisition of literacy skills in school.  And it really is a huge task to facilitate the catch up.

 I was reading some academic comments on recent research about the role mothers in particular play in laying down the foundations for literacy acquisition through their early talk, conversations, reading of books and involvement of their children whilst reading books.  As you would expect these behaviours and attitudes have a significant effect.  The challenge is to facilitate these behaviours in those families with less resources, i.e. less finances, less expertise, less information, less networks, less support.  As I was reflecting upon the 'bigger picture' of these types of early childhood relationships the thought came to me that as a whole society is in the process of elevating 'being literate' from the privilege of the noblesse, or the religious orders, to being the right of everyone.  'Being literate' enables access - access to information, access to power, access to understanding how things work (obvious and hidden), access to better paid jobs, etc. etc.  And there is a whole swag of people working in academia, in schools, in parenting support, in not for profit organisations, everywhere, all involved in the momentous task of enabling everyone to 'be literate'.  I think that is a rather noble intention.

Being illiterate and therefore being denied the level playing field that comes with it I think plays a big part in many of society's problems today.  I don't recall the exact figures but somewhere between 70 - 80% of young adults and adults in detention centres and gaols don't have levels of literacy that allow them to engage successfully with the written word demands of living in our society.  Have you ever stopped to think how frustrating and difficult this must be?  (This is one of the things the children I work with have brought to me - a deeper appreciation of difficult their life is, particularly in the classroom.)  And if, as a society, we could support more parents, and mothers in particular, to have the resources, time and support, to engage more with their children with language and vocabulary, how much would we save in money spent down the track.  I don't imagine it will be an easy task.  But at least many, many, people are trying.  Paediatricians are being supplied with books to hand out in conversations with new mothers, children are being supplied with books at every early years birthday, children in third world countries are being supplied with books, volunteer pre literacy services are being provided to new mums and their kids.  Much is being done.  

And there is still so much more to be done.  In my reflections an important question I think came to mind, "How do we support mums of younger children to be in the world, engaged with it, and inquisitive, so that they may bring richer conversations to their children?"  In the discussion threads I subscribe to some questions are being raised about the impact of more mums in the workforce, which translates into less stress free time to be and talk with their children.  Other questions are being raised about the impact of technology, children listening more and more to one sided conversations their parents are having on the mobile phone, and the reduced availability of their parents due to their time on the phone.  One of the questions asked is whether rather than seeing literacy levels of all being raised, may we not in fact see it reduce as parents across all resources levels increase their hours of work and increase their time on the mobile phone.  I guess, time will tell.

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