For the past 6 years we have had children commencing school as young as 3 years 6 months. Several of these children in each kindy group are often not even toilet trained. At the same time we have enhanced the expectations of the curriculum in an attempt to improve school scores on NAPLAN. Schools post their results on the Schools Plus website. Better scores means the school can attract more students and thus, more funding.
Schools have the primary focus of literacy and numeracy. When primary teachers talk about language they talk about the language of literacy - i.e. reading and writing. When Speech Pathologists talk about language in the Pre-school years, their primary focus is oral language which encompasses vocabulary, concepts, facts, grammar, speech sounds, figurative language, background knowledge, an appreciation of context, social conventions and so much more. Oral language is the language of talking and listening and these skills need to be consolidated before we learn to read and spell. Oral language forms the foundation for literacy. In short, we need to talk and listen before we read and write.
For children who are experiencing difficulties learning oral language, starting literacy learning before they have built a solid language foundation often sets them up for failure from the time they start school. Thirty years ago, when our literacy and numeracy results in Western Australia were considerably better than what they are now, we talked about "school readiness". This concept was around the skills a child was able to demonstrate they had achieved prior to school entry. In short, it was what parents had taught their children at home when their teaching role as parents was valued and at a time when parents and children had fun on their learning journey as they learnt through play together.
School readiness encompassed such things as: a child being able to follow instructions, being able to relate their peers, demonstrating imaginative play skills, speaking intelligibly, using full sentences when they answered open ended questions and being able to sort objects into categories such as colours, size and shape. Pre-school children also required a physical posture which demonstrated a degree of core stability so they were able to support themselves in a sitting position as they used a pencil or scissors or read a book. Core stability can develop through having playground fun and by being given opportunities to climb trees, walk on uneven surfaces and crawl through tunnels.
Oral language and gross and fine motor skills take time to develop. Language and social skills come from spending time with parents , siblings and peers talking about what they are doing, how they are feeling, what has happened, describing what they see in terms of colour, size, shape and texture, creating a setting in their play so they are able to take on the role of character who uses different vocabulary, tone of voice, gestures and facial expression.
Children demonstrate sequences in their play before they are able to put words together into sentences. Play is a very crucial component of language development. It allows children to recreate a sequence over and over to process every element and problem solve. Children develop empathy through play as they take on the roles of various characters and experience situations from another perspective. Play allows their imagination to soar as they learn their own limitations and how to take risks in safe environment.
Our kindergarten children are having to learn letters and sounds earlier than they have before. By the time they complete Pre-Primary they need to be able to write two sentences to fulfil state assessment requirements. A skill such as writing can be measured and scored so our children are being taught in a way that enables them to pass a test rather than to enrich their language, imagination and love of learning.
Learning through play is what our early childhood educators value and encourage. Problem solving in a play environment and having the time to take things apart and put them back together was common childhood experience of the team who sent the first mission to the moon. We have to wonder whether our current curriculum aimed at passing a test will enable our current generation of pre-schoolers to dream, imagine possibilities and make them happen.
More than ever before children need to commence school with adequate oral language skills. If you are concerned about your child, make an appointment for an assessment so that if they require some assistance, you can work with your child to help to prepare him/her for school because this enhanced curriculum with its plethora of assessments does not appear to be changing any time soon!
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